The coronavirus hit the travel industry hard, forcing many to cancel plans. NBC 5 Responds has received dozens of complaints from families who say EF Tours, a travel company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is charging them a cancellation fee to get their money back, even though they purchased travel insurance through the company when they booked the trip.
“We were going to go to a Broadway show in New York and Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building and all of the museums and stop by the White House, said Melinda Denton of Frisco. "Everything you'd want to pack in a six-day trip.”
The Denton family spent more than seven months planning for a spring break adventure for their son Noah and 45 classmates.
“It was about $7,800 for the three of us,” Denton said.
A week before their March trip, the travel company postponed their vacation to June because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had received communications from EF Tours saying they've traveled for 50 years," Denton said. "That they've gone through many pandemics and delivered students safely and we felt really confident that there wouldn't be an issue."
She said she'd purchased a travel protection plan for extra peace of mind.
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“For me, I thought that was a good description of what we'd get. We'd be protected in case the trip was canceled,” Denton said.
By April, EF Tours had canceled the trip and offered the family three options:
The first was travel vouchers for the full value of the trip that would be good through September 2022. The second, was the ability to transfer the vouchers to another family or student, and the third was a refund, minus a cancellation fee of $750 per ticket.
“We need our money now, I don't think it's fair to hold our money,” Denton said.
She and her family are not alone.
NBC 5 Responds has received more than 40 complaints from across the country about both EF Educational Tours, the company's international division, and EF Explore American, its domestic travel division.
Complaints have been filed in several states including, Texas, New York, California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, where the company is located.
EF Tours issued the following statement to NBC 5 Responds.
“The health and safety of our travelers and staff have been our top priority for more than 55 years. Our singular focus during this time has been to provide our customers with the best and most flexible rebooking and refund options to protect their full investment in our tours.
"Since the announcement of the March 11 travel restrictions, we have offered every customer the chance to move their tour to another date, thereby protecting every dollar of their investment. At this time, the majority of our 2020 tour groups have opted to accept flexible travel vouchers, allowing them to rebook their educational tours at no penalty or added cost. Vouchers include the value of all tour-related costs (including those that are typically non-refundable); they are transferable within a family or school community; applicable toward a variety of EF travel products; and good through September 30, 2022. At any time prior to that date, customers may exchange their voucher for a cash refund option.
"For customers who prefer a cash refund, we are returning every dollar that we have not already spent on planning their tours. As soon as we book a tour, preparations begin, often several years in advance of the departure date. Our staff invest thousands of hours every year planning and iterating the details of every tour to ensure they are the best, safest, and most meaningful experiences for the students and educators who travel with us.
"For trips departing prior to May 15, we are refunding everything less $1,000. For trips departing on or after May 15, we are refunding everything less $500. Both of these refund policies cover only a partial amount of the costs EF has already incurred for each tour. While we have no insurance to cover these losses nor have we received any government bailout money, we are committed to continuing our negotiations with third party suppliers in an effort to return further vendor savings to our travelers.
"We understand that the public health and economic impacts of this crisis are severe, and we are doing everything we can to support the families and individuals who were planning to travel with us. We are also being responsible about business resilience in order to continue serving the vast majority of travelers who are looking forward to exploring the world in the future.”
“I stressed that I did not cancel the trip, that they canceled the trip. So I didn't feel like I should bear the weight of any fees,” Denton said.
When the Dentons booked their trip last August, they added a travel protection plan for $99 per person and believed their trip would be protected if something happened. Denton said she never received a contract for the insurance, but she assumed she was covered for anything unexpected.
"A lot of travelers are finding out their travel insurance isn't going to apply in a pandemic,” said Melanie Lieberman, a travel expert and senior editor for The Points Guy.
Lieberman said consumers will expect more openness on travel policies.
“I think it’s [the pandemic] going to change the travel insurance industry as well. Travelers are going to demand more transparency and travelers are going to expect to see that without having to dig for it. They want to know what they’re getting and what they're paying for,” she said.
And Denton said she hoped others could learn from her family’s experience.
“I would urge all families, in the future, to read the travel insurance and what it actually covers, because this is something that I never thought would happen,” she said.
The Dentons have joined a class action lawsuit against EF Education Tours International, along with about 60 other families across the United States.
One of the Dentons' three tickets was put on a credit card, which allowed them to file a dispute. At the moment, they’ve been given a conditional credit.
EF Tours provided the following information about cancellation fees.
- Trips scheduled to depart prior to May 15 with air travel: Cash refund option equal to all monies paid to EF, less $750.
- Trips scheduled to depart May 15 and beyond with air travel: Cash refund option equal to all monies paid to EF, less $350.
- Trips scheduled to depart March 1 and beyond with bus travel: Cash refund option equal to all monies paid to EF, less $250
- Trips scheduled to depart prior to May 15: Cash refund option equal to all monies paid to EF, less $1,000.
- Trips scheduled to depart May 15 and beyond: Cash refund option equal to all monies paid to EF, less $500.