When travel companies sue their customers

When a young woman named Carissa knocked at my door on a recent Saturday evening and introduced herself as a process server, I knew things were about to get interesting.

And when I read the civil action summons she handed me, I was intrigued.

A Florida-based travel agency had sued me for reporting about its legal troubles on my blog. (I won’t name the agency, because I think part of the reason it filed a complaint was because it craves publicity. Denied.) Next to my name on the suit, I recognized the name of one of the agency’s clients.

Yes, the company was taking one of its own customers to court.
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A few more thoughts on Florida’s Planhandle

So long, Planhandle.

We’ll be making the tedious six-hour drive back to Orlando tomorrow morning, but already I’m thinking of an excuse to visit Northwest Florida again. My friends in Pensacola are interested in hosting a remote broadcast of the radio show, maybe this spring. That would be fun.

In the meantime, you’re probably wondering why Erysse (pictured above) is running again. We took a final walk through our neighborhood in WaterColor this afternoon, and for all the grief this area gets for being overplanned (they call it the Florida “Planhandle”) it’s really pretty nice.
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It’s almost a white Christmas in Seaside, Fla.

It’s the sand. It’s white, like snow.

At this latitude, it’s about as close to a white Christmas as it gets.

We’re staying at the WaterColor Inn & Resort in nearby Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. Our house is a short walk to the beach. The kids are really excited about spending part of their Christmas here, mostly because they love the beach.

The adults? Well, if we can’t have a white Christmas, this’ll do.
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At the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa

September is one of the slowest months of the year in Vero Beach, and indeed, in Florida. Several businesses along Ocean Drive are closed for renovations, or vacation. As someone who dislikes crowds, that makes it one of my favorite times to be a tourist in my own state.

The Vero Beach Hotel & Spa is a relative newcomer to this seaside resort (it opened in 2007). The decor is said to be West Indies, but Kimpton Hotels, which operates the property, has its mark on the place, too, from the soaps and lotions to the service.

I’ve never stayed at a hotel in Vero, but unlike other beach hotels, the ocean is very much front and center. I can hear the waves crashing against the shore from here. Tonight, they’re expecting the eggs in two carefully-monitored turtle nests just a few steps away from my room to hatch.

I half expect to wake up tomorrow morning and find a surfer on my sofa.

The highlight of our weekend visit — other than never having to wait for a table at a Nino’s or The Lemon Tree — was the hotel’s pool. You won’t find any of the uptight-ness that you sense at some of the hotel pools farther south, where women compete for the title of best tummy tuck, men flex their steroid-enhanced biceps, and kids … well, there are no kids.

Let’s just say the West Indies influence can be seen poolside, which is a very good thing.

I’m told the resort is opening a full-service onsite spa next year, which will just make an already impressive property even better.

Sunset at the Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Beach

Sand Pearl (1)
It’s a quiet evening on Clearwater Beach. There’s just a hint of a breeze, and even the waves softly lapping against the flour-white sand seem muted. The Sandpearl Resort rises above the dunes as if in a watercolor painting — soft yellow, orange and white reflecting against the Gulf of Mexico.

They say this is is the first new resort to be built on Clearwater Beach in a generation, and I believe it, because the last time I was here, it was a construction site with two gutted buildings — all that remained of the former Clearwater Beach Hotel.
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What we did this weekend: racing golf carts on Palm Island and wading in Lemon Bay

Great day for a swim

We headed over to Florida’s West Coast this weekend, where we explored the islands around Port Charlotte.

Aren waded into the bay to look for critters in the sea grass at Cedar Point Environmental Park. There was plenty for him and some friends to scoop up and show off to his brother and sister.

No cars are allowed at Palm Island Resort — but they have golf carts. And they go fast. The kids took one for a joyride.

Thanks to our friends in Port Charlotte, Palm Island and Leverock’s for showing us around this weekend. We had a great time.

You can see more videos and photos of our adventures at Souvenirist and on Flickr.

What we did this weekend: Winter Park college visit, exploring Florida’s “ghost town” and splashing around

Kerr City, Florida, was abandoned a long time ago — or was it? Aren, Iden and Erysse found that there are still people there And you can even rent a cabin.

Good thing everyone was gone for summer recess when Erysse and her brothers visited Rollins College in Winter Park. The screams would have distracted everyone from their studies. Erysse has a few years before she leaves for college, fortunately.

Our apologies to Rollins College and the University of Florida for misappropriating their campus and fight song, respectively. We’re sorry!

They added a new splash pool in Trottwood Park. Iden checked it out on Memorial Day.

You can see more videos of our weekend adventures at our new site, Souvenirist.

Love mass transit? You might pay for it next time you rent a car in Florida

Just when you thought they couldn’t possibly add any more fees to rentals, here comes another: A freshman state senator in Florida is trying to slap a $2 tax on cars to support Tri-Rail, South Florida’s commuter train.

No one believes Tri-Rail is an unworthy cause. But should tourists pay for a rail system they’re unlikely to use?

The Tax Foundation, non-partisan research organization that has monitored tax policy, thinks not.

A rental car tax is a particularly inappropriate revenue source for commuter rail. Because Tri-Rail is designed to move commuters from suburban areas to business districts, with peak service at rush hour, it not very useful to the leisure travelers who dominate South Florida’s car rental market. It is clear that car renters are being targeted not because they are beneficiaries of Tri-Rail, but because they are a tax source that lacks representation in the Florida legislature.

Here’s the bill in its entirety. The relevant language allows the state to authorize the county

… to impose a county surcharge upon the lease or rental of a motor vehicle licensed for hire; requiring that the county surcharge may be used solely to fund the transportation needs of the county as determined by the county commission; requiring the county commission to place the county surcharge on the ballot of the next general election for a vote by the electors; providing an effective date.

The car rental industry is up in arms. The American Car Rental Association, a trade group, released the following statement:

Every rental car customer — regardless of whether they are a Floridian or a tourist — currently pays $2 a day in rental car tax.

Each rental car bill is increased by an average of 13.23% due to taxes (rental car tax, airport access tax, consolidated facility fees, security fees, etc.). If rented at an airport, the average amount added to every bill grows to 24.13%.

What other consumer service is taxed at such a high rate?

Government user fee increases. It is true that many fees such as motor vehicle registration, title fees, and even speeding tickets are being increased to assist with the budget deficit. But there is a major difference between those fees and the rental car tax.

Those fees pay for a service provided by government, such as the receipt of a vehicle registration or title. Increased fees for speeding or running red lights are levied to protect public safety and deter future violations.

The rental car tax is completely unrelated to a service provided for public benefit or any other state-related purpose. It is simply a tax on a small group of consumers.

This tax increase is bad public policy because it:

Forces one industry’s consumers to pay for a service from which they do not benefit. An increased car rental tax would place an excessive burden on a limited number of customers from a single industry. Why is this small group of consumers being asked to fund the needs created by everyone?

Penalizes Floridians who rent cars. This tax will not be borne only by tourists! Florida residents and businesses rent cars for a variety of reasons, such as when their car is being repaired, for weekend leisure trips or for business trips. Last year, 74% of just one rental car company’s customers were Florida residents.

Negatively impact Florida’s economy. Tourism is a key driver Florida’s economy. Yet studies show that increasing rental car taxes lowers the number of cars rented. According to Amy Baker, Director of the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, “the national recession is largely responsible for the state’s tourism downturn…the two places you’d see it the most are in sales tax collected and in rental car surcharges”.

Visit Florida is partially funded by a portion of the $2 a day rental car tax. However, it was recently reported that these collections were down 14% in the final quarter of 2008. The recession has greatly affected tourist industries such as hotels, theme parks, convention centers, restaurants…and rental car companies. Increasing this tax will further diminish the state’s ability to attract tourists and businesses to our state.

Rental car companies are a portion of this industry and they have had major employee layoffs that began late last year. Anything that lowers the number of cars rented will only push more people into our unemployment lines.

I don’t think anyone is saying Tri-Rail is an unworthy cause. But should tourists have to pay for a service they’re unlikely to use?

There are two solutions: First, you could avoid renting a car in South Florida. Or you can e-mail Sen. Smith and ask him to reconsider his position on this proposed new tax.

10 things I love about Hyatt Place


I stayed at the Hyatt Place in Lake Mary, Fla., this weekend, one of the “new build” Hyatt Place properties that opened in January. Sharp looking hotel, isn’t it?

That’s the first thing I liked about it.


2. Checking in is super easy. No need to wait in a line — just talk to the kiosk.


3. Who is your interior decorator?


4. Nice pool.


5. Now that’s a shower.


6. Healthy breakfast. Go for the melons.


7. Everything is color coordinated, right down to the doors.


8. They have a wine bar. How cool is that?


9. Hungry? The computer will take your order.


10. Free PC lets you print out your itinerary … or find a good restaurant.

Legendary Journeys apologizes for selling Prime Travel Protection policies, plans lawsuit against Watson

The state of Florida notified three large travel agencies earlier this week that insurance offered by Prime Travel Protection might be illegal. What does its actions mean for agencies and their customers, particularly those with policies underwritten by Prime Travel Protection and other companies owned by Jerry Watson? For an insider’s view, I turned to Al Ferguson, a vice president at Legendary Journeys, one of the agencies named in the orders.

Q: An early version of last week’s story quoted a state official as saying there was an intent to order a cease and desist against three agencies, including yours, for selling unlicensed insurance and possibly also travel. But it turns out that the state was only notifying you, Palm Coast Travel and Vacation Superstore that selling unlicensed insurance was a possible violation of Florida statutes. What is your understanding of these orders? Do you intend to contest the state’s allegations?

Ferguson: We intend to completely acknowledge their intent on Prime Travel Protection. We also will explain this notice also affects hundreds of travel agencies in Florida that sold this insurance product, and two large travel agency software reservations systems — Revelex and Wincruise — that were booking engines for this insurance product.

Additionally, we will document that we discontinued selling this insurance product when we became concerned with them in September 2008. We stopped selling Prime Travel six months before this state notice was even issued.

Q: How many of your customers currently have insurance policies through Prime Travel Protection and companies related to it, such as Vacation Protection Services?

Ferguson: We have a very small number of clients affected, because we stopped selling this product last September. We have been selling Travelex insurance since.

On Jan. 26, everyone received a notice that Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services was liquidating and declaring bankruptcy, although it is unclear what they have actually done.

For all passengers that had this insurance product with close in travel, we re-purchased insurance for our clients through Travelex. This was done immediately and then new policy was issued to clients. We did this because we were concerned, especially about the need for emergency medical and transportation for our clients while traveling.

For all other passengers traveling later in the year — a very small number — we advised our clients of Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services and new Travelex protection with Legendary Journeys certificate for payment. Even before any state notice of Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services, Legendary Journeys spent approximately $100,000 to protect our clients.

Q: How many outstanding claims do you have, and roughly how much money is in dispute?

Ferguson: We have approximately 25 clients that have this situation and we have been in contact to try to satisfy their issues. If they have not been contacted, they should contact Stewart Carrier at stew@legendaryjourneys.com.

Q: I think it’s important to note that just because someone had a policy and made a claim doesn’t mean their claim would have been honored, even if it was real insurance. At this point, how do you separate the claims that would be honored from the ones that normally would be denied?

It’s difficult. But Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services, and I believe any insurance product, has a mediation remedy.

Q: How long have you been working with Jerry Watson?

Ferguson: Legendary Journeys is filing legal action against Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services and Jerry Watson for fraud and misrepresentation and would prefer not to focus on the selling of a product we believed was insurance — including hundreds of agencies in the USA and the major travel agency reservation systems.

Q: How did Watson represent his policies to you? As insurance – or trip “protection” — or something else?

Ferguson: I believe Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services’ vague point is that they are not the insurance product but the selling company. However, it was always clear that regardless of what Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services said they did, the companies behind them were insurance. They have had multiple underwriters licensed to sell insurance in Florida and other states. If Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services did not have these underwriters, the issue is fraud. It is my understanding that there are many travel insurance products that are represented by companies that are not the actual underwriter.

Q: There’s been a lot of discussion about the unusually high commissions, bonuses and overrides paid by Watson to his travel agents. Some have suggested the money they were getting from Watson made them look the other way when problems started to surface with claims. Is that a legitimate criticism?

Ferguson: I do not believe so. First, most travel agencies are selling travel insurance by convenience. This insurance product was included, at various times, by major travel agency reservation software systems. One of the largest is Revelex, and there are others. This means, when making a reservation, you could add this insurance product in the booking seamlessly.

That had nothing to do with anything other than convenience.

Additionally, when we moved to our current insurance company, the commission amount is virtually identical. It was not a motivation in our selection of that insurance product. In fact, it was highly motivated because of our reservation system. Most insurance products are nearly the same commission — at least as to the commissions offered to Legendary Journeys.

Q: In reading some of the comments on this blog, it seems there are some current and former customers of Prime Travel Protection who are unwilling to believe anything you say. What is the most unfair thing that you’ve seen in the comments, and how would your respond to them?

Ferguson: It is why I do appreciate your blog. Forums need to try to stay fair and balanced. Often that is not the case.

I think the most obvious is that they don’t want resolution, but only want blood. First, we have travel agency competition that I suspect are some of the bloggers. They can effectively compete with another agency by being so negative yet be anonymous.

Others commenting are not affected at all and only have 25 percent of the facts — for example, assuming we were selling Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services to the end … again, we stopped in September.

Additionally, while this is a dramatic issue for a small number of our clients — and we will try to satisfy them — it is important to note that while a $5,000 loss is significant, Legendary Journeys had more than 20,000 clients in 2008. The number of affected clients is extremely small.

Some bloggers have difficulty looking at a big picture. We all have interest in resolving this for our small number of affected clients and that is really the only thing that matters. Legendary Journeys will.

Q: Can you give me a timeline of your company’s break-up with Watson? When did you do it, why did you do it, and what did you tell your customers who help policies underwritten by the company?

Ferguson: September 2008. First, our reservation system, as I explained before, made a change necessary as they were concerned, at the same time legendary journeys was, about valid claim payment schedules completed by Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services.

Second, you and others began to bring to our attention problems with claim payments by Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services. Both issues helped us make the right decision to change insurance products.

Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services has a legal requirement to pay valid claims. It was not until Jan. 26, when they declared bankruptcy and liquidation – it’s still unclear what they have done — hat previous clients with valid claims — again, approximately 25 clients — had an issue. Even now Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services says they are going to pay these claims.

Our actions to satisfy our clients effected is independent of their actions meaning our clients can continue to Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services in addition to what Legendary Journeys does for them.

Q: Have you had any contact with the two other travel agencies named in Florida’s intent to order a cease and desist since the bankruptcy of Prime Travel Protection?

Ferguson: I have not. Everyone is in the exact same boat and they can decide how they wish to satisfy their clients. Again, while Florida has started with the three big agencies in the state, this will affect hundreds of agencies in the same way. This will also affect the software reservation systems, the travel agency consortiums and so forth, that were selling Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services. This will affect a gigantic number of companies. Florida indicates in the notice on Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services that many agencies sold Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services policies.

Q: Legendary Journeys is the only travel agency named by the state of Florida earlier this week that hasn’t sent me a cease and desist letter from an attorney. I feel left out! Why have you decided to engage your critics on this blog and answer my questions, instead?

Ferguson: Great question. I hope our critics stop and re-read your question.

Legendary Journeys has 10 bricks-and-mortar offices in Florida. We have been around a very long time and will continue to do so. Your question gets to my point of making sure everyone has all the facts. I won’t be redundant again from above answers, but when you have 20,000 cruise and tour passengers a year … there is always, always going to be some unhappy people. I hope we can all agree that some of those complaints are going to be reasonable and some are not.

In this instance, I apologize to our clients that we sold this product. If Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services was not licensed to sell insurance via the underwriters of the product, then fraud has been committed against Legendary Journeys.

We have tried to be responsible in this situation. We made the changes when necessary, we protected our clients when necessary, we are going back to try to satisfy our clients that have not had valid claims paid.

And my communication with you and trying to silence you or anyone else would only fail. Others can make any business decisions they want, but Legendary Journeys wants to do the right thing and Legendary Journeys will.

Q: I have to tell you, my favorite lawyer letter to date accuses me of maliciously publishing falsehoods. I take it you wouldn’t be talking with me if you felt that way. Still, is there anything I could be doing to facilitate a more open and fair debate on these issues?

Ferguson: I think you have got it. Fairness and balance. You have two posters on Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services that have incredible knowledge on Jerry Watson and Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services. I am suspicious of their motives, who they really are and why they post over and over again — and by the way, it’s America, so they can.

The most important thing is that both sides be presented and then everyone makes their own decision. Information is power and information presented in forums like this are valuable for everyone … consumer and business alike.

Q: There’s been talk about a possible investigation of Prime Travel Protection by Colorado authorities, and a possible federal investigation. Have you been in touch with any other officials from Florida, Colorado, or the federal government, in regards to Prime Travel Protection?

Ferguson: I have not. We have been totally focused on our clients affected. To be completely honest, we have not even received the notice from Florida. As you are already aware — and again, I thank you for correcting your own blog — the first notice issued by Florida was sent to [your sources] before it was sent to us. And it was wrong. It had nothing to do with travel or even insurance. It only was a cease and desist on Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services — which again, we have not sold since September.

But regardless, we will cooperate in any investigation. I am willing to wait for all the facts. The very important one is: Did Prime Travel Protection and Vacation Protection Services have an underwriter and were they licensed to sell in Florida? If they did not, [then] in addition to the tragic issue of money loss, fraud has been committed.

In the short term, we can only satisfy our future travelers — and we have — and try to satisfy valid claims, which we will.

Here come the dinosaurs!

Aren and his siblings dodged large reptiles on their visit to Dinosaur World near Plant City, Fla. Find out if they survived …

Eating alligator on New Smyrna Beach

Aren and his siblings drove on New Smyrna Beach, Fla., today and saw lots and lots of art at the Images art festival. For lunch, Aren tried alligator.

An adventure on Hontoon Island

Aren, Iden and Erysse Elliott spend a morning looking for Indian shell mounds and minding the alligators at Hontoon Island State Park, near DeLand, Fla.