Missed tour due to communication snafus

ITN is breaking with tradition, in this case, in how it presents a reader’s complaint and the company’s rebuttal. In the interest of brevity and clarity, the following facts have been summarized from many, many pages of correspondence. — Editor

ITN subscriber Joyce Barnes of Los Angeles, California, was scheduled to join a tour of Burma led by Philip Hassrick of Lost Frontiers, Inc. (87 Park Rd., Fairfax, CA 94930). She had made her own flight arrangements to Burma.

On Jan. 9, ’04, two days before she was to depart the U.S., Ms. Barnes “became violently ill.” She called the U.S. office of Lost Frontiers and left a message on the answering machine, asking to be met in Yangon “on Jan. 13 or as soon thereafter as feasible” and leaving numbers where she could be reached at work, at her hotel and on her cell phone.

The person checking messages at Lost Frontiers’ office, Jerri (who is now working at a different job), said she got the message and left messages for Ms. Barnes at all three numbers. Ms. Barnes said that each time she called Jerri back, she got the answering machine again.

Ms. Barnes told ITN they finally spoke to each other sometime around the 13th, but Jerri told ITN they never actually spoke to each other, that she only spoke to Ms. Barnes’ travel agent (on the 9th, according to Ms. Barnes). Ms. Barnes’ travel agent told ITN that getting in touch with Ms. Barnes was never a problem.

Ms. Barnes said that, in their conversation, Jerri gave her the phone number, fax number and e-mail address of an office in Burma but said none of them had worked for her. None worked for Ms. Barnes either. In a follow-up letter from Jerri to Mr. Hassrick regarding this matter, she said that he did not leave his trip itinerary with her.

Mr. Hassrick said that before the trip he sent an itinerary (with contact numbers of hotels in Burma) to Ms. Barnes twice because she lost the first one along with other documents. Ms. Barnes said she was not sent such a list until two months after the trip, among correspondence. Ms. Barnes had not given Lost Frontiers an e-mail address where she could be reached.

Mr. Hassrick said that when Ms. Barnes did not arrive in Burma as originally scheduled, he had the ground operator in Burma send an e-mail to Jerri regarding meeting up with Ms. Barnes and was informed she might arrive a few days later.

Jerri said that, from Ms. Barnes’ messages and after speaking to the travel agent (on the 9th), she only had an idea of when Ms. Barnes wanted to meet in Burma, so she e-mailed this information to the “host” in Burma, who hopefully would be in touch with Mr. Hassrick. Based on that message, a representative met the two flights that came into Yangon on the 15th, but Ms. Barnes was on neither one.

Mr. Hassrick pointed out to ITN that almost all travel operators specify that clients must sign cancellation policies but that, in almost all cases, 100% of the payment is lost if a cancellation is made 30 days or less prior to departure; this is because the ground operators require payment 30 days prior and rarely make refunds. To mitigate this possiblility, he also sends travel insurance forms that cover certain emergencies. He said Ms. Barnes did not avail herself of this.

Ms. Barnes said that although she had full insurance, she couldn’t make a claim in this situation. When she became ill she did not visit her doctor but used a prescription medication she had been given in case she became ill on the trip, so she did not have a doctor’s note to present to the insurance company, would that have been relevant. Mainly, however, she never actually canceled the tour, she said; she just, on the 15th, gave up on trying to go after not being able to communicate with Mr. Hassrick in Burma.

Mr. Hassrick offered to reimburse Ms. Barnes “for whatever money (Lost Frontiers) did not spend on her behalf.” He offered her a partial credit for a future trip, but she refused, asking for a complete refund of $3,570. He then offered her $750 in cash, an amount “which represents the profit (Lost Frontiers) made on the trip.” Again, she refused.

In a letter to Ms. Barnes, Mr. Hassrick wrote, “Lost Frontiers’ responsibility for a trip begins on day one of the itinerary, and, since we do not sell air tickets, trip members are expected to arrive as they have indicated according to their air itinerary provided to us.”

He wrote to ITN, “We believe that we have made an honest effort to help Ms. Barnes as much as we can and should not be punished by losing money due to her nonarrival. We do hope that this will be understood.”

Mr. Hassrick says a lesson to be learned from this is to leave as many contact addresses as possible, including e-mail, with the tour operator. ITN adds that, if it is your responsibility to meet the group overseas, you should be sure to have contact addresses for the operator there.

Also, you may want to look into travel insurance, and, in the event that you need to avail yourself of the insurance, be sure to have met all of the requirements.

Lastly, some travelers would have gone on faith, hoping or believing that, once they arrived at the foreign destination, they would have been able to hook up with their group. Of course, that’s a gamble and not one that most people would take.