Student Legal Services: Be careful when making travel plans

Guest Column

Spring break is just around the corner, and students are looking forward to leaving the world of ice and snow behind. Places like Cancun and Miami look enticing, and travel companies aggressively advertise packages that appear reasonable.

Spring break travel has become a multi-million dollar industry, and students can easily be lured into travel packages that appear reasonably priced. As students prepare to travel, Student Legal Services urges students to be aware of pitfalls that may turn a “dream vacation” into a nightmare.

Travel packages often contain hidden fees that can drive up the cost of the spring break trip by hundreds of dollars or subject the student to an undesirable change in travel schedule or accommodations over which they have no control.

A survey of travel packages conducted by the State Student Public Interest Research Groups reveals that the companies offering them often engage in unfair, deceptive advertising practices. Such practices include advertising prices that don’t include mandatory fees. Many of these travel companies add processing fees, peak week surcharges and departure city surcharges, which are only mentioned in fine print or contained on an obscure section of the companies’ Web sites. Advertised fees often assume departure out of a distant city like Houston, and surcharges will be applied for departing out of a different location. These costs are not revealed unless the student specifically inquires about them.

Furthermore, companies may reserve the right to book students into a different lodging facility, which may be of substantially lower quality than the one originally promised. The place and time of chartered flights may be changed, thus forcing the student to leave a day or two late and return late so they do not arrive back home to resume classes according to schedule.

How can these pitfalls be avoided? The old adage “if it is too good to be true, it probably is” applies. Students should make sure they understand contracts before signing them. Before booking trips, students should inquire about the company from others who used that company or check with the Ohio Attorney General to see if there have been complaints filed against it. Students should also make sure they read all the fine print and inquire vigorously about hidden fees. Likewise, students must be aware of any fees they will be required to pay if they need to change their plans at the last minute. Students should know in advance what accommodations will be used as an alternative if a substitution must occur.

If claims arise against one of these travel companies, they may be difficult — if not impossible — to resolve to the student’s satisfaction. Frequently, these companies will require students to give up their legal rights by entering mandatory arbitration. Also, the company may not be solvent, so if damages are awarded, the customer may never be able to collect them. By taking steps to avoid these problems, students can have a more enjoyable trip. It is easy to be enticed by vigorous advertising tactics. This is why Student Legal Services wants to warn students that there is no substitute for good preparation.

The above column was written by Carol Crimi Szabo, the senior staff attorney for Kent State Student Legal Services, who has practiced law for 25 years.