Why being booked on a group tour can help — and hurt — during a crisis
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In the days and weeks following the initial travel shutdowns and border lockdowns spurred by the novel coronavirus, many travelers found themselves in the same situation: Nervous and confused with future trips, and money, on the line.
Unlike those with reservations for individual hotel stays or flights, who could easily call the airline or hotel and request a refund, travelers who had bought into a group trip found themselves in a complicated tangle of group leaders, tour operators, vendors and other travelers.
Months later, many travelers are still trying to recoup money from canceled group tours — to the tune of hundreds or thousands of dollars per person.
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Tour operators are pushing credits
TPG heard from travelers who had, and still have, trips booked with a variety of tour operators to destinations all over the globe, from Alaska to Iceland everywhere in between. Many are still holding out to see if the tour operator will cancel first — a game of chicken travelers have been playing with travel providers, including airlines and cruise lines, since the pandemic began.
Others say they’ve been asked to accept a credit for future travel — or had to walk away from a nonrefundable deposit.
Rachel Murdock’s tour to Canada with Trafalgar, for example, was originally scheduled for July. When it was canceled, she was only offered a credit for future travel. Murdock also discovered her travel insurance wouldn’t apply.
“Our travel agent asked [for a refund], but [Trafalgar] said they were only providing vouchers. We didn’t push beyond that.”
Julie Garrison had her tour of Central America with Intrepid Travel canceled while on the ground in Nicaragua. “I was about seven days into the tour,” she said. “I had three other countries [and] … about 18 days left when the tour was canceled.” Initially, Garrison said they offered a credit, but she received a 75% refund after pushing back. “However,” she said, “the terms and conditions at the time of booking offer [a] 100% refund if Intrepid cancels the tour.”
Ultimately, she did receive a full refund — after disputing the charge with her credit card company.
“If it wasn’t for the credit card company, I would still be at least waiting for the refund, if not still arguing over the 75% refund versus 100%.”
And Holly P., who had a trip to Costa Rica scheduled for August (also with Intrepid) said when her tour was canceled, she received a credit for 110% of her deposit — which, in this case, was just $1. Since then, she’s rebooked a tour to Kenya and Tanzania in 2021.
“I don’t think [Intrepid has] been clear or transparent about issuing refunds … their COVID-19 hub directs anybody [who] doesn’t want a credit to a [customer service] inbox form.” Fortunately for Holly, she didn’t have much money on the line.
“I think [a refund] would have been an option if I’d pursued that,” she said, adding that the tour operator “sent a few emails to all customers stressing that taking the credit option would help Intrepid through this time.” She does not recall them ever explicitly advertising that they’d provide a refund.
For her part, Garrison says Intrepid handled the crisis well, though she thinks the tour should have been canceled sooner. But she says Intrepid behaved “irresponsibly” in terms of the refund process by “changing the booking terms and conditions” and offering people credits instead of refunds.
According to Intrepid Travel’s website, travelers are in fact being urged to take the 110% credit (of either the deposit amount or full payment). But refunds aren’t off the table: Trips are being reviewed on an individual basis “in line with original booking conditions” from the time of booking.
“We encourage our travelers to take credits for future trips because these credits not only support our hardworking staff around the world but also our network of local suppliers on the ground and the communities we visit,” explained Brett Mitchell, chief commercial officer at Intrepid Travel. “Offering credits allows us to employ countless people all over the globe and enables us to offer the best service and trips imaginable when we’re able to travel again. As the largest B Corp certified travel company, Intrepid only earns an average of 4% profit on each trip, the majority of which is put back into community and environmental projects that help improve livelihoods, and work towards safeguarding this planet for future generations.”
Trafalgar did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication, but their most recent coronavirus travel update does not mention refunds at all. Travelers are told they can change the destination and date of their trip, or in some cases accept a future travel credit valid for another Trafalgar or The Travel Corporation trip with a brand such as Insight Vacations or Uniworld Boutique River Cruises.
Like Intrepid and other tour operators, companies that specialize in educational trips for students are also urging families to accept credits for future trips. But families who insist on refunds are finding it next to impossible to extract all their money from the labyrinthine system.
Families lost money on trips that never happened
Tours organized by schools or teachers (think: a weekend in Washington, D.C. for the marching band, a senior getaway to New York City or a trip to Germany with a language class) are typically operated by education-focused travel companies like EF Education First. And these particular group trips have fallen under particular scrutiny following the coronavirus outbreak.
Mandy McKinley says her two middle school-aged daughters were enrolled in a group trip with EF Educational Tours to the Galápagos scheduled for July. As it became clear the trip wouldn’t occur as planned, EF said the money could be put toward another trip at a later date.
“We were initially contacted by a teacher about a trip to the Galápagos Islands — a trip my husband and I would have dreamt of — [and] we signed up immediately,” McKinley said. They paid for the recommended trip insurance policy offered by EF, too, which McKinley says seemed expensive at $165 per kid for a nine-day trip. But McKinley never imagined they’d have to cancel for any reason that wouldn’t be covered by the trip insurance plan.
At first, everything went smoothly. McKinley said EF was professional and communicative. But as the coronavirus began to spread across the globe, it became obvious the dream trip to the Galápagos was in jeopardy. In mid-March, McKinley received an email saying all deadlines were being extended so travelers (and parents) didn’t feel pressured to make a decision. As with many travel operators, the amount of money refunded was supposed to decrease as the travel date approached. They were told they had until April 30 to cancel before losing even more money.
McKinley’s other options? Receive a voucher for all of the money paid, including nonrefundable fees, to be put toward a future trip, or have her daughters join another trip through a different school. If the group collectively decided to rebook the Galápagos trip, her daughters could also travel at a later date for no additional cost.
For McKinley, rescheduling the trip or putting her daughters with another group was never a viable solution.
McKinley contacted the insurance underwriter to see if the policy would provide a full refund if she canceled. The fine print suggested the insurance was only applicable for individual cancellation reasons — it wouldn’t be triggered if the school or EF canceled the trip first. And the date by which McKinley needed to cancel to avoid losing even more money was creeping closer still. Ultimately, McKinley decided she had no choice but to “cut her losses” — and to walk away from $1,000, or $500 per daughter. It took eight weeks for her refund to arrive.
Because EF’s refund policy had changed multiple times during the process, and because the amount they were willing to return had increased considerably, it was clear to McKinley there was flexibility. But there was very little in the way of transparency
“I don’t think they were open to our teacher,” McKinley said. “If they said to our teacher, ‘Listen, if we have to cancel, your kids are entitled to a full refund.’ But I think EF tours explained it in such a way she felt that we had to cancel — [that] the only way we were going to get any money back [was to cancel]. I don’t think they were upfront with her. I think they pushed her into a corner.”
And at the end of the day, EF never did cancel the Galápagos trip. Instead, the trip has technically been rescheduled to the summer of 2021. Students who hadn’t canceled were automatically enrolled in the 2021 trip.
“I read the fine print,” McKinley adds while describing the lack of candor from both EF and the insurance provider. “But [I] probably didn’t read it soon enough. We just jumped on board.” And, unlike Garrison, McKinley could not dispute the charges with a credit card company, since she says the trip had to be paid through direct debit.
A spokesperson for EF Education First told TPG the company’s “singular focus” during the crisis “has been to provide our customers with the best and most flexible rebooking and refund options to protect their full investment in our tours.”
“Since the announcement of the March 11 travel restrictions, we have offered every customer the chance to move their tour to another date, thereby protecting every dollar of their investment. For customers who prefer a cash refund, we are returning every dollar that we have not already spent on planning their tours.”
Even though McKinley’s daughters will not get to go on their school trip to the Galápagos, EF says that “as soon as [they] book a tour, preparations begin, often several years in advance of the departure.”
“Our staff invest thousands of hours every year planning and iterating the details of every tour,” the spokesperson added. For trips expected to depart before May 15, EF ultimately offered to refund “everything less $565,” while trips departing on or after May 15, such as the Galápagos trip, will be refunded “everything less $500.”
“Both of these refund policies cover only a partial amount of the costs EF has already incurred for each tour … We are committed to continuing our negotiations with third-party suppliers in an effort to return further vendor savings to our travelers.”
Untangling the group tour process
The Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA) works with travel providers and tour operators such as EF. SYTA — which represents these companies, but does not directly provide the services — has been vocal about the complicated relationship between tour operators, schools, families and individuals.
“Generally, the way these student groups [work] is an educator will work with a SYTA tour operator … for at least a year to put that group trip together,” said SYTA CEO Carylann Assante. “Our customer is the educator, the school or the marching band, and the parents and the kid are the next customers after that.”
Assante said that as the pandemic escalated, schools began closing and canceling group trips.
“The group process,” she explains, “is a sort of complicated one.”
As schools began to cancel upcoming trips, Assante said there was “a trickle-down effect” in their ability to credit, postpone or provide refunds. Contractors and vendors had already been paid to reserve rooms, purchase tickets and hold space for students — and on a single trip, there could be hundreds of students and dozens of different vendors involved. “Now,” Assante said, “we [have] to contact every single vendor to start getting back refunds … “Basically, we’re undoing the whole trip, working backward.”
And some of the consumer-friendly cancellation policies that have emerged during the crisis simply don’t extend to group trips. “Airlines had a lot of great policies for individual ticket holders, but [those] didn’t apply to groups. In many cases, if we purchased 200 tickets, they wanted to give a credit under [one] name. There were 200 kids on that trip! We’re still struggling with the airlines.”
“What I can say is we have not received in many cases full 100% refunds from our partners and vendors,” she said — a statement that speaks to McKinley’s experience with EF. Assante acknowledges that “it’s a very difficult situation when you have a family looking at only getting back $750 or $850 or $900.”
If it sounds like travelers and tour operators are volleying back and forth across an invisible net, you’re not wrong. Travelers feel they’ve paid for a trip they (or their children) didn’t get to take. Tour operators say they did render meaningful services, including making travel arrangements that, because of a situation completely beyond their control, simply never came to fruition.
Moving forward, Assante said the industry needs to work to provide more clarity. After all, the group trip-planning process is a murky one, and money paid in the form of a deposit doesn’t necessarily metamorphose into an airline ticket or hotel room.
“What we learned in this situation is that most schools and families don’t really understand the trip-planning process,” Assante said, adding that many also didn’t understand how the travel insurance policies worked.
But when a trip goes as planned, the benefits of a group tour are obvious. Travelers simply have to show up, and all the details of the itinerary are arranged in advance. Tour operators can also leverage large groups for discounts and insider access. But though getting a refund may be more onerous, there are less obvious benefits to booking with a tour operator even when the trip never happens.
“For those teachers and schools that did not work with an operator, they’re in an even more challenging situation,” Assante said. “If they were buying individual tickets or working with one-off hotels, they don’t have the same clout and experience [we] have. “[We’re] working on [your] behalf,” she added, calling SYTA “a consistent voice, one person, [one] contact. In a majority of cases, having an operator made the difference for them,” Assante said in terms of refunds.
Assante also says that travelers are more sensitive than ever to health and safety procedures. “If you’re traveling by yourself, you’re going to have to … figure out how you’re going to travel safely [during] all the legs of your trip. When you book with a group or student operator, they will have done all that legwork … they will have already collected a lot of [information] that you would have to figure out on your own.” Part of that, she explained, means preparing for all the things that could go wrong while traveling in a post-pandemic era — having a back-up plan if an attraction is shut down, for example.
Mitchell also pointed to health and hygiene as an important pillar moving forward.
“We have taken a close look at our operations to maximize hygiene on trips and ensure the safety of our travelers. As a result, we’ve implemented new standards and policies, such as requiring COVID-19 health and safety training for our leaders and suppliers, asking that travelers complete a pre-trip self-assessment, developing more transparency from suppliers on their sanitation practices and providing masks on the ground.”
Trafalgar is even bringing so-called wellbeing directors on trips who are focused on enforcing hygiene and physical distancing protocols: sanitizing luggage, conducting daily health checks and monitoring social etiquette. Travelers will also be able to turn to the wellbeing directors for guidance on local rules, regulations and any concerns about COVID-19. The program is designed to alleviate the burden of research from travelers while also giving them additional peace of mind.
“We’re already scenario planning so that you can get back on the road and know that we’ve thought about those situations. I think more than ever the group operator provides that [ease], especially in a health and safety situation,” Assante said.
And now, tour operators can apply everything they’ve learned about negotiating refunds and travel during the pandemic.
“It’s when things go wrong that tour guides really make all the difference,” Mitchell added. “As travel restrictions were rapidly changing in March, Intrepid’s tour leaders and local operations teams had the knowledge to quickly adapt plans and the connections with governments when further support was needed to get travelers home safely … For instance, our transport suppliers in Morocco gave us buses to ferry travelers between Casablanca and Marrakech as flights were canceled and rescheduled. In Peru, we were provided with entire hotels that became dedicated hubs for our travelers.”
But Assante says there’s work to do making sure travelers and customers understand what they’re buying at every step of the process. She expects tour operators to ask customers to “sign off” throughout the process, acknowledging that they were made aware of the travel insurance, for example, and that they understand all their options. Across the board, she said, “I think you’re going to see more waivers” and “better communication.”
Ultimately, Assante says, tour operators need to communicate more to customers — including the “value provided by the tour operator and travel advisor.” Many travelers paid some type of administrative fee to cover services rendered throughout the entire year of trip planning, Assante explained. So, tour operators need to explain what that fee was and what services were already provided, which is especially challenging when travelers want full refunds because the trip never materialized.
Tour operators are also revisiting their group contracts and vendors, and rethinking their deposit schedules. “There has to be more flexibility,” she admits, “at least with forced deposits.” Cancellation policies may also change. In terms of insurance, Assante also said there may be additional products coming out that may work with the group market.
According to Mitchell, Intrepid Travel’s new Flexible Booking policy (announced Friday, June 12) builds upon the coronavirus amendments “with the aim of providing our travelers with maximum flexibility, to make them feel even more comfortable booking during what can feel like an uncertain time.” Final payments now aren’t due until 21 days before the date of departure now (compared to 56 days out before the coronavirus outbreak), though Mitchell said the policy isn’t a permanent one.
Tour operators such as EF are also looking ahead.
“When our customers are ready to begin exploring the world with us again, we want them to feel safe and supported not only in that decision but throughout their entire experience,” said the spokesperson from EF. “We are adjusting cancellation policies to help new customers book with confidence while giving existing customers more time to decide about their upcoming trips. For example, EF Educational Tours has frozen all cancellation fees, which typically increase as our groups get closer to departure. EF Tours and several other products also plan to begin offering a more robust coverage option under the existing Global Travel Protection program.”
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“I get the sense [that travelers are] going to be looking to the travel community to guide them more than ever,” Assante said. “And we’re going to rebuild trust. That extra value is going to be more important, especially to our customers.”
Understanding how your money is used may be helpful for travelers planning future trips, but it’s likely little consolation for travelers who have found themselves stuck with future travel credits — or walking away from hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
Yes, accepting a voucher can be a meaningful way to show your support for the travel industry while also keeping your wanderlust alive. But in these difficult economic times, that’s not necessarily a priority for many travelers. Plus, vouchers can make it difficult to jump on different itineraries or better deals. And, of course, there’s always a risk some tour operators simply won’t survive these strange and difficult times.
Simply put, it’s no surprise that having cash in hand is often the preference for travelers who have had their trips canceled or interrupted by the global health crisis. So, what can you do? We always recommend that you wait until the last possible minute to cancel a trip since you’ll have more leverage if the tour operator cancels — not you. Regardless, keep pushing for a full refund, and don’t back down. Keep a detailed record of who you’ve talked to and when, and try reaching out through multiple channels if you’re not satisfied with the answers you’re getting.
And if, like Garrison, you paid for a trip that didn’t happen with a credit card, you might be able to dispute the transaction with the issuer.
Featured photo by Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images.
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