Study looks at spring break prices

    According to a report released by the California Student Public Interest Research Group on March 4, travel companies are engaging in deceptive marketing practices that increase the cost of spring break travel packages advertised to students. The report estimates that students end up paying on average 62 percent more than the advertised price for spring break vacations.

    “Spring break is supposed to be a chance for students to relax and recuperate,” said Lindsey DeSalvo, internal chair of UCSD’s CalPIRG chapter. “Instead, travel companies are using it as a chance to fleece students.”

    Titled “Spring Broke: How To Avoid a Spring Break Ripoff,” the report inspects travel advertisements in approximately a dozen communities around the country. Seventeen travel agencies were examined, comparing the actual price of a one-week spring break trip to Acapulco with the advertised price.

    Generally, the costs examined were fares for trips departing in mid-March and the per-person price for a four-person hotel room.

    CalPIRG’s report found that every advertisement contained hidden or misleading fees, which, mentioned only in fine print, totaled an average of up to $367. Those fees take form as departure taxes, processing fees, peak-week surcharges, late booking fees, departure city surcharges, cancellation charges, or travel insurance. Although none seem like a drastic increase when taken alone, CalPIRG says, the cumulative effect of such charges is substantial.

    The largest percentage increase occurred when planning trips through Paradise Parties, whose total price of $1,016 was a 104-percent markup of the advertised $499. Conversely, the smallest percentage increase was linked to Student Express, whose advertised price of $449 was increased by 33 percent to get an actual price of $598.

    STA Travel, a global student travel company with a branch located in Price Center, was found by CalPIRG to have a 42-percent increase over the advertised price, costing consumers $947 versus the advertised $669.

    “This is the first time it’s been raised to our attention,” STA Travel UCSD branch manager Michael Medina said. “We never hide anything, and it’s always told to the client up front. We’re here for the long haul — we’re not here overnight to make the quick buck and move on.”

    STA Travel spring break flyers included print noting that prices were subject to availability, do not include taxes, and advise students to contact local STA agents for details. Medina said that this is standard for all their advertising, and that students make use of the agency’s advisers to help work out the pricing details.

    Thurgood Marshall College senior Ryan Makhani had a mixed reaction to his 2003 spring break trip to Cabo San Lucas, which he booked through STA Travel. He said he paid as much as he had expected, but was disappointed with the location of his hotel.

    “The only thing that was kind of bad was that our hotel was next to a small city and we had to pay for a cab ride 20 minutes into downtown,” Makhani said.

    According to CalPIRG, in addition to added costs, companies also require that travelers sign contracts that limit or relinquish certain legal rights, particularly the ability to file disputes with the travel company. Travel companies also reserve the right to alter travel and accommodation plans at their discretion.

    The report suggests ways students can avoid having to end up paying more than they anticipated.

    “We urge students not to get distracted by the teaser price you see on a poster or flyer,” DeSalvo said. “Be sure to find out about all of the hidden fees that come with each package, and shop around for the best deal.”

    CalPIRG claims that the most important step students must take is to read all fine print and examine policies of the travel agency in question before sending any money. In addition, the report urges students not to overlook the invoice, but to read it and understand the purpose and amount of each fee.

    CalPIRG also recommends avoiding any company that mandates students to give up legal rights. If there is a dispute, CalPIRG urges complaints to be filed through the Attorney General’s office not only to reach a resolution, but to prevent the same experience from happening to future travelers.

    Before sending money, the report states, students should research the company they wish to use, and be cognizant of cancellation policies.

    “A lot of companies don’t even put the fine print on the flyers and don’t give it to you unless you specifically ask for it,” said Cindy Dunn, CalPIRG chapter co-chair.

    The report also urges travel agencies to list any potential fees or base price increases in readable type next to base price listings.

    For the full report, see http://www.calpirg.org.

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