‘I regret to inform you, but. . .’
In September ’03, one of the largest holding companies of tour companies, FAR&WIDE Travel Corporation, declared bankruptcy (Nov. ’03, pg. 24), pulling the rug out from under numerous tour companies, including Grand European Tours, with whom we were traveling at the time. Here are the lessons we learned:
- Pay for your trip by credit card.
- Anticipate your tour company’s going out of business and leaving you stranded.
- Take along an ATM card or extra dollars.
We were in Nuremberg, Germany, and starting a dinner on Sept. 24, day 11 of 16 on our tour, when our extremely professional tour director, Friederike Clifton-Macsween, came around to each table with this message: “I regret to inform you, but FAR&WIDE Travel has just gone into liquidation. We are on our own!” She announced a meeting to discuss the situation after dinner. It was well attended.
There were two options: 1) be dropped off at the Nuremberg airport the next morning, buy a ticket to Frankfurt and try to swap our homeward tickets for an earlier flight or 2) continue the tour on a pay-as-you-go basis. All 24 travelers chose the latter option.
Paying for the coach ($125 per person including driver, fuel, touring and two transfers) and each hotel and meal as we went along, it wound up costing us about $600 more per person to complete what had been a $2,600 tour of Germany, but we ultimately got the exact trip that had been planned. The coach company and all remaining hotels met or bettered the prices negotiated by FAR&WIDE. Our generous tour director donated her services.
Well over a thousand travelers were left in similar or worse condition when the company went under. Some were just arriving in Europe. Who knows who met them or how they found out they were stranded? The company had told each of their tour directors that they were no longer on the payroll and that they had been terminated. Some of these people simply left the tours and went home. Others stuck it out like the one we’d been blessed with. In a couple of days the FAR&WIDE offices in Miami were closed by receivers, ending the modest help the staff had been providing.
Some other tour companies, Globus and Trafalgar to name two, offered to accept some of the stranded tours.
So, in such a circumstance, what do you do to get reimbursed? If you charged your tour to a credit card, you call the card company first upon return home. You dispute the charge. They will mail you a form to complete and return to them with receipts and other documentation. They will take at least 60 days to sort out your claim. We received our settlement from MasterCard about 70 days after mailing them our material.
If they deny the claim, or if you did not use a credit card, you have to turn to the tour company’s bonding company. Most of the major travel companies are members of the United States Tour Operators Association (phone 212/599-6599 or visit www.ustoa.com), which provides a $1 million Consumer Protection Plan (i.e., bond) for noncompletion of tours. They provide forms that are completed with attachments as above and mailed, in this case by Dec. 31, 2003. The bond money will be parceled out to all acceptable claimants until it’s gone.
Failing these options, our fellow travelers would turn to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of Florida, Miami Division, to apply for relief in the bankruptcy settlement. This could take months and could return cents on the dollar.
In other words, if you have a credit card, USE IT to charge your trip payments. The card company also suggests that you use the same card to pay those out-of-pocket charges as they mount.
Several of our tour members found that the extra cash outlay exceeded the amount they had brought, but they had no ATM card. Plan ahead for such an eventuality. If a huge company like FAR&WIDE can go under, so can yours!
Fortunately, many of FAR&WIDE’s travel companies sorted out matters of ownership and management quickly and got back on their feet, including Grand European Tours (4000 Kruse Way Place 2 - 355, Lake Oswego, OR 97035; phone 877/622-9109 or visit www.ads.getours.com). This was our third trip with Grand European and we like their pacing, tour directors, pricing and itineraries.
GUY BROWN II