What to do:
Know who you're dealing with. If you're not familiar with a company, get its complete name, address and local telephone number. Be wary if the names of the seller and travel provider differ. You may be dealing with a telemarketer who has no further responsibility to you after the sale.
Check out the company's track record. Contact the Attorney General, consumer protection agency and BBB where you live and where the company is based to see if there is a history of complaints on file. Keep in mind that while a complaint record may indicate questionable business practices, a lack of complaints doesn't necessarily mean the company is legitimate. Unscrupulous dealers often change names and locations to hide a history of complaints.
Verify arrangements before you pay. Get the details of your vacation in writing, and a copy of the cancellation and refund policies. Ask the business if it has insurance and whether you should buy cancellation insurance. Don't accept vague terms such as "major hotels" or "luxury cruise ships." Get the names, addresses and telephone numbers for the lodgings, airlines and cruise ships you'll be using. Call to verify your reservations and arrangements.
Use a credit card to make your purchase. If you don't get what you paid for, you may be able to dispute the charges with your credit card company. However, don't give your account number over the phone unless you know the company is reputable. Some telemarketers may claim they need your account for identification or verification. They don't. Your account number should be used only to bill you for goods and services.
Investigate charter flights. If your trip involves a charter flight, get the charter operator's name and address and check the operator's registration by writing to: U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Consumer Affairs, I-25, Washington, DC 20590. Also, call DOT's Public Charter Office at 202-366-2396 to see if the operator has filed to operate a charter flight from the planned departure city to the planned destination. Charter packages can't be sold until DOT approves the filing.
Learn the vocabulary. "You've been specially selected to receive our spectacular luxury dream vacation offer" doesn't mean you'll get a free vacation. It means you'll be offered an opportunity to pay for a trip that may - or may not - fit your idea of luxury. "Subject to availability" means you may not be able to get the accommodations you want when you want them. "Blackout periods" are blocks of dates, usually around holidays or peak seasons, when no discount travel is available.
Watch out for "instant travel agent" offers. Some companies may offer to sell you identification that will "guarantee" you discounted rates from cruise lines, hotel companies, used car companies or airlines. In reality, the companies that sell this identification have no control over discounts. Only the actual supplier of the services can extend professional courtesies.