News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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February 4, 2014

When your tour operator flakes on you

NEW YORK — American European Travel's nine-day ancient Turkey tour looked like the perfect birthday gift for David Olson's wife, Barbara. With stops in Istanbul, Ephesus and Pamukkale, it fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting the old Ottoman Empire.

The Olsons learned about the trip through a brochure in The Washington Post. The AET insert bore the newspaper's logo, so they assumed that The Post endorsed the tour and would stand behind it if something went wrong.

And then, something went wrong.

Just a few days before their departure, the couple received an apologetic email from the tour operator, explaining that it had encountered "unexpected software problems" that had caused it to overbook flights with its preferred airline. Their Turkey trip had been canceled. AET offered them a new tour or a full refund - a refund that, in their case and several others, took far longer than expected to arrive.

This incident and others like it underscore the importance of researching a tour before booking and knowing who will help if things go sideways, as they sometimes do.

A cursory online search might have sent up a few red flags. The Better Business Bureau says that it's reviewing AET's rating after receiving "numerous complaints." A lengthy thread on the online review site TripAdvisor, where some of the content had mysteriously been deleted, might have raised eyebrows. And a posting on a popular forum for frequent fliers from 2012 asked, "Is this a scam?"

Ala German, an AET spokeswoman, said that the company exercises "no influence" over its online reviews. "We totally understand that a customer who is unsatisfied about a situation starts working on a way to be heard," she added. But she pointed out that there were also many positive comments about the company.

Newspaper inserts such as the ones that Olson and others saw are the product of an advertising relationship. A company such as AET independently publishes a brochure, which includes the newspaper's logo. In exchange for each lead generated by the flyer, an advertiser typically pays the newspaper a referral fee. But generally, publications don't vet these advertisers, nor do they vouch for their products.

When AET customers requested a refund and the money failed to appear, despite repeated assurances from the tour operator that it would, no one should have been surprised that customers like the Olsons began phoning The Washington Post to inquire about their missing money.

Barbara Olson, a retired nursing professor from Waldorf, Md., says that she first made "numerous calls" to AET. "I was told that my refund was a priority," she said. But almost two months had already gone by, and AET still had her $1,468.

AET's German admitted that some of the refunds had hit a snag, but the company was trying to fix the problem, she said. The issue, she said, was that it was working with a new credit card processor. While a simple refund to a credit card could be handled quickly, if people wanted refunds by check or cash, that needed to be processed manually through a wire transfer or PayPal, which was taking time.

"The majority of affected customers have received the full refund," she said.

But not Sheri Herbert, who had planned to take the same trip to Turkey with her husband, Frank. The retired couple from Cambridge, Md., had been waiting weeks for their $2,566 refund, and the back-and-forth between AET and the Herberts, documented in a series of emails, was becoming maddening. The company would promise an expeditious refund, but the money wouldn't show up, leading to another series of increasingly frustrating exchanges.

Oddly, while these delays may seem lengthy, they aren't unusual. Although most travel refunds take place within a week, it's not uncommon to wait four to six weeks to get your money back. In some extreme cases, when multiple companies are involved, customers have been on "hold" a year or longer. While it's possible to take a shortcut by disputing the charge on a credit card bill with the credit card company, that choice isn't available to someone who paid by check or wired money. The only other option is to apply pressure - lots of pressure.

That's exactly what the Herberts did, in email after email. Their tour had been canceled Nov. 2, and when they contacted me in late December, they'd been going back and forth with AET for close to two months.

And they weren't alone. Several other Washington Post readers had called about AET, complaining of difficulties they'd experienced while booking the tours, which included not receiving confirmations when they expected them and slow refunds for canceled tours. The cases closely paralleled another set of AET complaints that the Chicago Tribune's consumer advocate, Jon Yates, investigated in late November. Yates was able to secure a refund for most of the travelers. The Tribune also terminated its advertising relationship with AET.

I contacted AET on behalf of the Herberts and the Olsons in late December. In early January, the company responded that it had refunded both customers' payments.

 But as it turned out, only one refund had reached its intended target. AET had sent the Herberts' money to the incorrect bank account. It took a few more weeks to straighten out the mistake. By mid-January, the Herberts had received all their money, minus an $80 fee. After I asked about that, AET refunded all but $25 to the Herberts' PayPal account, a resolution with which they were happy.

A Washington Post spokeswoman said that the paper had decided to re-evaluate its AET advertising relationship as a result of these incidents.

 "Our readers come first, and American European Travel has worked diligently with us to address reader concerns as quickly as possible," said Post spokeswoman Kristine Coratti. "While we understand that this was a one-time technical issue, following completion of the remaining previously scheduled trips to Turkey later this year, we will no longer be offering trips in partnership with AET."

 

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