By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 3/31/2010 4:18:21 PM ET 2010-03-31T20:18:21
travel troubleshooter

Q: I’m writing in the hope that you can help us secure the return of our deposits from a tour operator.

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My mother and I booked a wine tour in Spain through a company called The Unique Traveller that we found online. We each made a deposit of $881, which amounted to 30 percent of the cost of the trip. We weren’t presented with any terms and conditions, nor were the terms available on the tour operator’s Web site.

We asked to see a copy of the company’s terms, which stated that if we canceled fewer than 45 days before the tour, we would forfeit our deposits. I spoke with the owner of the company, and he agreed to modify the terms, allowing us to get a full refund of our deposits if we canceled after 45 days.

Several months later, I was laid off from the law firm I worked at. Then my mother lost her job. We can no longer afford the trip. But The Unique Traveller — despite agreeing to a refund — has refused to send us our money back. Can you help us? — Debra Hitti

A: If The Unique Traveller agreed to revise its terms, then you’re entitled to a full refund of your deposit.

I’m just not sure if it made that promise. I reviewed the correspondence between you, your mother, and Ramon Ramirez, the tour operator, and found that although he implied you would get your money back, his language was sufficiently vague to avoid a refund. How clever.

A tour — particularly an overseas tour — is something you should buy through a competent travel adviser. A good agent will know which tour operators are legit, and will also be familiar with their cancellation policies. I’d be wary of any online tour operator that isn’t upfront about its terms and conditions.

Even if your agent gives a tour operator a thumbs up, you still need to do a little homework. Membership in the United States Tour Operators Association is a positive sign. To become an active member, a tour operator is required to show references and carry at least $1 million in professional liability insurance.

The 30 percent deposit is a little high, but not out of order. I’ve seen deposit requirements as steep as 50 percent. Not disclosing any of its terms and conditions on its site, however, is troubling. I searched the tour operator’s Web site, and couldn’t find anything, either.

If The Unique Traveller didn’t disclose its terms before or after you booked, and only mentioned its rules after you had already forked over one-third of the cost of your vacation, then that should have sent up a few red flags. A call to your credit card company might have led you to conclude that this tour was worth canceling, whether you planned to go or not. (Credit card companies take a dim view of these “gotcha” policies, and tend to help their customers recover their money when there’s a dispute.)

Once you had to call off your trip, you were stuck with three options. First, dispute the charges on your credit card. Second, negotiate with the tour operator and hope for a satisfactory resolution. Or third, go to court to recover your deposit. You opted for number two, and you did right by keeping everything in writing. But I think language barriers kept your case from being fixed.

I contacted The Unique Traveller on your behalf. Ramirez insisted he never promised you a refund on your deposit, and initially agreed only to allow your deposit to be used for a future tour. Eventually, he refunded you $701 each, leaving you with a smaller loss.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler
magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs. org.

© 2010 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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