Sellers Of Travel Versus Travel Sellers
Do you know the difference? Most people do not. Neither guarantees ethics nor good business practices, but one does offer better recourse for when things go very wrong.
Very few states offer licensing and regulate travel agents and tour operators through a program called Seller of Travel, or SOT. There is no uniform means of regulating sellers of travel across America. Anyone can call themselves a travel agent, have business cards printed, and claim to be in business, except in those few states with SOT statutes.
Granted, there are a few additional variables which have a tendency to get overlooked. For example, the state and local requirements for business or occupational licenses, consumer protection laws, and truth in advertising regulations typically fall by the wayside. There are also industry affiliations that help to establish credibility. However, there is no means of verifying legitimacy of involvement or membership without called the various organizations, which travelers seldom will do.
It is a mystery as to why all states do not regulate the travel industry sellers. SOT may not solve all the problems in the travel industry but it will certainly work toward the urgent need to end the proliferation of travel scams on the market today. In todays economy this could also represent an additional income source for the states and local governments.
Typically, an agent may only choose register in the state or local where the office is even though they are selling travel outside their local area. In reality, if an agent wants to sell travel in any other state, they should hold relative legal licenses and permits entitling them to conduct business in those areas. The seller should be held responsible for filing and paying all state and local taxes, and licensing and fees for each state and area in which he is selling travel.
Hotels, airlines, sea and land travel venues may require the sellers to participate in SOT and certain affiliations. The sellers may claim to be a member of those organizations and provide a SOT license number, but, does anyone verify the information? For the most part they do not unless there have been complaints against the seller. Also, just because a seller claims to have an SOT in one state, that does not mean they are licensed or permitted to sell in other SOT states.
The appearance of license numbers and affiliation logos implies credibility but that does not mean they are legitimate.
Why is SOT better? Because, it generally means the seller has qualified annually for a license, paid an annual license fee, completed efficiency testing, agrees to meet advertising standards, agrees to disclose contractual and safety information to the traveler, has a surety bond, agrees to establish escrow or trust accounts for each traveler, will hold errors and omission insurance, will participate in a consumer restitution fund, and is subject to civil and criminal penalties when failing to comply.
Speaking as a world traveler, I cannot even remember all the times I have suffered at the hands of travel seller misconduct. Some were SOT and some not, so there is no guarantee either way and I have learned from experience not to trust either one based on face value.
Currently I am in a tussle with a travel agent in San Luis Obispo, CA over a $ 1,000 deposit. She misrepresented her affiliations and licensing, requested in writing a $ 500 deposit for two different cruises I was anticipating. I sent the check, which she said was required by the cruise line, to her. This was done prior to authorizing her to make the reservations and arrangements. On October 15, 2010 I notified her in writing I was not going to take the cruises, to not make the reservations and arrangements, and to return the $ 1,000. A few days later, on October 19, 2010 she emailed me and told me she decided to make the reservations anyway and that she had sent the money to the cruise line.
She also set up a website promoting a seminar program, with me as the public speaker. On October 15, 2010 I had also told her that I was not going to conduct the seminar program and would not be a public speaker in any collaborative effort with her. She continued to advertise the seminar program and me as the public speaker, using my picture, bio and company information, without my consent. To advertise a program that does not exist, I believe, is against all state and federal laws. She finally removed the website on February 9, 2011. Nearly every state has consumer protection statutes prohibiting misrepresentations and unfair and deceptive business practices. When these practices are violated, the traveler has cause for action against the seller.
This same travel agent has provided no evidence that she actually made any reservations in which she used the $ 1,000, in my name. There was also a third cruise which was planned in which I had travel companions. The agent stated in writing that the cruise line required an $ 800 deposit for that cruise, at the time the reservation was to be made. I sent her the $ 800.
After all the other problems came to light, I contacted the cruise line directly to check on my reservation, which was supposed to have been in adjoining cabins with my travel companions. I was informed the agent had made and cancelled my reservation four different times, and at no time had she requested adjoining cabins, and all they received was a deposit of $ 200.
In California SOTs are required. There was no disclosure regarding escrow accounts, there was apparent misuse of funds, false advertising of a program and event which did not exist, and misrepresentation of affiliations. There has been no accountability as to the handling of the $ 600 not sent as a deposit to the cruise line, or the additional $ 1,000. The purpose of the requirement for an escrow account, in the name of the traveler, is to prevent the seller from using the customers funds to pay their normal business and operating expenses.
A surety bond will typically protect the traveler in case the seller defaults in any manner and which results in a financial loss to the traveler. In states that require escrow accounts they usually require 90% of the funds received from a traveler to be placed in a trust or escrow account in the travelers name. Truth in advertising requires the agent to distinguish whether the deposit amount requested from the traveler is a deposit amount required by the travel agency, or the venue. When the venue, such as in my case, a cruise line, requires a certain amount of money then that full amount should be sent to the cruise line. Otherwise, an escrow or trust account must be established in the travelers name.
My sister and I planned our vacation one year through a travel agent with the express intention of going to Brazil. We asked what we thought were the logical questions but left all the fact finding to the agent. On travel day we went to the airport and when checking in we are informed we could not proceed with our vacation because we did not have a VISA for that country. Under disclosure regulations an agent is expected to disclose basic information, in writing, to the traveler. Basic information is considered information such as travel documents (visa and passport requirements), health hazards and inoculations, travel insurance, itinerary changes, cancellation and refund policies, and local currency. Failure to meet the states disclosure requirements could result in a full refund to the traveler. I contacted the travel agent and inquired as to why she did not advise us of the VISA requirement and her answer was, I forgot to check.
When a seller of travel or travel seller violates specific requirements as an SOT, or statutes protected under the consumer protections act, the traveler may have the right of action and entitling the consumer, traveler, to treble damages, attorney fees, and costs. Any violation by the SOT may also allow the Attorney General to seek criminal or civil penalties, including restitution on behalf of consumers.
Any violation by an SOT or traveler seller should constitute just cause to cancel a reservation and entitle the traveler to a full immediate refund. Should the traveler suffer damages from the breach, the seller should be held liable for those damages, including cost attributable to a default by a third party supplier.
There is probably no way of knowing how many travelers have been taken advantage of and subjected to travel scams. It is certainly in the best interest of the sellers of travel to want legislation that will help to monitor and control the sellers who misrepresent themselves and take advantage of travelers by not providing the best possible services. Consumers would benefit from the regulations because they will have a better chance of becoming a happy traveler when the sellers have to meet uniform licensing requirements, agree to certain financial responsibilities, advertising standards, and consumer remedies and penalties.
What does your state require? When was the last time you checked out your travel agent? Does your state have a travel consumer restitution fund?
For several years I have hosted a computer club, perform public speaking and have written and published 4 books.
All-season, wrinkle-free fabric with built-in stretch, fit-and-flare style with waist inset and slit neckline, back zip, polyester…
Popular actor and award-winning travel writer Andrew McCarthy writes the foreword to this lavish book, offering 400 awe-inspiring …
Rothco Venturer Travel Portfolio Bag – The ultimate traveling companion. Heavy Canvas Construction. Nylon lined. Holds credit card…
Make traveling a little less chaotic with this Travel Companion. 10 see-through compartments let you store all your toiletry need…