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Before you pack bags, plan smart

Okay travelers.

Let's take the EZ-Study travel purchase course.

The Rolex watch that you bought for $20 from a guy named Artie who had several of them on the same arm isn't real.

The political candidate who said he would never lie already had.

All men who claim to have had vasectomies haven't.

More to the point:

Free trips aren't.

Incredibly cheap trips are usually incredibly bad buys.

Travel agencies with removable telephones and a U-Haul truck parked behind the building are sometimes untrustworthy.

Times are tough, and even some honest and reliable agencies and companies are in trouble. Some are also phony, crooked and run by incompetents.

A travel agency should be selected with the kind of care you use in picking an auto mechanic or a building contractor or even a doctor. Since vacations are one of the great pleasures of life, having them ruined is doubly tragic: once for missing the fun and once for replacing it with worry, anxiety and long sleepless nights spent planning how to get your fingers around someone's throat.

In my early days in Pasco County, travel plans were a cinch. I would go to the Greyhound station, tell them how much money I had and ask them how far that would take me. That not only got me off for some really exotic tours of places like Zephyrhills and Lakeland, but it let me meet some really neat guys who would share their wine with me and even applaud if I bestowed upon them the compliment of not wiping the top off before drinking.

By the time I could afford hotels with private restrooms and television sets not chained to the walls, I decided it was time to build a relationship with a travel agency.

The agency I use has been in business 30 years. It is owned by long-time residents who own another business with a good reputation. I know the owners. I know the employees. I know where they live.

More importantly, they know me.

They know what kind of hotels and restaurants I like, what airlines I won't fly on and what kind of places I would enjoy. They know I am willing to trade saving for security. In other words, I would rather pay 30 per cent more for an airline ticket than have one that says I have to depart during a full moon, must be flying with a left-handed dwarf named Louie and will only be seated if eight of the 10 people overbooked on the flight are laid low by elephantiasis.

An employee of the agency was kind enough to cancel an appointment and stay late on a Friday night to help me make emergency travel plans for a family member, even though the emergency meant canceling a more expensive pleasure trip _ and the commission for it.

I'm not saying there aren't some deals out there. But established travel agents know just as much about them as guys who only have first names who call you at dinner time to tell you about a non-existent sweepstakes that you have just won entitling you to a free cruise.

An area like this _ where most of the population comes from somewhere else and where people are anxious to start enjoying those golden years they have been saving for _ is ripe territory for crooks.

There are new agencies that are well-funded and run by honest people, and one sure sign of that is that they don't mind discussing who their owners are and what the experience of the staff members is. Another good sign is an agent who is accessible, gets back to you with answers to your questions and doesn't mind going the extra mile to accommodate special requests.

The one time I strayed from my current agent was when I tried to buy a $3,000 package from an agent in another town. She never returned my calls, never seemed to be in when I called and just didn't seem to be terribly interested in my business.

That's a dead giveaway.

If you can't find people to whom you are trying to give money, chances are they'll be even harder to find if you need to get some of it back.