Should my tour operator keep $8,471 to “cover” costs of a canceled tour?

By | February 11th, 2014

Tia Millman and John Madsen were looking forward to a private tour of Tunisia and Kenya organized by Experience It! Tours last summer.

But the trip wasn’t meant to be. Just three weeks before their departure, the State Department warned U.S. citizens to avoid Kenya, and Millman made a frantic call to their tour operator.

Now, Millman and Experience It! are bickering over a refund — a sizeable refund — and she wants me to get involved. I’m not sure if I should.

Millman says Experience It! canceled the tour, a decision with which she agreed.

“We had given an initial deposit back in 2012 of $4,750, which we were fine with Experience it! Tours keeping for all their efforts,” she says.

Experience It! refunded $16,431, “but they refused to return $3,721 they said was needed to cover their costs.”

Hmm. So Experience It! pocketed $8,471 for a tour it canceled? Something didn’t look right.

My first stop was Experience It’s cancellation policy. If Millman had initiated the cancellation 21 days before the tour was to have left, she’d be entitled to 50 percent of the tour expenses. If, however, Experience It! canceled, then she’d be entitled to a full refund.

Here’s the specific language:

Security Cancellations: Experience It! Tours, LLC reserves the right to cancel any tour at any time if we feel that the safety of the travelers may be compromised. The refund of all payments received constitutes a full settlement.

Next, I reviewed the correspondence between Experience It! and Millman. Indeed, it appeared as if Experience It! had initiated the refund.

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“We have cancelled both the Tunisia and Kenya tours and are checking on the precise refund available and will do our best to recover as much as possible,” a representative wrote in an email. “And as also discussed possibly holding your deposit over for a future tour with EIT if you like.”

The correspondence doesn’t make it absolutely clear who initiated the cancellation, though. Was it Experience It!, acting on the orders of the client, or had Experience It! made the decision itself?

I contacted the company to get some clarification. Unfortunately, the response was less than helpful, and came directly from the top:

We appreciate your efforts to try and resolve misunderstandings between businesses and their clients. Finding the truth and helping people who have been cheated is a good cause.

This situation has already been dealt with and resolved with her credit card company. If there are specifics to the complaint, please put them in writing and address them to our office in Florida.

I already had put some specific questions in writing, and the response seemed dismissive.

But what about the credit card? I circled back with Millman. It turns out that she’d filed a credit card dispute to recover the remaining balance from her canceled trip. She insisted that Experience It! had canceled the tour, and she said although her dispute resolution department had agreed with her, it couldn’t get the money, and that the case was closed. (Hey Tia, time to get a new credit card.)

So that’s what the Experience It! executive meant by “This situation has already been dealt with.” Evidently, the credit card couldn’t retrieve any of Millman’s money and had allowed Experience It! to keep $8,471 without giving her the tour it promised. At least that’s how Millman sees it.

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I see both sides of this argument. Organizing a private tour takes time and effort, and certainly, it seems fair for a tour operator to want to get compensated for its efforts. At the same time, were its efforts worth $8,471 on a tour that cost nearly $25,000? That seems a little rich to me.

Millman could take this to small claims court and she’d probably win. I could also get back to Experience It! with a few “specific” questions, which would probably ratchet up some pressure. But I’m not sure what to do.

Ideally, of course, Millman would have travel insurance that covers an event like this. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Experience It! and its suppliers should get paid, but do they deserve this much?

Should I mediate Tia Millman and John Madsen's case?

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