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Orlando, FL: Travel smart to avoid scams and ripoffs in this 'magic' city

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Caveat emptor is a familiar Latin phrase meaning "Let the buyer beware." Nowadays, this warning applies to almost every area in the marketplace, including the hospitality and travel industry. During my recent vacation to Orlando, Florida, I was given a taste of why it's important to be a savvy traveler and guard against vacation scams and ripoffs. Don't be fooled by the magic of Disney, just about everybody in this town is out to empty your wallet. Hopefully, this article will help you stay one step ahead of the game so you don't become a victim.

Thanks to the long, harsh, snowy winter in the northeast a record setting number of visitors (expected to surpass last year's 57.3 million U.S. and 4.4 million foreign) are flocking to Orlando to escape the cold temps. And like sharks in the water, businesses in Orlando and elsewhere in Florida, who stand to benefit from this upsurge in tourism, await with open arms and higher prices. As one observer noted:

One region’s cold spell is another tourism region’s warm sweet spot. South Florida is making lots of money out of this winter’s great migration to its beaches. — Dennis Schaal

Avoiding Orlando's higher prices, and the scams and ripoffs that often accompany a large influx of tourists requires that you do your homework ahead of time. I started making my travel plans months ahead, and to my surprise, found that there were few bargains to be had. Prices for everything from airfare to hotels to car rentals were already higher, even four months out. This was a tell tale sign that Orlando prices had already been fixed in anticipation of a high demand. Even so, the advantage was still mine. With time on my side, I could book at the higher price, then monitor the market for prices to go down, which I knew they would at some point. Here's how my strategy worked out, and could work for you:

Choose the best airline to your destination, then for monitor fare changes. Whenever possible, I fly Southwest Airlines because of greater flexibility in making changes to my flight. Southwest's no change fee policy makes it easier to take advantage of price drops. Unlike the other airlines, Southwest doesn't charge a fee to cancel or change your flight. I monitored flights to Orlando via Southwest as web only fares went from a high of $174 for a non-stop, one-way fare to a low of $94 for the same flight. Each time the fare went down, I re-booked for the lower fare. This happened four times. In this instance, booking early and waiting paid off. Southwest doesn't refund the difference in fares, but you are able to use any unused travel funds for up to a year on future travel.

For all other airlines, you can monitor airfares and set up a fare alerts through sites like Airfare Watchdog or Yapta. Not paying full-price for airfare results in considerable savings on your vacation.

Try different on-line booking sites for the best available hotel rates. Staying at Disney World properties offers fun and convenience, but this comes at a price. Many nearby area hotels offer free shuttle service to Disney parks as an enticement to stay with them. Parking at Disney World parks is now roughly $14 per day. To compare hotels and rates, I looked at Booking.com, Bookingbuddy.com and Bookit.com. The advantage of using free on-line travel services is the large inventory of hotels, condos, vacation homes they offer, and the fact that you can compare prices across several booking sites. Groupon Getaways is another site to check for travel bargains.

Once you find the perfect match for your lodging needs, check that hotel's the room rate across multiple sites, and also at the hotel's website because prices are competitive even between booking sites. Once you book it, monitor the hotel room rate because, like everything else, the price may drop. Make sure not to book a non-refundable rate in case you want to opt out later or find a better deal. Always, always read the fine print about the cancellation policy.

WARNING: Some hotels in Orlando have been imposing an incidental resort fee, which I think is a ripoff. In addition to the advertised daily room rate, some hotels add-on an additional charge (the amount varies by hotel) per day for amenities that may include use of pool, daily newspaper, in-room fridge and microwave or nothing, just because they can. I purposely stayed at three different hotels, Buena Vista Palace, International Palms Orlando and Metropolitan Express, during my time in Orlando. The resort fees were $21.00, $7.99 and $4.99 per day, respectively. The hidden hotel fee scam is a must read about this deceptive practice. As one irate traveler quipped:

The fees are ridiculous," says Cheryl Nygaard. "They're a cash grab. The cost of the room should include using the hotel amenities.

So far, Florida's state legislature and the local regulatory agencies have turned a blind eye to this blatant public fleecing. Consumer complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have been met with mixed results, but no industry-wide sanctions have been issued. Voting with your feet and your closed wallet may be the only way to exert pressure on the offending lodging establishments. The solution for now --- stay at hotels that don't impose these extra fees.

Reserve a rental car ahead of your arrival. This is usually the best practice except that car rental charges in Orlando were already higher because of the expected demand ---$45 per day for a compact. Again, I used Bookingbuddy.com and Bookit.com to check car rental rates. After monitoring rates for several days, I was able to book a compact at $25 per day from PayLess Rent-A-Car. As I continued to monitor, the rate dropped to $11 per day for the same rental. I cancelled the previous booking and re-booked at the lower rate.

A good deal or so I thought until I arrived at the PayLess counter at Orlando airport. Pressure tactics were used on several customers, including me, to force us to pay for extra protection against losses that [they said] my collision insurance doesn't cover. In my case, the additional cost added another $17.95 per day to my eight day rental taking my cost from $130 to $285 for the rental period. When I declined the PayLess added insurance, I was told a $350 authorization would be placed against my credit card. When I checked with my credit card company, PayLess had actually put a $620 authorization hold on my account. PayLess couldn't give me an explanation for the additional amount but did remove the authorization after five days and four phone calls to them. To their credit, the CSRs who took my calls were nice about it. Bottom line, when you pay less, sometimes you get less. So, before you book a rental car, ask if they charge a fee for exercising your right to waive collision protection.

Free local events can help you save money. As the sayng goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Orlando natives often know the best places to eat and where to to go for recreation and fun away from the tourist sites. The best way for you to know what they know is to tune into local radio or TV. WFTV.com's ICFlorida lists local events that visitors can take advantage of. While in Orlando, I found a free outdoor Christian music festival in Cocoa, Florida, a short drive from Orlando. Later, I toured the beautiful Orlando campus of Campus Crusade for Christ International (CRU) to see the JesusFilm project in action. There's a lot more to Orlando and the surrounding areas worth seeing and that costs less than a one day-pass to Disney or Universal studios.

Take advantage of the fridge and microwave in your hotel room. Both appliances are likely included in that resort fee you'll probably pay to the hotel. So make use of them and save money on dining out or hotel dining services. Visit the local Publix supermarket for prepared foods, fruit, water, breakfast, etc. You'll have more money to spend on other things if you do. If you want to eat out, drive a little distance away from high traffic tourist areas to the same restaurant chains in nearby residential areas. You'll enjoy a good meal and spend a lot less for it.

If it seems too good to be true, believe it. Scam artists are always thinking of ways to outsmart the traveling public. Stay one step ahead by doing your homework. Before traveling to Orlando, check the Internet for known scams and ripoffs like these listed in Orlando Travel. If you simply must go to Disney, Mousesavers.com will help you avoid ticket scams.

Don't let your next vacation to Orlando or elsewhere drain your wallet. As President Reagan once said, "Trust but verify." Do your homework. Travel smart. Enjoy the experience.

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