Travel services offer 'free' travel, but often for a steep price

Travel club brochures often advertise worldwide destinations for wholesale prices, but some say the hidden fees kill the deal. (Photo: ABC7)

The offer of seemingly free travel was too good to pass up for Lisa Byank and John Otrobba.

However, the old "nothing is free" adage is rearing it's ugly head, and for Byank, its to the tune of thousands of dollars.

Both Byank and Otrobba were hooked by a common pitch - a travel company puts on an informational meeting pitching deep discounts and exclusive deals on domestic and international travel. Most of them even say that all you have to do to get a free trip is show up to a meeting.

"There was a list of four prizes you could receive if you attend (with) supposedly no obligation," Otrobba, a Chantilly resident, said. "Show up, and you are going to win one of those four prizes."

Meanwhile, Byank went to a meeting put on by a company called Global Services Network, where she says the opportunity was presented to get a free ticket to her choice of destinations across the United States. But there was a catch - she had to sign up for their "wholesale" travel club.

Lifetime memberships never used

The slick sales pitch got her to shell out $5,000 for a lifetime membership. Otrobba paid $500 plus transfer fees, processing fees and taxes.

In Byank's case, not only has she never used the service, they've also withdrawn $3,500 from her account since 2008.

"It has been extremely difficult," she said. "It has been a nightmare."

That's when 7 On Your Side jumped into action, taking hidden cameras to an informational meeting much like the ones Byank and Otrobba did. The cameras caught pitch people advocating their brand and deep discounts on travel to various places.

"Nothing is completely free"

But even Leslie Lenel, the director of administration for the travel company selling memberships at the meeting 7 On Your Side attended, says the fees are disclosed repeatedly at their meetings.

"There are a lot of people who expect to get something for nothing," Lenel said. "Nothing is completely free."

Thousands of dollars later, Byank learned her lesson. When she tried to cancel, Byank says she was told that she could "never get out of it." Once she closed her account, the creditors moved in.

"They were calling me anywhere from two to three times a day saying I owed this amount of money," she said. "In retrospect, I wish I had never signed that contract and was lured into something like this."

Complaints filed

Global Services, meanwhile, finds itself in hot water. Howard County fined the company in 2009 for violating Maryland's sweepstakes law, and a company with the same name has a stack of complaints filed against it with the Attorney General.

Consumer advocates advise that rather than trying to fight to get out of a contract after you've signed it, you should read every word of it so you know exactly what you're signing up for.