Beware the Fine Print

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Warning: Some online booking websites, airlines, and even travel insurance agencies have come under fire lately for misleading consumers. We dug out our magnifying glass and delved into the fine print to expose a few of the tricky tactics that are hurting consumers. Here's what you need to know before you book your next trip:

Fine Print Exposed: Misleading Advertising

One-way fares for the cost of a drive-thru dinner are often too good to be true. Some budget airlines advertise deals that would make any traveler do a double-take, but upon inspecting the fine print, customers find a maze of red tape. Travelers may have to follow tight flight restrictions that determine which days they can take off, or find out they must meet advance-purchase restrictions, which could amount to buying tickets three weeks before the date of travel in order to qualify for the deal. On top of these narrow parameters, fees and taxes are often left out of advertised prices, like in a recent Spirit Airlines promotion that advertised fares for as low as $9, but neglected to include an array of fees, including a $7 "passenger usage fee", and an additional $18 in airport charges. While most countries have some form of false advertising law in place, additional steps still have to be taken to clean up shady business practices. In March of this year, the European Commission gave a final warning to several European budget airlines, including Ryanair and easyJet, to clean up their misleading websites. The Commission threatened those who failed to offer clear, honest information with the consequence of being shut down. The U.S. also had to take legal action against a travel company earlier this year; In November, the online travel company Ultimate Fares was fined $600,000 for failing to clearly publish total flight costs on their website.

Fine Print Exposed: Travel Insurance

Travel insurance is a huge, and complicated, gray area with miles of tiny print. Whether you're looking to protect yourself while abroad or your belongings back home, there's dozens of companies with countless plans looking to sell you coverage-but be forewarned, not all coverage is created equal. Some policies, like ones offered by travel insurance company Access America, appear to be catch-alls for travel mishaps, but in actuality only cover travel costs in the event of airline bankruptcy, leaving those with routinely canceled flights high and dry. Other policies may appear to cover extensive medical costs, only to deny coverage due to pre-existing conditions, like pregnancy or any affliction that requires medication. This could mean that a traveler who takes an anti-depressant could be denied coverage after a flight-inducing anxiety attack, leaving them with a costly medical bill. Deductibles and destination-specific rules should also be focuses for travelers looking to get insured, before they sign on the dotted line.

Fine Print Exposed: Frequent Flyer Miles

Frequent flyer miles can be tricky, with blackout and expiration dates confusing customers; Continental and United both require points to be used within 18 months, while most major airlines block the biggest traveling days of the year, like the days surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some airlines keep points active only for a brief window of time, after which customers must either book another flight, purchase points, or risk losing them completely. For flyers who lose track of time, their points could be erased, and subject to a colossal reinstatement fee. Credit cards that let spenders accrue miles can also lead consumers astray, by advertising their cards as fee-free, only to charge customers after an initial introductory period (American Express waves fees the first year, and then initiates a $125 yearly charge), or to force cardholders to upgrade to a higher card status to avoid being charged additional fees.

Fine Print Exposed: Bump Vouchers

Planes are becoming jam-packed more and more frequently, and airlines are offering vouchers that amount to hundreds of dollars for future travel to volunteers who agree to be bumped to the next flight. Taking advantage of these incentives might sound like a great idea, but be aware that you might not be able to cash in on as much as you expect. Most airlines specify that bump vouchers be redeemed within a year or have other restrictions, like blackout dates. Many are only valid for the purchase of a singular ticket or are nontransferable-meaning you and your friend can't use the voucher for a weekend getaway. Some carriers still charge booking fees, bringing down the value of the voucher-while others, such as United, go so far as to require travelers to redeem them by mail or at airport ticket counters. Before volunteering to hop off an over-packed plane, don't be afraid to ask questions about the airline's policies. And remember: asking for extras such as meal vouchers or seat upgrades can never hurt-the worst the airline can say is "no."

Fine Print Exposed: Star Ratings

Budget-focused travel sites, like and, have come under attack recently after customers who booked rooms based on their star rating system wound up staying in hotels that failed to measure up. When using the online agencies, customers choose their hotel by neighborhood, star rating, and price, without ever knowing the hotel's name or exact location before the swipe of their credit card. A backlash has been unleashed against the companies after customers, who thought they booked a specifically-rated hotel, received a room that was rated lower (for example: those who paid for a four star room, received a room rated only three and a half stars.) Hotwire has defended themselves previously by saying the star ratings are not based on the standardized star scale used by many hotels, but instead on customer reviews. The companies have also noted that the star categories, and the hotels found within them, are only examples.

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