Most students going on spring break return with sunburns, hangovers and a few good pictures. But some Fairfield students have returned telling horror stories of dirty hotels, delayed flights and hidden additional costs.

Welcome to the world of spring break scams.

Kevin Cooper, a 2000 Fairfield graduate, ran into problems when he went to Cancun with friends during spring break one year.

“It was a disaster,” he said. “There was a mechanical problem with the plane, and we got stuck at JFK for 21 hours. It was a charter flight, so there was no airline representative to help us.”

Being forced to sleep on floors and in spare seats and benches overnight at the airport was only the beginning of the troubled trip.

“The company that we booked the trip wouldn’t help us out and ended up giving our hotel rooms away before we got down there,” Cooper said. “We ended up getting moved to a different hotel, but the company said what happened was out of their control. We were given a six dollar reimbursement for the food we ate at the airport.”

Prearranged spring breaks are now offered by an entire industry of small companies such as Student City, Paradise Parties and Student Travel Services. Each company uses misleading advertisements to draw in students. Consequently, many students are forced to pay unreasonable fees because they never take the time to read the fine print.

Many different companies offer travel packages. Don’t be fooled. These packages offer low rates, prearranged hotel reservations and cheap flights. They are, on the contrary, quite deceptive and misleading.

“All students considering spring break offers need to remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” said Mike Spinelli, CEO and president of the American Society of Travel Agents’ (ASTA).

According to the Massachusetts Student Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG), a non-profit organization, the actual cost of the travel packages were 39 percent higher than marketed in 2001.

In 2004, the State PIRG found that the average additional cost of the trips was $367.

The State PIRG also found that many of the companies require the travelers to give up their rights. This gives the travel companies the ability to alter flights and hotel reservations. To make these changes, companies require the traveler to sign a waiver giving up your rights to dispute the changes.

After the waivers are signed, the travel companies make reservations with small airline chartering companies. Usually there is one small airplane that flies back and forth from its destinations.

As Cooper found out, if the airplane breaks down, there is a long delay with no explanations from any professional airline personnel. Since students sign waivers, they are left powerless at that moment.

However, Cooper wrote a letter expressing his dissatisfaction with the company when he returned to the US. He received a $25 check for the inconveniences of his trip.

“Travel companies have created a half a dozen different small hidden fees in the form of departure taxes, processing fees, peak week surcharges, late booking fees, departure city surcharges, cancellation charges, and travel insurance,” according to the State PIRG’s official report. “Alone, none of these fees amount to a significant sum of money. However, the cumulative effect of these fees is to increase the trip’s cost dramatically,”

Jodie Bernstein, the director of the Federal Trade Commissions’ Bureau of Consumer Protection, said, “Consumers can avoid costly surprises by checking out the company offering their tour.”

The State PIRG offered numerous tips to help students avoid spring break scams.

First, read all the fine print. Second, don’t give up your legal rights by signing a waiver. Third, scrutinize your bill carefully. Fourth, research the company.

“The main reason I wouldn’t go is that I’d be afraid that I’d be taken for a ride by small companies that spring up around break time promising the perfect spring break experience,” said Katie Holahan ’05. “I’d rather just organize the trip on my own.”

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