Now that this experience has concluded, I wanted to share some advice for other travelers having problems getting refunds from this or any other similar tour company.
First of all, forget about complaining on Facebook or Twitter. Everyone is doing that, and all you will get is a generic reply without any actual resolution.
Scenario 1: The tour operator cancelled your tour due to COVID and is using the excuse of “force majeure” to dump a travel credit on you instead of giving you a proper refund.
In this unfortunate situation, your best bet is to immediately file a chargeback dispute through your credit card company for services not received. I’ve read through all the comments on Trafalgar’s Facebook page, and this method seems to be the most effective, though it can take several months to get your refund.
If you go this route, be sure to have all your documentation prepared to support your case, including your original contract and terms & conditions (I’ll abbreviate Terms & Conditions as T&C from here on out). Many of you booked your tours long ago before COVID was even a thing, and the original T&C likely do not even mention cancellations due to pandemics. The Travel Corporation, which includes Trafalgar, Contiki, Insight, and many other brands; Intrepid Tours; and G-Adventures are just a few of many tour operators who were all sneaky and changed their T&C in late March to add new restrictions for cash refunds due to COVID-like events. Several of these companies were applying the updated T&C to older bookings and only stopped doing so after being publicly shamed by the media on various internet outlets.
Next, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission stating that you were denied a refund when a previously agreed upon service was not delivered as promised. If your original T&C at the time of booking say nothing about refund ineligibility due to force majeure, be sure to mention that in your complaint.
Scenario 2: You proactively cancelled your tour ahead of time before it was affected by the Coronavirus related trip cancellations, and a refund is promised but the money doesn’t show up. This was the scenario I fell under.
In mid-May when my September trip was still scheduled to go, I assessed the situation and felt that the likelihood of my September Britain tour going as scheduled was somewhere in the neighborhood of 30%. That coupled with the new knowledge that Trafalgar was not doing refunds for COVID cancellations made it an easy decision to cancel for a refund. Only problem in my case is that the refund never made it back to me.
If this happens to you, file a chargeback dispute with your credit card company and explain to them that you already had the refund approved, but it was not deposited back to your credit card account in a timely fashion.
Next, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission stating that the tour company is in violation of 12 CFR 1026.12(e) which is a provision under the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that states that merchants based in the United States are required to issue a refund transaction within 7 business days of agreeing to the refund.
Note that in both of these scenarios, the ultimate solution is to go through your credit card company. Even if you fully paid for your tour 6 months ago, you can still dispute the charge since the service (group tour) that you purchased has not yet taken place.
It’s also helpful to both you and others to file a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, because that action gets the United States government involved, which is usually a swift kick in the teeth to encourage a corporation to comply with consumer regulations.
Scenario 3: You’re dealing with a civilized tour operator like Rick Steves or Road Scholar and get your cash back without any headaches. I’ve been very impressed with Rick Steves in particular in how they’ve handled this. Check out their statement here. “Want a travel credit or a transfer to a future tour? Well that’s too bad, because we’re giving you a full refund, you don’t even have to contact us, and you’ll have your money within 2 weeks.” It’s brilliant customer service, and you can bet your ass they will have repeat customers for life.
I hope this information is helpful for any of you stuck in a similar conundrum. As for my own travel plans, since it looks like international journeys are out for the foreseeable future, I’m planning a few domestic vacations later this summer. Hopefully things don’t get so bad here that I have to scrap those travels as well, but I made it a priority to only book places with generous cancellation policies in case plans need to change.
Update: a few days after I finished writing the above, Trafalgar ended up cancelling all tours through the end of November, which means hundreds of more unhappy people stuck with travel credits. Requesting a refund when I did turned out to be a good call.