Real deal or real dud?

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I used to get them all the time - those faxes that promise every travel deal under the sun for $199.00, or some equally unbelievable amount of money.

Crack downs by consumer watchdog groups put some of those companies out of business, but just within the past few weeks, I started getting new offers, each more ridiculous than the next.

I hate to say it, but they're back!

Wouldn't you like to fly to Florida for a 3 night Orlando vacation, followed by 2 nights in Daytona Beach PLUS free air to Cancun, Jamaica or Las Vegas all for $199.00? Hey - wouldn't we all!

But let's look a bit closer at those ads, shall we? No hotel names, no address for the company offering the deals so you can check them out, no cruise line names - only one actually had small print listing the true purposes of these trips - they're trying to sell you something, be it a time share or a more expensive package.

In their former days, "travel companies" like these were notorious for selling something they couldn't provide. You pay your $199.00 or $299.00 with the idea you can take the trip at a later date, then you call to book and - surprise, surprise - they're all booked up for the hotels in that particular package, but gosh, we happen to have another package for "x" number of dollars more.

And that's if the company was still in business.

Often, the properties included were sometimes less than desirable and hotels listed as "minutes from theme parks" were often miles away.

So what can you do to make sure the deal you're getting is the real thing? Ask a lot of questions, the first of which should be why is this deal so good? Is it low season for the destination? Is the hotel under renovation? There are a variety of valid reasons why an otherwise lovely property would offer a rock-bottom rate, so make sure you know before you go.

Also, always go through a reputable tour operator. Make sure they're part of a national tour organization like the United States Tour Operators Association, or other trade organizations. At least make sure they're recognized by ASTA, the American Society of Travel Agents. If they are, they'll be sure to put this affiliation on their brochure and website.

The web is good tool to research tour companies, their itineraries, hotels and destinations, but keep in mind pictures don't always tell the whole story.

Before my husband and I went to Moorea, French Polynesia, on a travel agent familiarization trip a few years ago, we did some web research on our hotel and read about their supposedly terrific restaurant. When we got there, we found out it had been closed for over three years due to damage from a storm! Oops! The hotel had forgotten to update their website! We never would have known had we not experienced it for ourselves.

And here's where I'll toot the horn for your friendly neighborhood travel agent.

It's no surprise that I love to travel - as I'm sure most agents do or we wouldn't be in this business - and while visiting these interesting destinations is definitely fun, it also allows us to gain first-hand information on things like hotels, restaurants, shopping, activities and more.

Along with that, travel professionals talk to tour operators, hotel organizations and national travel bureaus at various agent events throughout the year. We attend these "continuing education" seminars so we can offer this up-to-date information to you!

There are some truly terrific travel deals out there, some of which I bring to you on Good Morning Arizona and of course, azfamily.com. Again, a good deal isn't always a bad thing. It could be something as simple as a large group canceling close to their departure, making blocks of hotel rooms available at the last minute. Perhaps an airline just added a flight to a new destination and wants to kick off service with a good sale. There are many factors to consider. Just make sure you get the whole story before you sign on the bottom line.

For travels across town or around the world, we're here to help at TravelationOnline! Give us a call at 602-252-1140 or, if you're outside the Metro Phoenix area codes of 602, 480 and 623, give us a call toll-free at 888-751-2032. You can also reach me directly via e-mail at rosanne@travelationonline.com. I look forward to hearing from you!