American European Travel’s nine-day ancient Turkey tour looked like the perfect birthday gift for David Olson’s wife, Barbara. With stops in Istanbul, Ephesus and Pamukkale, it fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting the old Ottoman Empire.
The Olsons learned about the trip through a brochure in The Washington Post. The AET insert bore the newspaper’s logo, so they assumed that The Post endorsed the tour and would stand behind it if something went wrong.
And then, something went wrong.
Just a few days before their departure, the couple received an apologetic e-mail from the tour operator, explaining that it had encountered “unexpected software problems” that had caused it to overbook flights with its preferred airline. Their Turkey trip had been canceled. AET offered them a new tour or a full refund — a refund that, in their case and several others, took far longer than expected to arrive.
This incident and others like it underscore the importance of researching a tour before booking and knowing who will help if things go sideways, as they sometimes do.
A cursory online search might have sent up a few red flags. The Better Business Bureau says that it’s reviewing AET’s rating after receiving “numerous complaints.” A lengthy thread on the online review site TripAdvisor, where some of the content had mysteriously been deleted, might have raised eyebrows. And a posting on a popular forum for frequent fliers from 2012 asked, “Is this a scam?”
Ala German, an AET spokeswoman, said that the company exercises “no influence” over its online reviews. “We totally understand that a customer who is unsatisfied about a situation starts working on a way to be heard,” she added. But she pointed out that there were also many positive comments about the company.
Newspaper inserts such as the ones that Olson and others saw are the product of an advertising relationship. A company such as AET independently publishes a brochure, which includes the newspaper’s logo. In exchange for each lead generated by the flyer, an advertiser typically pays the newspaper a referral fee. But generally, publications don’t vet these advertisers, nor do they vouch for their products.
When AET customers requested a refund and the money failed to appear, despite repeated assurances from the tour operator that it would, no one should have been surprised that customers like the Olsons began phoning The Washington Post to inquire about their missing money.
Barbara Olson, a retired nursing professor from Waldorf, Md., says that she first made “numerous calls” to AET. “I was told that my refund was a priority,” she said. But almost two months had already gone by, and AET still had her $1,468.
AET’s German admitted that some of the refunds had hit a snag, but the company was trying to fix the problem, she said. The issue, she said, was that it was working with a new credit card processor. While a simple refund to a credit card could be handled quickly, if people wanted refunds by check or cash, that needed to be processed manually through a wire transfer or PayPal, which was taking time.