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Scamsters target seniors, goes the theory, because we're supposed to be more trusting than younger folk. Maybe. Whether singled out or not, we are targets, and we have to keep up our guard against deceptions and misrepresentations. Here are three "red flag" words you often see in travel promotions -- words usually signaling that a bend in the truth, if not an outright fracture, is headed your way.

"Free." By all odds, the worst offender. Travel suppliers frequently package a bunch of different travel services, ascribe the full price to the primary service, and claim everything else is "free." Free airfare if you buy a cruise, free hotel if you buy an air ticket, free rental car if you buy the hotel package, etc, etc. You've all seen them.

Obviously, none of those extras is truly free. Their real costs are folded in the price that is hung onto the primary component. I have no problem when a supplier says the extras are "included" in the price, but calling them free is a falsehood. Anytime you see something claimed as "free," take a careful look: Chances are, someone's trying to mislead or at least confuse you.

"Save" or "saving." Another ubiquitous felon -- often an illiterate one, too, as in "a savings" of so many dollars. Whatever the grammar, those claims are false. All a promoter can do is adjust a price; Your saving, if any, depends on what you would have paid absent the price cut.

Look at it this way. Not long ago, a broker got me a $300 hotel room in New York for $160. Clearly, that's a price cut of $140. But did I "save" $140? No. I would have saved that much only if I had been prepared to pay the full $300. But, in reality, I would have never paid $300 at that hotel. Instead, I would have gone to a cheaper hotel. If I'd found a room for $200, the broker's deal would have saved me $40. If I'd found a room for $150, the broker's deal would actually have cost me $10 -- albeit it for a better room. At $160, the broker's price was certainly a good deal. But a "saving" of $140? No way.

Don't kid yourself when you see claims for big travel savings. "Saving" is what goes into a bank. When you buy travel, think "price."

"Secrets." Mainly found lurking in promotions for books, magazines, newsletters, and travel clubs; often coupled with "Insider." Actually, "Insiders' Travel Secrets" is my candidate for title of the world's shortest book. Precious little information of real use to consumers isn't already widely available. And even with the biggest discounts, you can be sure someone is making a nice profit on the deal -- and wants you to know about it.

I've checked out quite a few outfits that claim to let you in on travel secrets. And surprise: Almost everything they touted turned out to be a promotion, not a secret -- something a supplier was trying to sell you.

Yes, there are a few real travel secrets. How often do airlines cancel flights for economic reasons and blame mechanical problems or the weather? How many frequent flyer seats are really available to Europe or Hawaii? How much do souvenir stores kick back to sightseeing operators? I don't know the answers to those questions, but neither do those "insider secrets" publications.

Certainly, promoters in any market often resort to exaggeration to generate the impact required for a sale. But all the talk about "travel secrets" sends the wrong message to senior consumers. Perpetrators encourage you to think that, if you pay them, you'll actually find some secret source of deals that are better than anyone else can get.

Don't buy into anything on the assumption you'll learn real secrets. At best, you'll find out about not-so-secret deals lots of people already know. Good deals, maybe; but secrets, no.

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