Can my guide cancel my trip to Italy and keep my money too?

What if you cancel your trip to Italy over coronavirus? Shouldn't you get a refund? (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott.org)

When coronavirus started closing down Italy, Meryl Silver wondered if she would be forced to cancel her upcoming trip. She didn’t have to wait long for an answer. In early March, the private photographer who was hosting the workshop she was to attend, announced he was “rescheduling” the event. So why won’t he return her $1,200 deposit?

Silver’s unpleasant tale will make you think twice about handing over cash deposits without a detailed contract. If you do, you’re risking not just your money, but as you’ll see in this case, maybe even your sanity.

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Looking forward to a photography workshop in Italy before coronavirus

Last fall, Silver read about a photography workshop in the spring in Milan and Lake Como. It looked like an excellent opportunity to see Italy and improve her landscape photography skills. So she contacted the photographer, Joe, who was hosting the workshop, and paid the $1,200 deposit. Joe soon sent her a confirmation of her space in the program, and Silver made the rest of her travel arrangements.

She spent all winter happily anticipating her Italian photography adventure.

But then in February, everything began to unravel. When the coronavirus started spreading across Italy, Silver was alarmed. It became apparent that her guided Italian photography tour was in jeopardy.

Then, on March 9, in response to the increasing numbers of coronavirus cases, the Italian government announced a lockdown.

“When the coronavirus closed Italy, I assumed that I might have to cancel the trip,” Silver explained. “But, I still had a little hope since our tour wasn’t set to begin until May 4.”

That would soon change.

The coronavirus lockdown and a canceled trip to Italy

That little hope dissolved with the arrival of an email from Joe, the photography guide.

From the warning sent out by the CDC and current airline issues such as dropping flights, we just can’t ignore what’s happening in Italy, and specifically the Lombardy region where Milan is situated; and it’s not going to get better by this May.(Joe to his workshop participants)

The announcement that the coronavirus crisis in Italy had forced Joe to cancel the trip avoided the word “cancel.” Instead, he rebranded the cancellation as a “postponement.” He explained that he would be rescheduling the workshop for May 23, 2021 — almost 14 months later.

At first, things remained cordial between Joe and Silver. But she wanted her deposit back. She told Joe that when she asked to cancel her flight to Italy, American indicated that she’d receive a credit that she had to use by October. The implication seemed clear, but Joe seemed to miss the initial message — or pretended to miss it.

“I was just on hold for over 2 hours with American Airlines,” Silver explained to Joe. “The agent said I could only reschedule by sometime in October without a penalty.”

“You deserve a glass of VERY good wine on me,” Joe responded, “… since we think so much alike!!!😂😂😂”

Confused by Joe’s response, Silver tried again.

“Well, I’m thinking if I have to reschedule by the fall, I won’t be able to go with you next year,” Silver told him. “Is that what you are thinking?!!”

It wasn’t.

And that was the end of any friendly overtures between the two. Things were about to take a very ugly turn.

“You canceled this trip. I want my deposit back!”

Silver spent the next few weeks trying to figure out what to do. She didn’t mind rescheduling the trip to Italy for the fall, but 14 months into the future seemed too precarious. Besides, she thought, why should Joe be able to hold onto her money for all that time? The $1,200 deposit only pertained to his personal fee for the workshop, which he canceled.

So on March 26, Silver sent Joe a request for the refund of her deposit. In response, he claimed that he did her and the other tour members a favor by postponing instead of canceling. Joe claimed that he would be entitled to keep all of their deposits outright if he had officially canceled. He encouraged her to read the cancellation policy for proof of this information.

I read the cancellation policy, and I did not cancel this trip. You can call it postponing, but I gave you a deposit for a trip in May of 2020 and not 2021. What if you did not “postpone” the trip, but I decided to postpone the trip. Would you have to take me on the trip on whatever days I decided? (Silver to Joe)

She then told him that she still intended to go to Italy and didn’t cancel her trip. Silver asked him if he would be there to give her the workshop.

You are canceling. I’m merely postponing, so people don’t lose their deposits when they cancel. If you call that selfish, I’m sorry you feel that way.

You are the only one that has a problem, and everyone appreciates that I’m not taking their deposits and just creating a new workshop in 2021… which per the policy, would be in my rights. (Joe to Silver)

Joe then forwarded Silver some emails from the other participants in which they agreed to the rescheduled trip.

Exasperated, Silver decided to send a request to the Elliott Advocacy team to see if we might be able to help.

“Can this guy cancel my trip to Italy and kept my deposit?”

When Silver’s request for help landed on my desk, the coronavirus was causing our helpline to blow up (and still is). The pandemic was slamming every aspect of the travel industry. Each day we saw new, creative ways for providers to avoid issuing refunds.

And we were warning consumers not to cancel their trips unless they could do so without penalty. These hastily made cancellations were unnecessarily costing travelers lots of money.

But this case was different. Silver still had her flights and hotel in place. She had not canceled the trip — although by now it seemed clear that coronavirus had made the journey impossible. Joe had preemptively canceled the tour two months ahead of schedule. Now he wanted to keep his customers’ deposits for over a year. Those deposits were only meant to hold a space for a photography class that Joe intended to teach on a specific date in a particular place. But now because of the coronavirus, he couldn’t — he did cancel the trip for the dates originally agreed upon.

Finally, the tone between Silver and Joe in the paper trail would have made a future workshop quite unpleasant. A return of the deposit seemed like a proper resolution.

But I needed to see that contract that Joe said allowed him to keep the deposits. And that’s when things turned even uglier.

What’s in that contract for this workshop in Italy

We were contacted by one of your clients, Meryl Silver, who planned to attend your workshop in Italy in early May. Obviously, due to the coronavirus pandemic, you were forced to cancel that workshop. Ms. Silver says that she asked you to return her deposit since she has no idea if and when she would be able to attend a future workshop. She says that you believe you’re entitled to keep her deposit.

Can you please provide the contract that allows you to keep the deposit of a client who booked a workshop that you have canceled? We’ll be publishing an article about her experience, and we would like to make sure that we represent both sides fairly. If you do not have a contract that allows for you to keep her deposit, can you please refund Ms. Silver’s $1,200? Thank you! (Michelle to Joe)

I think I’m very fair in my advocacy and my reporting of these cases. But there are times when one side or the other is so defensive that mediation is virtually impossible. With the contentious nature of the earlier email exchanges between Silver and Joe, I thought this case might be a tough one.

I was right. Soon Joe answered me.

She has the cancellation policy, ask her for it. Be advised that I did not cancel but postponed because I did NOT want to keep the deposits, which was in my right to do so. All other participants were fine with it. Btw, I sent her all the other responses, and when the time comes, if necessary, I’m sure they will be willing to make a statement.

If you show me in any slanderous light, I will seek appropriate action against all parties… here in Houston.(Joe to Michelle)

Then he sent the “contract” that he believed allowed him to keep the deposits.

I don’t think this contract says what you think it says

The photography guide was forced to cancel this trip, but the contract does say he can keep the deposits.
A pre-coronavirus contract that doesn’t address what will happen if the photographer is forced to cancel this trip to Italy.

I pointed out that this contract only discusses cancellations by the participants, not if he cancels the trip.

Joe was unconvinced and repeated that everyone else on this trip was OK with him retaining the deposits indefinitely. He also believed that, initially, Silver agreed to allow him to keep her deposit.

“I did not cancel this trip. This is a postponement.”

“I did not cancel,” Joe told me. “I’m fine with it being on the record, so scare tactics don’t bother me.”

It doesn’t matter if you think she was ok with you keeping the deposit. She isn’t. She needs the money back, and she asked you to return it. You’ve rescheduled this workshop 14 months from now. Anything could happen during that time. Ms. Silver wants her money back. The right thing to do as a businessperson is to return the money for this particular client because you do not have a contract that allows you to keep it. I’m certain your lawyer will tell you that if you show him or her that contract. It’s great that all your other clients want to allow you to keep their deposits, but this particular client needs her money back. Thank you!(Michelle to Joe)

That didn’t move Joe either.

I did a little research and discovered that Joe’s unpleasant demeanor doesn’t appear to have been inspired by the current global pandemic. He has a history of turning on customers who don’t see things his way. Here’s a Yelp review from 5 years ago.

A negative review of this photographer on Yelp.
Here’s someone else’s experience with Joe.

At this point, I didn’t think further back and forth with Joe would be productive. I sent Silver another email and copied Joe and gave her a few additional avenues that she could use to try to get her deposit back from Joe. She certainly had no intention of ever going to one of his future workshops. I suggested filing a complaint with the attorney general in her state, and if that didn’t work, she might consider going to small claims court.

Then Joe threatened that he would file a lawsuit as well (he didn’t explain what his lawsuit would be about). And he started sending Silver insulting emails, which she forwarded to me. He told her he was 75 years old and wasn’t going to let her bully him into returning her deposit.

This certainly hadn’t gone the way I had hoped. But then…

Surprise! Here’s your refund for the canceled trip

Over the next week or so, Silver would copy me on emails that Joe continued to send. He told her that her photography skills were poor and  he repeated his intention to take her to court in Houston.

Then one morning, Silver opened her email to find yet another message from Joe. With trepidation, she opened it, expecting more insults. There were insults there, but also a surprise announcement of a refund.

Based on new findings and talking with friends that are doctors, it might take up to eighteen months for a vaccine. Therefore, I went ahead and cancelled the workshop. Trust me it was not for you, or the threats, bullying, and scare tactics I received; I never gave them a second thought. It’s because of the people that have taken so many of my workshops, those are the only people I care about. If anything were to ever happen to me, I would want all of them to have their deposit. I will get back to them when it’s safe to re-schedule.

However, you were not included in my email, nor will I ever communicate with you ever again.

Silver was incredulous. She had no intention of taking another workshop from Joe — ever. She just wanted this troubling situation resolved and to never hear from Joe again.

And one week later, Silver was relieved to find her refund check in her mailbox. She hopes that once the coronavirus crisis passes, she can take a trip to Italy to replace the one that Joe was forced to cancel — but it definitely won’t be one hosted by him!

*I’ve intentionally left Joe’s last name out of this article to protect Silver from additional harassment. 

What to do if coronavirus forces you to cancel a trip and your travel provider owes you a refund

  • Make sure to read and understand your contract
    During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been seeing an enormous increase in complaints from consumers who were forced to cancel a trip and didn’t even know they had a contract with their travel provider. Remember, the terms and conditions of your contract will dictate whether you’re owed a refund if you (or the provider) cancels your trip. It’s always best to familiarize yourself with that document before there are any problems.
  • Follow these proven steps to resolve your consumer problem
    Bookmark Christopher’s comprehensive consumer advocacy guide and follow those steps. Consumers can resolve most disputes on their own with those tips — as long as you’re dealing with a reasonable merchant.
  • Consider a credit card dispute
    We always advise consumers to pay for all of their travel plans with a credit card. The reason? The Fair Credit Billing Act can protect you when a merchant is unable or refuses to provide services as agreed. Your bank can investigate and retrieve your money if the facts are on your side. Of course, if you pay by cash or check, you do not have that same protection. The safest payment method is always via credit card.
  • File a complaint with the attorney general’s office in your state
    If you or your travel provider cancels your trip and the business won’t give you a refund you think you’re owed, filing a complaint with your state’s attorney general’s office can help. That office is the highest legal authority in your state and will investigate your complaint. This often leads a company to correct a problem more quickly. Here’s how to find the AG’s office in your state. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott.org)

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