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On the Spot: 2012 new year’s resolutions for happy trails

Question: I’m planning to be in Seoul next year. The Plaza Hotel was recommended to me, and when I went online, I saw that would act as intermediary in booking, with modest discounts. It looks to me as if Agoda is legitimate. I expected to give them my credit card info to secure a room, but I did not expect to have to pay until I checked out of the hotel. I notice that the full price has posted to my credit card. Is this usual? It seems unorthodox to me, and I’m not happy about it. What should I do?

Ann Lucke

Los Angeles

Answer: Start the new year by breathing a small sigh of relief. Then, let’s all continue the new year by making some resolutions.

Brian Ek of Priceline confirms that is, in fact, part of Priceline and “may require upfront payment for hotel reservations.”

As an aside, travel agent James Densmore, who books a lot of celebrity travel, notes that some online organizations use different names when doing business abroad because sometimes names don’t translate well or properly. (For instance, the website for Paxan Co., which lists an address in Tehran, has a line of products called Barf. Products include dishwashing detergent and liquid, scouring powder and fabric softener.)

Charging upfront for a room is not uncommon, especially when you’re getting a discounted rate. Often, however, that rate is nonrefundable, which means you’re getting a price break for assuming a risk. Furthermore, if you paid with a credit card and something was amiss, you would be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act, which allows you to dispute a charge.

OK, everybody exhale now and raise your right hand and make these promises for the coming year:

1. I will not do business with an organization that is unknown to me. By unknown, I mean a website you’ve never heard of or a travel agent you’ve never dealt with. We tend to put our faith in the Web, and that faith can be horribly abused. Craigslist may work well to unload that ratty old sofa, but please reconsider renting an apartment in Paris that way. Likewise, although most travel agents are good and decent, rely on a referral from a person you trust.

2. I will not pay cash. Period. End of discussion. You need the protection that a credit card affords. Card companies are financial pit bulls. Don’t like credit card debt? I understand. But by being willing to pay off the balance later, you buy yourself some protection: You generally have 60 days to dispute a claim. Don’t be afraid to do it.

3. I won’t charge my vacation on a credit card — at least, not as a way of paying for it over time. The interest rate can make your quick little getaway a financial quagmire. Let’s say you put a $2,500 vacation on your card at 18% and you pay back $75 a month. At that rate, it will take you nearly four years to pay off that debt and you will have paid nearly $1,000 in interest. Start a vacation fund instead. I try to do this at a financial institution that’s not convenient to where I live or work and isn’t terribly user friendly online either. In other words, I discourage myself from pilfering it except in an extreme emergency. Like Odysseus, I need to be lashed to the mast.

4. I will buy travel insurance if the amount I’m spending is more than I can afford to lose. A recent letter to asked for help in getting a refund from a cruise company, a near impossibility in the best of circumstances. The couple had paid for a cruise, but a serious illness befell one of them before embarkation. I have a better chance of singing “La Traviata” onstage than they do of getting a refund or even a credit. And I will read the fine print of any policy I buy (good reading if you’re an insomniac), and I won’t buy it from the institution that is selling me the trip (just in case it goes under).

5. I won’t confuse “bargain” and “value.” Three years ago, I took a package trip to Hawaii that seemed more expensive than a trip I’d ordinarily book myself. (By more expensive, I mean about $100 more.) I grumbled a little until I realized that the flights left at times that didn’t require me to be at the airport at dawn, the rental car place was at a convenient airport location and best of all, the room had an ocean view. Did I violate the budget traveler’s bible? Maybe. But by making my life a little easier and my experience a little nicer, I felt pampered. Let’s face it, if you can do that for $100, that makes you (and by you, I mean me) a pretty cheap date.

Happy travels in 2012.

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