My husband and I should have arrived in Rome by now for the start of our dream European honeymoon. It would have been my first time to set foot in Europe. However, our honeymoon plans were crushed and our hard-earned honeymoon money taken from us by the travel agency we trusted to make our travel arrangements for us.
The whole ordeal began when we paid the agency in full on January 12, and the agency in turn failed to give us the items we paid for: Emirates Airline tickets, complete hotel bookings, transfers, and tours. The only thing in our package they managed to truly do for us are secure our travel insurance and help me in applying for my Schengen Visa.
What’s done is done, our European honeymoon is gone (for now), so all that’s left to do is learn from this experience. And I’d like to share some realizations that will help you avoid this fiasco in the future—aside from not dealing with the likes of the travel agency who did this to us, and catching the modus of erring travel agencies based on what we experienced.
1. Just plan your trip yourself.
Prevention is better than cure. Unless you have a perfectly good reason to need to work with a travel agency, just plan your trip yourself. I’ve done it so many times before, I really should have just done the same for Europe, even if we were planning on visiting three countries for the first time in one go.
2. Trust yourself and your gut feel.
I doubted myself when I was planning our Europe trip, and I panicked that I wouldn’t get a Schengen Visa because I am a freelancer (people always say it’s more complicated when you’re not employed full-time). I thought getting an agency to help me with it would at least make the process of gathering and submitting documents easier. After successfully getting a Schengen Visa, that I sadly won’t even get to use because it’s expiring in a few weeks, I realized it’s not difficult at all; could be tedious, but not impossible to achieve. I should have believed I could do it on my own without agency help. My gut feel also warned me early on when things were starting to go wrong, as you’ll find out when you read on.
3. Do your research. Only work with a reputable travel agency with a good track record referred by someone you trust, or preferably owned by someone you know.
I’m still putting this tip here, even if I can confidently tell you I did my research. Even if the travel agency was already referred by a trusted friend to begin with, who bought tickets from the agency along with so many of her officemates, I still did my research. I asked around for other people who knew the agent I was talking to. I researched online if the agency was involved in any scams and checked how people felt about their service. I double-checked the tour packages they sent us with my friends and with other travel agencies I knew (but who couldn’t give us a package as good or as quickly). Some of my friends also helped do a background check on the agency. The agency (and their marketing materials, even email signatures) proudly flaunted that they are members of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA) and how they won some award for agents. I did my homework. But who would think that an agency that’s so good on paper can still destroy your honeymoon?
4. Nitpick the itinerary and all documents the travel agency gives you.
Before I even parted with our honeymoon money, I pored over all the documents the travel agency sent us. I made comments on the itinerary, asked a lot of questions, researched every destination, and declined hotels that were located in bad/dangerous areas. I also verified all the tickets issued to us with the airline companies themselves, and the hotel vouchers with the respective hotels. TIP: Know that for a plane ticket to be valid and confirmed, besides appearing on the airline’s website, it must have the ticket number. The booking reference is not enough, like in the supposed tickets the agency issued us (see above and below).
5. I can’t stress enough: Documentation is key.
Have the travel agency commit in writing/via email the whole process, all the timelines, and what you will get out of your payment. And communicate with the agency only via email/text, as much as possible, so you have documentation of everything. Try to avoid phone calls. Make sure there’s a paper trail—just to protect you when things like what happened to us unfortunately happen to you. Also, so when you get to the country you’re visiting, you can show all the tour partners there just what you paid for here in the country. Don’t let it happen to you that you’re already abroad before you find out the agency never arranged transfers, hotels, and tours for you.
6. Don’t pay in full.
Insist on only paying a downpayment. Only pay in full when you already have the confirmed plane tickets, hotels, and tour vouchers. Travel agency reps told me this. The agency told us they needed our full payment in order to purchase our Emirates flights during the seat sale and to secure our discounted hotel and tour package. We shouldn’t have agreed to that, apparently. And now we’re having a hard time recovering the huge full amount.
7. Ask for a signed contract before you pay and an OR after you’ve paid.
All I got was an invoice. I asked for the signed contract and official receipt (OR), but sadly never got them. My mistake was in not insisting on getting them, and not realizing earlier on that their inability to provide these was a huge red flag.
8. Consistently follow up the agency’s deliverables, especially when they’re lapsing on their deadlines.
Proof of how often you’ve followed up are among the things organizations with authority over these agencies will ask from you when you file a complaint. Make sure you cover your bases. And when the agency is consistently failing to meet their deadlines and make good on their word, know when to pull the plug and ask for a full refund, not the travel documents. If you can’t trust them to deliver the tickets and travel vouchers to you on time, how can you trust them to get you through your trip safe and sound, without a hitch?
9. Know who you can report to when anything goes wrong.
When I knew shit was about to hit the fan, I sought advice from the lawyers in my close network and people who knew trusted travel agency owners, and did my own research. I found that I could check the PTAA website (ptaa.org.ph) if the travel agency is listed as a member; while this will not guarantee that the travel agency can be trusted, at least you know there’s an organization who can help you hold this agency accountable if something awful happens. When I found out that THAT travel agency is listed as a member of PTAA, I immediately filed a formal complaint with them. I also learned I could file a complaint with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which protects the interests of consumers, including those who would avail of a travel agency’s services.
I hope the things I learned from this nightmare and shared here empowered you a bit and will give you that level of protection, knowing how to spot would-be travel agency scammers and either avoid them or handle them, if you’re already in a deal with them. Please share this with everyone you know, so this won’t happen to any of your loved ones. And don’t let unfortunate incidents like this dissuade you from seeing the world. You can, and you should.