BBB Reports Drastic Increase in Travel Refund Complaints

The travel woes are especially hard on the schools and parents who had planned educational trips for students at the end of the school year

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The pandemic has hit the travel industry hard.

And if you had already booked a summer vacation, you're probably feeling the pain, too.

The Better Business Bureau is getting a huge increase in complaints about travel companies and their refund policies. We’re told hundreds have been filed in North Texas alone.

The travel woes are especially hard on the schools and parents who had planned educational trips for students at the end of the school year.

For example, International Leadership Texas, a charter school with multiple locations across Texas, had so many students excited for trips next month to places like New York, Washington, D.C. and Costa Rica for 7th, 8th and 11th grade students.

But the pandemic ruined those plans and parents are figuring out how to get their money back or be guaranteed their money can go toward a future school trip with the travel company, EF Educational Tours. Those who wanted a full refund would be able to get all of their money back, minus $1,000 for a cancellation fee.

"I don't know anybody that has an extra thousand bucks in their back pocket that they can toss around. I know we certainly don't, and we’re a family of five," said a parent who didn’t want to reveal her name but spoke to NBC 5 about her experience. “I have not received anything for what I’ve paid for.”

She’s just one of the hundreds of local parents feeling that way right now. She said she paid nearly $3,000 upfront to travel company EF Educational Tours for her son's high school trip to Costa Rica and also purchase travel insurance but found out the fine print, legally does not cover pandemics.

“I feel as though I have to jump through hoops, I feel as though it’s not a straightforward easy process,” she said. “I feel like we’re getting punished. Like it’s a punishment. I’ve got other things to do, I’ve got kids at home that I’m homeschooling.”

Parents have several other options if they want to keep their investment in the trip intact, including getting a travel voucher that lasts two and half years, transferring the voucher to another child for another trip, or transferring the voucher to another family.

However, for those parents who have children graduating next year or who do not have another child qualifying for a trip in the next two years, those vouchers might not be feasible. The vouchers also count toward non-educational trips if the whole family wants to use it, but some have said the financial strain in the economy and job loss might not make that the best option right now.

Luckily, the school said they have been working out more solutions with the company and was able to cut that cancellation fee by more than half.

What can travelers do?

The Better Business Bureau said these experiences highlight the bigger issue the travel industry is facing right now.  

“It’s been a challenge. What we’ve been telling people is to just be patient and try your hardest to work with those companies specifically. Everybody knows that when this is over, the companies are still going to need customers,” said Phylissia Clark, VP of Public Relations for the BBB Serving North Central Texas. "Be cognizant of the fact that the businesses are doing this balancing act and are trying to do their best to make consumers happy. But it can be very, very difficult if they want to keep the lights on in their doors open,” Clark said.

Be persistent. It might take a lot of negotiating but companies are making adjustments to honor refunds as the situation develops.

“They may be willing to bend whatever the contract says to try and fix customer service disputes,” said Clark.

If that doesn't work, dispute charge to your bank.

“They have to give you an itemized receipt for everything that you’ve spent money on if they try to charge you,” said Clark. “It’s worth asking the company to provide you all of the documents and have all the proof things have been spent. And just be persistent, continue to have a dialogue with those companies.”

And if all else fails, file a complaint to BBB or Attorney General's Office.

“Let us know that this company is not honoring their refund policy or isn’t working with you,” said Clark. “Because in some instances these could be deceptive means.”

When it comes to travel insurance, Clark explained why many policies are not covering the cancellations and claims are being denied.

“The real problem is that typically in those contracts there’s something called a force majeure. It says in the event that there’s some type of disaster – which typically will mean a hurricane or a tornado or some weather event that’s going to stop something from happening – typically it will trigger that clause and you will get a refund because everyone understands that is out of people’s control,” said Clark. “But the difficulty now is whether or not a global pandemic constitutes one of those situations. Because nobody will have written a ‘global pandemic’ verbally or into the terms and conditions of a contract because it wasn’t top of mind for anyone. So it’s arguable right now, legally, whether or not those closets get triggered.”

At the end of the day, Clark said everyone is struggling across the board.

“The types of companies that provide the services that are being canceled are suffering financially. In a lot of cases these are very reputable companies that want to work with you, but they are balancing keeping a payroll going for their employees, trying not to lay people off and dealing with their expenses,” she said.

EF Educational Tours says cancellation fees exist because travel companies book large volumes of group flights, hotels and tour fees in advance, an investment that comes with its own set of costs.

The company issued the following statement to NBC 5 with the information they are sharing with parents of the school trip and other travelers right now.

The health and safety of our travelers and staff has been our top priority for more than 55 years. We are closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation, are in constant communication with our offices around the world, and are actively following the guidance of all relevant authorities.

The long-term impact of the COVID-19 virus on global travel is unclear, and the situation remains fluid and is changing on a daily basis. Given these circumstances, we are now offering our tour groups with travel plans through May 31 a cash refund (less $1,000 per person) as an alternative to transferable travel vouchers, which, of course, also remain an option. 

We are also continuing to adjust our Peace of Mind program and its flexible rebooking options, our voucher program, and our cancellation policies by instituting fee freezes and expanded timelines for cancelling or rebooking a tour.

Specifically, we are now offering our travelers the below expanded options.  You can see more details about how travel vouchers work here.  We also have general and voucher specific FAQs here and here

All travelers with trips through May 31 will automatically receive a transferable travel voucher for the full amount paid (including all typically non-refundable payments) good through September 30, 2022. 

  • Travel vouchers may be used by individual travelers toward any EF product including tours for adults and young adults, language travel programs, and a new suite of tours we have designed specifically for graduating seniors.
  • The full amount of the travel voucher is also transferable to anyone else in a traveler’s family or school community.   
  • Individuals or groups may also exchange their voucher for a cash refund less $1,000 per person.  The $1,000 fee allows us to partially cover costs related to non-refundable payments to suppliers and staff, while funding the flexible rebooking options in our Peace of Mind program. 

For travelers departing June 1 or later, please know that all tours remain scheduled as planned.  Depending on how the current situation evolves, we are committed to offering similar options.  We are advising individuals and groups that have expressed interest in traveling before the end of the year to delay cancelling for the time being.  

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