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The Privilege of Receiving Reduced Hotel Rates May be Going
 to Holders of Thousands of Bogus Travel Agency Cards

By Carolyn Shapiro, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Aug. 7, 2005 - For less than $500, you can reap the privileges -- reduced rates, special deals, upgraded accommodations -- enjoyed by a professional travel agent.

You can. But maybe you shouldn't.

Web site operators and telemarketing companies have for years offered travel industry "cards" that consumers can buy to identify themselves as travel agents. The travelers can flash the identification to receive discounts for amusement park tickets, hotel rooms, cruises, airline fares and vacation packages, the card sellers suggest.

Travel agents and their trade associations call these dealers "card mills." To them, they are businesses, in some cases even travel agencies, that sell bogus credentials with the implication that the cardholder will get professional discounts -- usually without working as a professional.

"It's an effort to equip the consumer with the capacity to misrepresent who they are and get a reduced rate," said Paul M. Ruden, senior vice president for legal and industry affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents.

The national trade group, based in Alexandria, estimates that "tens of thousands" of such cards have been sold. The operators make money selling the cards -- for as much as $495 -- and the travel industry loses money under those false pretenses, Ruden said. The travel agents' group has noticed a recent resurgence in the card mills.

"They've been combatting this for years," said Rudy Maxa, the "Savvy Traveler" who provides advice and commentary for various media outlets.

In many cases, the consumer pays for the card but never enjoys the expected benefits. Some hotel clerks and ticket agents know enough to spot a fake ID.

Real travel agents have no formal identification cards. The only ID they might carry is from the International Airlines Travel Agent Network, or IATAN, which issues a card with a photo and number to agents who work for an established travel agency and can show they've sold a certain amount of airline business.

Many practicing travel agents don't even carry an IATAN card -- particularly now that airlines have cut their commissions to agents and made it less lucrative for them to book that type of ticket. Even without formal credentials, most travel agents enjoy industry privileges. Discounts can range from 10 percent to as much as 50 percent off regular prices, though such high cut-rate deals are more unusual today, Ruden said.

The industry usually provides discounts with the good-faith expectation that the agents will in turn send their customers to those places. Those who buy an ID card to reap the benefits with no intention of returning any sales to those businesses are committing simple theft, Ruden said.

"It is deception," he said. "There's no way around that."

For the consumer, the card mill doesn't necessarily provide the best travel deals, Ruden added. Competition in the industry today and comparison shopping on the Internet have led to many discounts and online price battles, he explained, sometimes giving consumers access to rates better than those enjoyed by travel agents.


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Copyright (c) 2005, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

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