travel agent

With travel complaints, timing can be everything

Timing is everything when you have a travel complaint.

Consider what happened to one of my clients, who had meticulously booked a 16-day trip to Scotland and Ireland months in advance. Our agency worked with Celebrated Experiences to get them an itinerary featuring daily touring with deluxe hotels.

But all the planning couldn’t prepare them for what happened in Ireland.
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A problem with your reservation? Maybe your travel agency should pay

Ivan Cholakov /
Ivan Cholakov /
When Jennifer Forbes and her husband checked in for a recent flight from Richmond to Freeport, Bahamas, they discovered that there are worse ways to start a vacation than having an invalid ticket.

Much worse. The airline on which they had reservations, Bahamasair, didn’t even serve Richmond.

“We had non-refundable hotel reservations,” says Forbes, a homemaker who lives in McKenney, Va. “But we had no way to get there.”

Forbes had booked her vacation through an online travel agency called Hotwire, which offers customers steep discounts in exchange for not telling them the exact airline or hotel they’re booking until they’ve made their reservations. And all reservations are final and non-refundable.
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Are rental cars unsafe?

The Scan is a synopsis of news you can’t miss. Get it delivered to your “in” box by signing up now. It’s free.

What we’re reading

Are rental cars unsafe? (11 Alive)

My dad dies during Celebrity Cruise excursion; Crew throws out our stuff (Consumerist)

An airport bomber in China becomes an unlikely recipient of online sympathy (Time)

With Carnival Cruises Under Attack, Micky Arison Opens Up (WSJ)

What we’re writing

Most airline fees are variable. Why not change fees? (Consumer Traveler)

Don’t be fooled by fake electronics: 5 tips (Elliott)

Send you news tips to Steve Surjaputra.

“Apparently with Carnival, the passenger does not always come first”

carnival destinyKristen Hernandez thought she’d found a bargain on the Carnival Breeze next month. Or, to be more precise, she thought her travel agent had found one.

She booked two separate balcony cabins for her 8-night Eastern Caribbean cruise for $3,440 each.

Turns out she and her travel agent were wrong.

“After researching the Internet, we found out that Carnival Cruise Lines had slashed the prices due to the fact of the many mishaps,” she says. “Yesterday I went online on the Carnival website and found out that the balcony cabins are now selling for $2,319. That is a difference of over $1,100 per cabin.”
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Can this trip be saved? “We just had the worst vacation ever!”

Craig and Jamie Talley just had the worst vacation ever. Their words, not mine. I’ve seen a lot of bad trips, and as far as “worst vacations” go, this one’s right up there with the worst of ’em.

Among the highlights: Crossed wires with their online travel agent, surly service (if you can even call it that), substandard facilities, extra expenses and ultimately, and early departure. Like, four days early.

Do they deserve a full refund?

The Talleys think they do. I think they deserve something.

What do you think? Can this trip be saved?
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Sometimes getting an insurance claim paid is like a game of chess

If you think travel agents are about as worthless as travel insurance — and I’ve seen your comments on this site, so I know you’re out there — then you’ll like this story.

Joanne Babbitt contacted me a few weeks ago because she was trying to handle an insurance claim for two clients who had been on a tour of the Galapagos Islands and Peru. It’s highly unusual for a travel agent to ask for my help, except for the occasional debit-memo dispute with an airline.

Then I reviewed the problem.
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Forget the agent — 4 trips you should book yourself

Want to go somewhere? Book the trip yourself.

About half of all leisure trips are reserved online — give or take a few percentage points — according to several recent surveys. The latest, a Forrester Research study which showed an unexpected drop in the number of U.S. leisure travelers who booked online (it fell from 53 percent in 2007 to 46 percent last year) was a boost to traditional travel agents, who thought their days were numbered.

They might want to hold off on the celebrations, though. That’s because there are a lot of vacations you’re better off booking by yourself, despite a recent story in which I outlined some trips where you should consult a travel professional.
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So where should I buy my travel insurance?

getawayWhen the subject of travel insurance comes up, I’m usually quick to say: Don’t buy the first policy you’re offered.

That’s because the first policy is normally a brochure your travel agent slides across the desk right after you’ve plunked down $14,000 for that dream safari, along with the warning, “You’ll want insurance.”

You will want insurance, but probably — and I stress the “probably” — not from your travel agent.

Agents are often heavily incentivized to sell a particular kind of travel insurance that benefits them (read: high commissions) but not necessarily you (read: lots of fine print). What’s more, they rarely take the time to review the limits of the policy and when it comes time to making a claim, only the very best agents will ensure every appeal is exhausted if you’re denied.

Read this if you don’t believe me.

(How do you know if your agent isn’t one of them? Chances are, if you’re handed two or more brochures, or are encouraged to “shop around” before buying a policy, then your agent’s one of the good guys.)

So where do you buy insurance, then?
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“I missed my entire trip because my plane was delayed”

icelandairGlen Segal didn’t make it to Reykjavik.

He’d paid $2,628 for a one-week vacation package to through Icelandair that included accommodations at the Hilton Nordica. He’d even shelled out an extra $200 for Access America trip cancellation insurance. But in the end, none of that mattered.

Here’s the sad story of Segal’s missed vacation — and how you can prevent it from happening to you.
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“Unethical” travel agent claims commission after client finds a bargain online

bermudaJerry Ginnis says his first mistake was asking a travel agent for a quote on a Bermuda vacation. He’d already found a terrific price online — a week at a luxury resort for $2,800, about 40 percent off the normal rate — but a friend suggested he call, anyway.

The agent quoted him a slightly lower rate and offered to hold the reservation for 24 hours. He agreed.

Ginnis went back online and found the price had dropped to to just $1,100 for the week. Unbelievably, the hotel also threw in a concierge-room floor. Ginnis booked the package on the spot.

And here’s where it gets interesting.
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“I realized that there was no way that we could continue to pay claims”

We’ve already heard from Prime Travel Protection’s customers and from the agents who sold its policies. But other than a form letter from its trustee, the company and its president, Jerry Watson, have remained silent. Until now.

To recap, state authorities in Florida and Colorado are investigating Watson’s company and travel agents who sold Prime Travel Protection policies.

Agents say they were unaware that Watson’s travel protection was unlicensed insurance, and insist that they stopped offering it the moment they found out it was an illegal product. But some customers claim Prime Travel Protection is the latest incarnation of a sophisticated insurance scam, and they believe Watson will return with the same network of travel agents, whose loyalty they say he buys with generous commissions and signing bonuses.

Last week, I asked Watson for his side of the story. Here’s the full text of our e-mail interview:

Q: Why was it necessary to cease operations? Have you filed for bankruptcy protection, and if so, in which court?

Watson: I ceased operations when I realized that there was no way that we could continue to pay claims based on the incoming revenues. I had not received any cease-and-desist notices. I elected not to file bankruptcy mainly because it is and has always been my intent to make good on the obligations of the company. Liquidation seems to be a better alternative.

Q: How many claims did you pay in 2008? How much money was paid to your policyholders in total?

Watson: I don’t have the exact number of claims but the dollar amount paid in 2008 is approximately $1,236,691. The total dollar amount for all companies from 2004 through 2008 is approximately $5,627,222.

Q: How many outstanding claims do you currently have? What is the amount of the claims? Of those, how many are approved, and how much are they worth?

Watson: No answer.

Q: Did you ever represent any of the policies offered through Prime Travel Protection and Travel Protection Services to agents as insurance, or encourage agents to represent your policies to their customers as insurance?

Watson: NO, I/WE never advised the travel agencies or the customer that we were an insurance company. We stated that we offered a benefit services contract.

Q:: How is Prime Travel Protection different from travel insurance?

Watson: The Prime Travel Protection service contract is issued in exchange for a separately stated consideration, whereby we are obligated for a specified period to the holder to repair, replace or indemnify or reimburse the holder the cost of repairing, replacing or provision for incidental payments of indemnity. Prime Travel Protection is a member of CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) and ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents.

The business plan of Prime Travel Protection is to provide benefits that have been deleted from other companies, including “Vendor Default” and pricing that is Non-Age based. Prime Travel Protection offers participating agencies the ability to receive commissions on sales and referrals or to establish their own pricing grids.

Prime Travel Protection is underwritten by the Cielo Capital Insurance Company Ltd; certificate number S24794 with assets exceeding $1,000,000.00 and its Reinsures.

As a comparison with other providers, our claim denial percent ratio was well within Industry standards.

Q: How many travel agencies were selling your policies at the time you ceased operations?

Watson: 38

Q: Do you have any plans to leave Colorado or to start another company that offers travel protection?

Watson: I have no plans to leave Colorado and I do not have any intentions of operating any type of travel protection company.

Update (9 p.m.): Watson has followed up with more information.

I wasn’t able to provide you with accurate data with reference to the number of claims and amounts due to the number of chargeback’s and agency participation in claims settlements.

Regardless of the outcome of the state investigations, I believe that I have tried to accommodate the consumer and the agency community the best that I can. However, the individuals that have responded to your blog are those that have been denied their request for reimbursement and I expect nothing more than their comments, etc. Unfortunately, the customers that have received the benefits of their contracts most likely will not respond in a complimentary fashion and they are in the majority. Our denial rate is less than 20%, which is well within the Industry averages.

For those consumers that feel that they have been denied the benefits of the contract purchased, per the Terms and Conditions of their contract, they have the opportunity to submit to binding arbitration with the American Arbitration Association for a hearing on their case. To my knowledge, their have been no cases filed with the American Arbitration Association. Their failure or lack of evidence to proceed with this form of resolution only validates their claim denial.