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I constantly implore clients to do their homework - get recommendations, look at the hotels - but the most important point is to read the fine print. And for an organized tour it had better be up front and direct.
This from a reader:
My husband and I have just returned from Italy on a group tour, organized by a travel agency. We had been promised full board, kosher meals, a week of touring sites of Jewish interest throughout northern Italy and an English/Italian speaking guide.
What we got was confusion over return flights and accommodations, no kosher food provided on the charter flights to and from Italy, an Israeli guide whose English was atrocious (and so, one imagines, was his Italian), six to nine hours of tedious and exhausting bus rides every day, no information whatever about the towns and countryside we were traveling through, a promised (and completely paid for) cable car ride over Mount Blanc into France that was arbitrarily canceled without refund, and a full-board lunch that consisted of the woman on the tour scrambling during breakfast to make tuna sandwiches for lunch that we ended up eating while sitting in a parking lot.
Now you probably are thinking that for such a ludicrous ordeal we paid an equally ludicrously low price. Not so. What we paid compares to other tour operators' pricing. Now, if I were in America, I'd call my attorney and the Better Business Bureau. What recourse does one have in Israel?
Disgusted but glad to be back in Israel,
Let's try to break down her complaints. First and foremost, it is unclear how and what she was promised. Did she receive a commitment in writing to all that she assumed she would get? It's hard to imagine that a planned kosher tour couldn't even remember to book kosher meals on the flights. It could be, and this occurs far too often, that the airline simply forgot to reserve a kosher meal. Yet it boggles the mind, if there was no kosher food on the flight to Italy, why this wasn't remedied for the return flight.
On established organized tours, be it Jewish Historical Seminars or Geographic Tours, there's an almost tedious breakdown of what exactly is provided. The exact number of meals, kosher or otherwise, is listed. A comprehensive list of the hotels, along with addresses, phone numbers and faxes, is provided. Entrance fees and optional tours are detailed. Tips and other items are meticulously noted.
But let's give credit where credit is due. Our reader did her homework, got recommendations, made sure that everything was included but returned feeling cheated. It's recourse she desires and recourse she can get.
First and foremost, she should write to the tour organizer, specifying where promises were not honored. Complaining about lengthy bus rides is not going to win her any points; asking for compensation for missed meals is. Companies and courts pay little attention to pain and suffering. A coherent, concrete claim must be made.
I always tell clients to put it in writing; airlines and tour operators must be held responsible. The easiest avenue is to vote with one's feet, and simply avoid doing business with the company in the future. Getting compensation where it is due is more strenuous, but ultimately more satisfying.
In the case of our reader, let's just say the tour operator belittles her complaint, that the travel agency says this is a spoiled American making a mountain out of a molehill and dismisses any responsibility. Two more options exist. The first is to write a letter to the Association of Israeli Travel Agents. Yes, it does exist, and it has a consumer division that acts as an arbitrator between airline passengers and travel agencies that sell plane tickets.
Then there's the wonderful, magical, entirely lawyer-free world of small claims courts. For a very small amount, anyone can file a suit in small claims court, for up to NIS 17,800 (approximately $4,100) per person. Forms can be submitted in any language, and the best part is that no lawyers can appear for either side. I have often been called as a material witness when clients have sued airlines, charter operators and tour companies. While the court frowns upon paying out for pain and suffering, if you have an honest claim, you will find justice. The whole process takes no more than 30 minutes, and while it's no Law & Order, it's an excellent system to protect the consumer.
So, to summarize, please always check what is written. Don't rely on what you're told. And on every tour, make the most of it and don't let anyone make you feel like a sucker.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem.