By Travel columnist
updated 9/19/2005 4:51:46 PM ET 2005-09-19T20:51:46

It was to have been the vacation of a lifetime -- a trip to Peru followed by a cruise of the Galápagos Islands on a small yacht. But when the yacht becomes a bigger vessel, Howard Seltzer's privacy goes overboard. Now he wants a refund from the tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel. Is he entitled to any money back after the company swaps his ship?

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Q: My wife and I recently traveled to Peru and Ecuador on a tour arranged by Overseas Adventure Travel. We paid $4,400 per person for a voyage to the Galápagos Islands on a private-charter boat with the understanding there would be no more than 16 passengers.

Our visit to Peru went well. But when we arrived in Ecuador, we were told by an Overseas Adventure Travel representative that the private boat was not available and we would instead be aboard a 101-passenger boat that just happened to have exactly eight cabins available for the 16 of us, thereby completely filling the boat.

That’s when our trip turned into a nightmare. There were endless announcements in four languages. There were now eight groups instead of just our 16 folks disembarking and embarking twice a day. Instead of having a nice, quiet shore excursion or snorkeling experience twice a day (as advertised), we shared everything and all areas with 85 other people.

The meals were chaotic — very crowded and noisy, at best. The boat was too big to access some of the more secluded areas advertised for the chartered boat. We were not able to have the intimate gatherings with our fellow travelers we had looked forward to because the boat was crowded everywhere.

We paid for a customized charter trip and we ended up with a canned tour similar to those offered by dozens of companies.

We wrote letters and sent e-mails to Overseas Adventure Travel complaining of the switched ship. At first we were ignored. Then we were told there would be no compensation. It’s our understanding that some passengers on that cruise have been offered $250 vouchers. Can you help us get something?

— Howard Seltzer,Albuquerque, N.M.

A: This certainly looks like a bait-and-switch, one of the most enduring scams in the travel industry. What’s worse, Overseas Adventure Travel’s responses have made you feel that the company has not acted in good faith.

But were you scammed?

I’m not so sure. I checked with Overseas Adventure Travel, and the company confirmed that it changed ships — but only after it learned that your original vessel had developed engine trouble. “We scrambled to secure a safe, small ship substitute, but given that it was high season and the availability of small, safe ships was limited, we booked the only high-quality boat we could find: Legend, a luxury boat with a 100-passenger capacity,” said spokeswoman Priscilla O’Reilly.

The question is: Can the company do that? A close look at its terms and conditions reveals the answer: Yes, it can. The terms state that Overseas Adventure Travel reserves the right to “substitute, without previous notice, a comparable or superior vessel.”

The company did not answer your e-mails and letters because of what it called a “staffing shortage,” which has, in the meantime, been remedied. But, based on the letters you sent to me, I can think of another reason why Overseas Adventure Travel was a little slow getting back to you: Your tone was a bit aggressive.

There’s an art to writing a successful complaint letter. It has to be concise, polite and firm — without coming across as threatening. Your letters got only one out of three right: They were certainly firm.

Equipment substitutions like this are unavoidable. But you can — and should — let a crewmember know of your unhappiness before you board. Often, the staff can issue you a voucher or upgrade your cabin on the spot. Beyond that, it helps to write a focused letter to the company when you return.

After I brought your case to Overseas Adventure Travel’s attention, it not only offered you a $500 credit for a future trip, but also did the same for the 45 other travelers on three departures that were affected by the ship change.

“We realize we need to inform our passengers of that possibility, no matter how infrequently it may occur, in the description of the trip in our promotional materials,” O’Reilly said. “In future promotions, we will include a note stating we may use a larger ship in instances when a safe, small ship is unavailable.”

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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