The Travel Adviser: Fool me once, shame on me

Tour companies' cancellations policies are not always kosher.

By
December 10, 2011 23:02
Kosher food [illustrative]

Kosher food 311. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Revenge is a dish best served cold. But like all good tales, this one should start from the beginning. The names have been changed as getting another threatening letter from a lawyer is not my cup of tea.

Melinda and Jay enjoy travelling. More often than not, they prefer to make their own travel plans and arrange for local guides to shepherd them around. Still, an organized tour to Vietnam and Cambodia was something they felt they would enjoy.

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Debbie’s Catering had a sterling reputation inside Israel and had in the past arranged mouth-watering tours abroad. They promised a small tour group, that would stay at first-class hotels complete with kosher food, with no travelling on Shabbat. Melinda had used the company for catering events in the past and knew they had an excellent reputation.

And to the company’s credit the cancellation policy was crystal clear: “Debbie’s Catering reserves the right to cancel the program for any reason. If the program is cancelled, all monies will be refunded and such refund will release the company from any liability. If you wish to cancel your registration, you must send written notification. Monies paid by you will not be refunded once the trip is confirmed unless you find someone to take your place.

“As soon as we confirm the tour you will be liable for 100 percent of the payment, even though we take it in installments. Therefore you should buy travel insurance as soon as we notify you that the tour is on.”

Truth be told, I have not found many organized tours that take a 100% cancellation fee but if this is their policy and the client is told in advance, then it really is a case of “buyer beware.”

They paid the hefty deposit on a tour that was listed at $5,250 each and began the preparations for a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

The first nagging doubt that they might have leaped before they looked came when they reserved their plane tickets. Preferring to book with their regular travel consultant, they found that Clive at Debbie’s Catering was rather slow in his e-mail replies to their enquiries. Just finding out the exact schedule of the planned group’s flights took several days, but with the intervention of their travel consultant, the information was provided and the plane tickets were purchased.

Weeks passed and their travel consultant innocently asked who was arranging their visas to Vietnam, and once more it took far too long, in their opinion, to get the answer.

Which brings us to the recent past when Melinda sent an e-mail to Debbie’s Catering asking if their exclusive tour was similar to the one advertised by Dave’s Travel, a leading kosher tours company. In fact, on the Dave’s Travel site an identical itinerary was shown, with no mention whatsoever that it was being run by Debbie’s Catering.

Once more Clive took his time to reply to their e-mail, until finally their own travel consultant prodded him into action by opining that he was fairly certain it was the same exact tour.

Once Clive confirmed that they were marketing their tour through another tour operator, Melinda decided that she wanted out.

Her travel consultant tried to reassure her by pointing out that both of the companies involved had an excellent track record of running good tours, but in the end she elected to go with her instinct.

Clive tried to talk her out of it, promising her that group would not number more than 30, but to no avail. He then demanded, as per Debbie’s Catering policy, that she pay the entire amount anyway.

A quick perusal of Dave’s Travel site showed a completely different policy. In fact, Dave’s Travel’s site states that “60-90 days prior to departure there would be a $500 + $100 per passenger cancellation fee.” Or in Melinda and Jay’s case, $1,200. Clive wanted over $8,000! When she pointed out the huge discrepancy Clive peevishly stated it was a mistake and that she had already signed a contract requiring her to pay a 100% cancellation fee unless she could get someone to replace them. She begged him to accept her offer of the $4,000 deposit she had already paid, which would still leave him with a huge profit. She was rebuffed.

He volunteered that his profit was $800 per person (a tidy amount on a $5,000-plus tour). He suggested she may wish to file an insurance claim, stating that they had had to cancel for health reasons and should thus be reimbursed by the insurance company. I’d like to believe he wasn’t inviting her to commit insurance fraud, but in any case she wisely decided not to take that course of action.

Melinda was at her wit’s end and realized that she had been duped from the outset into agreeing to such horrific terms and that the company would not accept any compromise.

Refusing to capitulate to his capricious demands, she came up with a devious solution.

Going on Facebook, she simply offered the tour to the highest bidder, found eager and enthusiastic travelers to replace herself and her husband and extricated her from the situation.

Rather than accepting a reasonable settlement, Debbie’s Catering got exactly what they wanted: Two new people to join their boutique tour. And two more people who no doubt paid an expensive price for their error but learned a valuable life lesson: It takes a lifetime to build up one’s business or personal reputation; it takes one misguided person’s stupidity to tear it all down.

Bottom line to Debbie’s Catering: let them eat cake.

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions & comments, e-mail him at [email protected]


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