Tahlequah Daily Press

Get the scoop!

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."

 

1
Text Only
Get the scoop!
  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 18, 2014

  • Why do wolves howl?

    Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves howl at the moon. Images of wolves with their heads upturned, singing at the night sky, are as unquestioned as a goldfish's three-second memory or a dog's color-blindness (both also myths).

    April 18, 2014

  • Biggest student loan profits come from grad students

    This week, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal government would earn roughly $127 billion from student lending during the next 10 years.

    April 18, 2014

  • Consumer spending on health care jumps as Affordable Care Act takes hold

    Nancy Beigel has known since September that she would need hernia surgery. She couldn't afford it on her $11,000 yearly income until she became eligible for Medicaid in January through President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

    April 18, 2014

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg Golf turns into snooze-fest without celebrities like Tiger and Phil

    The Masters lumbered on last week without two of pro golf's biggest names, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, and fans changed the channel. The PGA needs someone with star power if it's going to lure people back to the game.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Raw oysters spike U.S. rise in bacterial infections, CDC reports

    Raw oysters, so good with hot sauce, increasingly can carry something even more unsettling to the stomach: A bacteria linked to vomiting, diarrhea and pain.

    April 18, 2014

  • taylor.armerding.jpg Warren's populist pitch on student loans is off key

    Sen. Elizabeth Warren's populist rhetoric pumps up students about their loan burdens, but she conveniently neglects to mention the real problem - the exorbitant cost of college - much less how she's benefitted from those high prices.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • The case for separate beds

    The other night I slept on a twin bed in the guest room of the house I share with my husband and our two kids.
    It was the best night's sleep I've had in years.

    April 18, 2014

  • Doctors to rate cost effectiveness of expensive cancer drugs

    The world's largest organization of cancer doctors plans to rate the cost effectiveness of expensive oncology drugs, and will urge physicians to use the ratings to discuss the costs with their patients.

    April 16, 2014

  • To sleep well, you may need to adjust what you eat and when

    Sleep.  Oh, to sleep.  A good night's sleep is often a struggle for more than half of American adults.  And for occasional insomnia, there are good reasons to avoid using medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription.

    April 16, 2014

  • Low blood-sugar levels make for grousing spouses

    Husbands and wives reported being most unhappy with their spouses when their blood-sugar levels were lowest, usually at night, according to research released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Missing a meal, dieting or just being hungry may be the reason, researchers said.

    April 16, 2014

  • treadmill-very-fast.jpg Tax deduction for a gym membership?

    April marks another tax season when millions of Americans will deduct expenses related to home ownership, children and education from their annual tax bill. These deductions exist because of their perceived value to society; they encourage behaviors that keep the wheels of the economy turning. So why shouldn't the tax code be revised to reward preventive health?

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Victimized by the 'marriage penalty'

    In a few short months, I'll pass the milestone that every little girl dreams of: the day she swears - before family and God, in sickness and in health, all in the name of love - that she's willing to pay a much higher tax rate.

    April 15, 2014

  • Allergies are the real midlife crisis

    One of the biggest mysteries is why the disease comes and goes, and then comes and goes again. People tend to experience intense allergies between the ages of 5 and 16, then get a couple of decades off before the symptoms return in the 30s, only to diminish around retirement age.

    April 15, 2014

  • E-Cigarettes target youth with festivals, lawmakers say

    The findings, in a survey released Monday by members of Congress, should prod U.S. regulators to curb the industry, the lawmakers said. While e-cigarettes currently are unregulated, the Food and Drug Administration is working on a plan that would extend its tobacco oversight to the products.

    April 14, 2014

Poll

What to you think of a state Legislature proposal to forbid cities from raising the minimum wage? Choose the closest to your opinion.

The federal government should set the minimum wage across the board.
States should be allowed to raise their minimum wages, but not cities.
Both states and cities should be allowed to raise their minimum wages.
Cities should be allowed to raise their mimum wages, but not states.
There should be no minimum wage at all.
Undecided.
     View Results
Tahlequah Daily Press Twitter
Follow us on twitter
AP Video
Raw: More Than 100,000 Gather for Easter Sunday Raw: Greeks Celebrate Easter With "Rocket War" Police Question Captain, Crew on Ferry Disaster Raw: Orthodox Christians Observe Easter Rite Ceremony Marks 19th Anniversary of OKC Bombing Raw: Four French Journalists Freed From Syria Raw: Massive 7.2 Earthquake Rocks Mexico Captain of Sunken SKorean Ferry Arrested Raw: Fire Destroys 3 N.J. Beachfront Homes Raw: Pope Presides Over Good Friday Mass Raw: Space X Launches to Space Station Superheroes Descend on Capitol Mall Man Charged in Kansas City Highway Shootings Obama Awards Navy Football Trophy Anti-semitic Leaflets Posted in Eastern Ukraine Raw: Magnitude-7.2 Earthquake Shakes Mexico City Ceremony at MIT Remembers One of Boston's Finest Raw: Students Hurt in Colo. School Bus Crash Deadly Avalanche Sweeps Slopes of Mount Everest
Stocks