Case dismissed: Canceled our tour after a hurricane — how ’bout a refund? By Christopher Elliott | October 6, 2011 When hurricane Irene plowed through the Northeast late last summer, she didn’t just leave half of New England underwater. The storm also ruined a vacation or two, including the tour of Niagara Falls Jim Allendoerfer had set up for his fiancee and her family. Tour operators are normally very understanding when it comes to the weather, but that wasn’t the case with the Tours4Fun, the website through which he’d purchased the Niagara tour. Then again, Allendoerfer’s circumstances were a little unusual. His fiancee’s family had flown in from Thailand, and they’d decided to cancel their entire Empire State itinerary and head to Vegas instead. He explains: Most of the companies in New York were more than happy to refund our money but Tours4Fun refused to refund even half. I asked to speak with a supervisor and got a supervisor who was unwilling to discuss a refund. They only offered to transfer the tour to a different day, which is not reasonable for a group of people visiting from Thailand to reschedule. I asked them for half of the money back and they refused that too. What is going on here? I decided to contact Tours4Fun to get its side. As it turns out, Tours4Fun isn’t a tour operator, but a travel agency. A representative explained that during the hurricane, multiple-day package tours still departed as usual, and compensation for delays or being unable to take a tour due to the storm would have been up to a travel insurance company. He adds, The only tour cancellations refunded in full were local day tours or 2-3 day bus tours and the only days these tours were canceled was exactly on the days Irene hit New York (Saturday and Sunday). The Monday following Irene and all tours thereafter were operating as normal. So unless the tour was directly affected by the storm — specifically, unless it was canceled outright — Allendoerfer wouldn’t get a refund. Tours4Fun was being generous by offering to reschedule his fiancee’s Niagara visit. Allendoerfer is disappointed by that response. “At this point I dont care about them anymore,” he told me. “I’m just disgusted that a company can take $450 from me and not feel guilty about it.” This is an interesting case. Since Tours4Fun is only a travel agent, its hands are tied. But I find its assumption that customers would buy insurance on a $450 tour to be wrongheaded. As I’ve said numerous times, travel insurance makes sense when you’re taking a safari or a one-week cruise. But a Niagara Falls tour? Not so much. Allendoerfer’s options are limited. He can’t dispute the charges because he paid by debit card, he says. I’m not even sure if a dispute would work. He lives in Chicago and the tour operator is based in New York. His bank may have refused to consider the chargeback, anyway, citing chapter and verse of the Fair Credit Billing Act. I also understand the tour operator’s perspective. If you’re closed because of the weather, you might have insurance that covers you. But if guests randomly cancel their plans before and after a storm, even when everything is up and running, that could be bad for business. But the bottom line is that Allendoerfer didn’t have a good customer experience with Tours4Fun, and that concerns me the most. As his travel agent, I think he was looking for the company to advocate for him and secure a full refund. I’m sorry that wasn’t possible. (Photo: Alber to Mari/Flickr) Christopher ElliottChristopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at email@example.com. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google PlusFacebookTwitterLinkedInGooglePinterestReddit Related http://jpportz.livejournal.com/ Jeremy I have some sympathy for the operator here. The media hyped Hurricane Irene like it was the storm of the century. It was not! Someone needs to stand up to this hype and recognize that you don’t need to run away scared when the risk is low. Sure, the storm caused some inconvenience for a couple of days but it was just a lot of rain and moderate wind, which is exactly what was predicted. (Some flooding significantly affected certain central NY and PA cities, sure, but not New York City or Niagara Falls.) I can understand why this family might choose to go elsewhere for better weather, and it’s good that other operators did refund them some money, but I think the agent and operator have every right to adhere to their cancellation policy. sirwired His circumstances meant he could not take the tour. The tour ran anyway. An offered reschedule is a reasonable (if not spectacular) offer; we can hardly blame the agency/operator that the reschedule just doesn’t work out for him. We can speculate as to why a refund isn’t available… maybe the tour operator purchases non-refundable Maid of the Mist tickets, maybe they got bit in the past with too many last-minute cancellations and decided to go non-refundable, who knows? Raven_Altosk +1 Couldn’t have said it better myself. I really despised how the media hyped that storm… emanon256 I think the headline is wrong on this one. The Hurricane didn’t cancel their tour, their tour still happened, they just decided not to take it. I think the other tour operators went above and beyond in refunding the OP when the OP canceled, but I don’t think any tour operator would need to give a refund when the purchaser cancels on their own. I spent the week after Irene in Boston and Monday was a beautiful sunny day. I am sure Niagara Falls would have been stunning. $16635417 Having lived in South Florida for years, I laugh when I see statements from people who are seemingly upset about Irene not realizing it’s potential. Rather than breath a sigh of relief, they lash out at it as media hype. Welcome to the world of hurricane tracking. (You may want to consider amending your story to include the damage in Vermont and other areas as well.) Rather than look at hindsight, remember the old saying “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” Prediction and potential are rarely the same. I’ve prepared fro the worst, Andrew, which turned out to be a powerful but relatively small storm. A slight last minute, unpredicted jog in the track could have made a huge difference, as when Katrina hit Florida. Where I lived, we had more damage years later from less powerful storms and yet we were never caught off guard. Regarding the case, it sounds like it is not a travel agency issue, but a tour operator issue. Why wasn’t the operator named in the story? (Or was it and I just missed it?) It would be interesting to know how much they agency advocated the client’s situation to the unamed tour operator before everyone throws them under the bus. Based on the wording of the question, I voted no. $16635417 Good catch on the headline. :) Robert “Case dismissed: We canceled our tour — how ’bout no refund?” :P http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott All fixed now. Thanks for the catch. Will B. Let me comment that if Tours4Fun is a travel agent, there might be NO way they could refund the trip. Travel agents only get a small percentage of the booking price. If the company they booked you through for the tour paid them their, maybe, 5%, that would be all they could give you. Also remember, too, how many hours the customer can (and sometimes does) sit on the phone with the travel agent to change, correct, change again their itinerary. They DID work for their money, it’s the actual tour operator that didn’t. Just bear that in mind, folks, when seeking a refund from a travel agent. And Mr. Elliott? You might be wrong about not buying travel insurance here. You said the fiancee came in from Thailand, so that’s a big deal. I think my wife says that the more moving parts, length of vacation or distance from home in your plans means the higher likelihood you need that travel insurance. $16635417 Yes, is it possible a blanket policy could have been purchased to cover all the moving parts of the trip starting with the flight from Thailand? It is easy to see how one event could have a domino effect to something that was unaffected by the storm. Chris in NC … but the tour wasn’t cancelled! My question to Allendoerfer is, did you call and speak to the travel agent before you cancelled? or did you simply assume that everything would be cancelled, make alternative plans and assume that a refund would be in order? I wouldn’t have purchased travel insurance for a $450 tour but travel insurance wouldn’t have helped here because the tour wasn’t cancelled! Steve R If the tour had been cancelled due to the storm, I would be the first to say that the customer deserves a full refund, insurance or no insurance. Since the tour operated and they could have taken it, but chose not to, I say the offer to reschedule is a generous one. Steve R I can’t stand how the media covers just about any kind of storm. Here in Wisconsin, every time we’re scheduled to get more than a couple inches of snow in the winter I have to listen to newscasters acting like the sky is falling. And this is in a place that’s used to harsh winters! (Plus, is there any piece of advice more useless than “if you don’t have to travel, you should stay home” that we hear ad nauseum every time bad weather is forecast? Between that and “be sure to drive carefully and allow yourself extra time to reach your destination” I find it amazing that the media thinks stating the obvious is a valid use of airtime). Anyway, as far as Irene goes, my in-laws took my sister-in-law back to school in Connecticut right as the storm hit and their observation was that it was a lot of rain, a fair amount of wind, and less severe than half a dozen storms that they’d been through in Illinois just that summer. http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1556838763 Nancy Marine Dickinson Just a quick note: Debit card charges can be disputed… He should contact his bank. Robin M obviously, the tour was running before and after the storm. It may seem to me the customer just cancelled the whole trip to NY. Its different if he called the agency the day of the tour was cancelled, then he would be eligible for full refund. Mel I voted “No” based largely on the statement that they “decided to cancel their entire Empire State itinerary and head to Vegas instead.” Sounds like maybe the fiancee’s family preferred to go someplace a little more “fun” and I wonder if the storm was a convenient reason to do so. I also didn’t get from the write up, exactly WHEN they cancelled and if they made any effort to ask “Hey do you anticipate the tours going on as scheduled in light of the impending storm?” or if they just decided “Meh, let’s go to Vegas instead.” I suspect that he planned a trip he thought they’d like and they weren’t up for it, so sorry but the whole story just smacks of buyer’s remorse to me. cjr001 While I am frustrated with the media in many ways at many times, I don’t think this was one of them. Irene was a large, powerful storm, and it was right to warn people about the worst case scenario. After all, if they didn’t then these comments would simply be complaints about the media not doing its job in warning people. Michael K Overreaction or not, all the New York area reports and regional mass transit were effectively shut down for 2 days for the storm (and there were warnings from elected officials to stay away and expect a longer shut down). Without knowing the family’s original travel dates, we can’t say whether or not it would have even been physically possible for them to reach Niagara Falls as planned in their original itinerary. $16635417 Yes, most of the damage was east of Conn. as well as Vermont. Having lived in the midwest as well, we know most thunderstorms are short, powerful, small in size and over quickly with more local vs. widespread damage. Now, extend thunderstorm conditions out over 12-24 hours over a broader area and you will begin to see what a “weak” hurricane is like. Now, on top of that, throw in the potential for storm surge and you will see the comparison is not really a good one. I also agree with you about hype, but why look at hype? Look at the facts. If two inches of snow is forecast, base your preparations on that and not the hype. http://dreamtravelblog.wordpress.com James in Phnom Penh If I were traveling halfway around the world and possibly into the eye of a hurricane and had the choice to switch destinations, I probably would as well. Why would you play chicken with even the possibility of a travel nightmare if you didn’t have to? So don’t blame the family for switching destinations. But as for the tour? The travel agency did right by the OP. The family should view the $450 as the cost of doing business (knowing Asian culture, probably the OP paid for everything). In the scheme of things, just a blip when compared to airfare + vacation expenses overall. The OP should just take other friends at some other point for a *free vacation and make a road trip out of it. But who books a Niagara tour? Just GO already… Michael K Without exact dates, we don’t know if they could have taken it. Airports were closed, roads were closed, and public transportation systems were shut down. $16635417 The insurance may have helped. If the travelers had to cancel because they were unable to get to NY, there is a good chance it would have. It sounds like they had a whole series of tours planned, of which Niagara was just a piece. My assumption is they saw the weather affecting the whole series of events they had planned and decided to go to Vegas instead. They were able to get out of their other commitments, but not this piece and are looking for help. From the tour operators perpective, they cancelled a tour and the other tours don’t play into it. From the travelers perspective, well everything else fell apart so lets go to Vegas. Their trip was not about just Niagara. Tony A. I am trying to get the dates right. According to the Wedding Channel Registry – JAMES ALLENDOERFER and JIDAPA SANGSURIYAWONG wedding will take place on August 28, 2011. That’s the Sunday hurricane Irene hit NYC. Ok, let me try to recall what happened here. I live right outside NYC, in Stamford, CT, and my son lives in the heart of Manhattan near Union Square so I know what happened. My niece who lives downtown was asked to evacuate so she came here to Connecticut. The city was shut down Saturday afternoon 27AUG. The storm hit us Sunday, the day of his wedding. The storm left Sunday evening but many areas here in CT and outside NYC did not have power. By Monday morning, we started to recover. By Tuesday, the commute to NYC was back to normal. Actually NYC was spared, as the EAST got the brunt of the storm and surge (waves). The fact that his bride’s family is from Thailand is irrelevant. I assume they were already in Chicago for the wedding even before hurricane Irene. The key question here is whether Jim’s flight was cancelled by the airline or did he try to reschedule or cancel it himself (as the airlines were giving cancellation waivers). If Jim’s flight was NOT cancelled by the airline, then he sure was more than capable of coming here to NYC. If so, then he has no justification to cancel his tour. If his flight was cancelled by the airline, then the tour company should have been more understanding. The debit card refund issue is relevant only if the tour company breached its responsibilities. They claimed they operated the Monday after Irene and Jim and his group were NO SHOWS. This sounds like the Asian family changed their hearts and satisfied their inner cravings to gamble instead of staring at a waterfall. Maybe, they used the cancellation waivers given by the airlines to rebook to Vegas instead. Irene could have given them the perfect excuse. Mbods2002 You know, you have to live up here in the North East to know how bad this storm was. Most of us couldn’t even drive to get where we needed to go. What would have happened if the customer couldn’t drive to the tour due to bridges and roads being washed out? Too bad? I don’t blame these folks one bit for canceling as all they had to do was look at the devastation all around them to know it would not be a good idea to take this tour. Oh and so many areas are STILL trying to clean up. SallyLu If I was traveling to the US from a foreign country and had a trip planned to NY, but then discovered a huge storm was expected to hit right about the same time that I was going to be there, I’d change my plans too. I live on the West Coast, but every report we heard was that there was no traveling in or out of the affected areas. Even if I was scheduled to arrive the day before or after the storm was expected to hit, I wouldn’t want to take a big part of my vacation stuck in a hotel room with a hurricane coming through. There really wasn’t any way of knowing how bad the damage would be or whether any tours would be running after the storm had passed. SallyLu You can say now that he could have gone to NY to take the tours because you know the outcome. This guy was in the midst of getting married. His inlaws were in town for a limited period of time, for which he had already made plans, including taking them to NY. Leading up to the day of the wedding, he hears that a huge storm is approaching the area they plan to visit, with no idea of what the outcome of that storm will be. They decide to change their plans to go to an area where no storm is predicted. We were definitely told in all weather reports to not try to travel into any of the affected areas. It is really easy to see in hindsight that the trip to NY would have been fine. Michael K New York area airports (oops) Brooklyn Yes, it was hype, but the airports were closed and he wouldn’t have been able to land in NY. The subways weren’t running and I don’t think the trains were either. How was he supposed to get to Niagara Falls? They should refund his money. Sabatca Many Asians come to America and head for the gambling tables first. His Fiancee should have verified with the family that they actually wanted to see Niagara Falls. He loses justifiably, I think $16635417 If TonyA’s assumptions above are correct, one could presume they were traveling from Chicago to Buffalo, the gateway to Niagara. If memory serves, western New York was not in the track of the hurricane. $16635417 Do you mean NY state or NY city? If NY state, what part? Western NY was not in the hurricane forecast. Based on TonyA’s assumption, they were probably planning to travel from Chicago to Buffalo. Tony A. MarlaM, it’s a very long drive from New York City to Niagara Falls, so I’m not sure if Jim was flying to NYC or to Buffalo, NY. If he was flying to Buffalo then he had no excuse to cancel since that was no where near the plot or course of hurricane Irene. No storm was predicted on that side of New York State. Maybe he planned to go first to NY City and take a tour from there. That’s why he needed a tour company. But I have to say that most people from here do not buy a tour to the falls. We simply drive up there and cross the border since it’s prettier from the Canadian side. I still need to hear his justification for cancelling his visit. Maybe he was going to NYC first. S E Tammela I agree, except they didn’t say they “couldn’t”, but that they decided not to. Why is this the travel agency’s fault? And why does anyone think they deserve a refund just for changing their minds?! From all appearances it appears as if they were offered a reschedule when they weren’t even supposed to get that. I really despair at all the sense of entitlement going around these days. It’s as if “being the customer” somehow makes people think they can demand the earth – and then some. L2y2 With limited time for a vacation and a hurricane plowing it’s way up the coast, I can absolutely sympathize with this guy. He wanted to make sure they all had a good time. His chances in Niagara were iffy, at best. These people were from out-of-the-country. That makes it even more the reason for being cautious. I live in Denver. When major snow storms are planned, it is common for the airlines to allow you to make changes or cancel without a penalty. It’s more the hassle for them when everyone gets grounded and they have thousands of people stuck at the airport. I understand this operator is small in comparison, but good will goes a long way. They should have been more flexible…. sirwired Contact his bank and tell them what? That they refused to refund a non-refundable tour? How is that valid grounds for a dispute? JF I’m very surprised that the tour wasn’t refunded. I live in NYC and had a road trip planned out west when the storm hit, causing me to have to either cancel or reschedule multiple hotels, flights and a car rental. Everyone I spoke with was very accommodating. sdir The article doesn’t clarify how much of New York state was included in the tour. I can understand if the family flew into or toured NYC, but Niagara falls is 400 miles away and nowhere near the coastline. Western NY didn’t expect to see much from Irene and the tour operator even said all multi-day tours departed as usual. To me it sounds like they changed their mind and used the hurricane as an excuse. http://dreamtravelblog.wordpress.com James in Phnom Penh Not sure we should automatically assume they wanted to gamble… Maybe they were planning a quickie wedding on the Maid of the Mist (The Office-style!) and when that fell through, went for a quickie wedding in Vegas! In either case, a look at the travel agency’s site, and I’m guessing it was a 2-day tour of the Falls and Thousand Islands for $112/pp x 4 ppl = ~$450. If the travel agency wasn’t the tour operator, it was probably out of their hands. Oh well. Save it for another time or sell it on eBay… PauletteB If you lived in New England, you wouldn’t think the storm had been “hyped.” Some people here in Connecticut didn’t get power back for more than a week, and many towns in Vermont are just now recovering from the severe flooding. PauletteB Obviously your in-laws didn’t drive through my part of Connecticut! SallyLu Speaking as someone who lives across the country, not having any idea of this Ops itinerary, and not having done any research on such a trip – if I was planning a vacation to any part of NY, I’d want to include a trip into NYC. Also, even if I wasn’t, I’d still be leary of flying anywhere near an area where a hurricane was expected. As I mentioned, no one knew how bad or how extensive the damage would be. I have absolutely no experience with hurricanes, so I’m basing my opinion on how I would feel if I was making this trip. Steve R Fair enough. I would hope that if the customer found it impossible to make it to Niagara Falls, he would have stated that in his complaint – I would agree that’s the most compelling reason to possibly refund the tour even though it wasn’t actually cancelled. I’m not clear on the details so I can’t say whether they could have made it there or not. If they were planning to fly from NY to Buffalo on a day and their flight was cancelled, then I would change my opinion and say that they should get a refund. If they were flying in from Chicago or driving to Niagara Falls (and the roads were physically open), then my original opinion stands. http://twitter.com/travelingiraffe Crissy I think it would help if we had a little more info on the actual dates of the trip. If he physically couldn’t be there because the airport was closed, then that’s different. You do state that they decided to go to Vegas instead, which leads me to believe that that wasn’t the issue. Before they made that decision maybe they should have double checked what money they could get back from this trip. But I do think it was poor service for the company to not allow a cancelation for a tour that was the day after a hurricane hit. But that doesn’t mean they owe a refund. Linda Bator AMEN!!! Linda Bator Yep! If they had insured the entire tour, they MAY have been entitled to a refund (but the fact that the tour was not affected by the weather leads me to believe they STILl would have been out the bucks!) Linda Bator But then you are responsible for charges in NIAGARA FALLS. Just because you want to scrap the entire itinerary doesn’t mean you are entitled to monies back – the tour went on as planned, so they could have gone. Or even gone a different date, as was offered. He just wanted a refund for a nonrefundable tour – and just because YOU WNAT don’t mean YOU GET! flutiefan 100% agree. i’d much rather be over-prepared and have nothing go wrong than have to deal with a public who is under-prepared for disaster. people blasted Bloomberg for not doing enough before the huge snowstorm last Christmas, then they ripped him for being overly cautious prior to Irene. can’t win for losing. flutiefan they make those warnings, which you decry as obvious and unnecessary, but then how many cars do you see on the news who are stuck in rivers of floods and the people trapped on top of them? or people who have caused major accidents because they were driving too fast on the slick/icy/flooded roads? common sense isn’t that common. if just one extra person decides not to travel because they heard it on the news, all the better. flutiefan some perspective: it’s like going to Los Angeles for a trip and wanting to see San Francisco. flutiefan nobody would fly to NYC in order to see Niagara Falls. it’s right outside Buffalo, on the opposite side of a very large state. geography. Tom RI We were without power for 5 days and our refrigerator and feezer is very clean now (the food went out). There were trees down everywhere here in RI. In Aug 2010 we were in VT for a 4 days and had 3.5 days of rain (there were no refunds for us). But if they were up and running and he was up and running that means they could have gone. So suck up the $450 because you should have won it in Las Vegas when you were there, since you changed the plans! buffalo gal For what it’s worth, I live in the Falls-Buffalo region. We had glorious sunny skies while Irene tussled with the rest of the Northeast. People who assume that NY= NYC and that a trip to NY could include both Buffalo/Falls and NYC lacks common sense and a knowledge of mathematics and geography. It takes nine hours to drive between the two cities. Oh, and if the LW wants to try us again, we have lots of gambling casinos ourselves, on both sides of the border.