Confusion remains high for the former customers of the bankrupt tour operator Vantage Deluxe World Travel. The legalese in each notification from the bankruptcy court invariably brings a new wave of bewilderment for those unsecured creditors.
That confusion has now reached a fever pitch. In the past month, hundreds of Vantage Travel customers have formally “opted out” of the only sure thing they’ll receive from the bankruptcy: future travel credits provided by Aurora Expeditions.
This sudden influx of requests to reject those travel credits is rooted in a general misunderstanding of what opting out actually means in this situation.
Throughout the past year, my team at Consumer Rescue has been on a mission to provide factual information and support to the victims of Vantage Travel’s bankruptcy.
We’ve fielded thousands of questions, attended nearly every bankruptcy hearing, reviewed hundreds of documents, investigated odd challenges to valid credit card disputes, and directly facilitated the return of hundreds of thousands of dollars to former customers of Vantage Deluxe World Travel.
As a result, I can say it’s absolutely ill-advised for former customers to give up their travel credits right now. There is no benefit to anyone to reject what was awarded to them via the bankruptcy proceedings thus far.
Let me explain.
What did Vantage Travel customers get out of the bankruptcy?
To understand what’s going on today, you have to understand what’s already happened. For those unfamiliar with the Vantage Travel bankruptcy, here is a quick recap.
When Vantage Travel went bankrupt, it owed nearly 10,000 customers refunds and/or travel protection payments. The grand total owed? A stunning $108 million. That’s money that, in all likelihood, is gone and will never be recovered.
However, there was a small light at the end of the bankruptcy tunnel for Vantage Travel customers.
In August, Pacific Travel Partners won the bid in bankruptcy court to purchase the remnants of Vantage Travel.
Of particular value to Aurora Expeditions, the parent company of the newly formed Pacific Travel, was Vantage’s customer list. As per the sale agreement, Vantage Travel customers will receive future travel credits equal to the value of the refund owed to them at the time of the bankruptcy.
Those future travel credits can be used, with limitations as outlined in the sale agreement approved by the bankruptcy court.
Pacific Travel Partners bought the remnants of Vantage Deluxe World Travel in bankruptcy court
You can read the specific details of Pacific Travel’s purchase of the remnants of Vantage Travel in my report. But here’s the abbreviated summary:
- The travel credits, issued by Aurora Expeditions, are equal to 100 percent of what Vantage Travel owed to each customer.
- The expiration date on the travel credits is Nov. 30, 2028.
- The credits can be used to pay for up to 50 percent of the cost of a non-discounted ocean cruise with Aurora Expeditions or with Pacific Travel (which is operating as Vantage Explorations).
- Although there are no river cruises available today, these are planned for the future. Credits can be used to pay for up to 20 percent of the cost of these trips.
- At this time, Vantage Explorations has added some new “trekking” adventures to the line up. Vantage Travel customers can use their credits to pay for up to 20 percent of the cost of these tours.
- Customers can continue to redeem their credits as per the agreement until the credits are exhausted or expired.
- These credits are transferable. That is to say, they can be given away to friends and family, but they can’t be sold.
- Under no circumstances will these credits be converted to a cash refund.
Vantage Travel customers hoped for a refund
As far as bankruptcy outcomes go for consumers, this one is considered better than most. In fact, the original bidder for the customer list of Vantage Travel intended only to provide former customers a one time opportunity to pay for up to 20 percent of a future journey with credits. As I discussed with Jason Law at Boston 25 last August, the final sale agreement is a decidedly better deal than was first expected for Vantage customers.
But, of course, every Vantage customer was hoping to receive a full cash refund or a replacement trip at no additional cost.
Logically, that would be fair. Unfortunately, that isn’t how bankruptcy works.
Vantage Deluxe World Travel no longer exists and there isn’t any money to provide refunds to customers.
It has been very hard for Vantage Travel customers to come to terms with the harsh reality of the situation. The bankrupt tour operator owes secured and unsecured creditors (customers) nearly $170 million. There is no money to pay that tab. If there was, Vantage wouldn’t have gone out of business in the first place.
Further, Aurora Expeditions is not affiliated with Vantage Travel and did not agree to take on its $170 million debt.
But despite this fact, on nearly a daily basis, I receive requests from Vantage Travel customers asking how they can choose a refund instead of credits.
The blunt answer is: You can’t.
It seemed we were making progress getting that message across to the former customers… until last month.
That’s when a new wrinkle was added to this consumer catastrophe and reignited the flame of confusion.
Will a Consumer Deposit Claim lead to a refund for Vantage Travel customers?
At the end of December, Vantage Travel claimants received a notice from the Bankruptcy Court. It informed them of the Court’s approval of the company’s liquidation plan. That notice also provided customers with an address where they could inform the Creditor Trustee that they had decided to waive the travel credit and take a distribution under the plan.
U.S. Bankruptcy Court to former customers of Vantage Deluxe World Travel
This wording led many recipients to erroneously assume they were now in line for a cash “distribution.” That is as long as they waived their rights to their travel credits.
So that’s exactly what hundreds of former Vantage Travel customers immediately did in their confusion.
What does this notice really mean?
As a consumer advocate and reporter, I’ve followed the unraveling of Vantage Travel for years –and reported on the situation to many media outlets. I’m not unfamiliar with legal jargon and I thought I had a firm grasp of all the details of the bankruptcy proceedings. But this blurb confused even me. When I started receiving excited emails from Vantage customers who hoped I could interpret it, I couldn’t.
So I went to the Debtor’s attorney, Michael Goldberg and the Trustee of the bankruptcy estate, Stephen Gray, for clarification.
What follows is a summary (in layman’s terms) of my interview via Zoom with Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Gray. We discussed the details of the priority claims and what opting out really means to Vantage Travel customers.
Note: For the sake of clarity: The legal counsel of both the Debtor and the Trustee have reviewed and fact-checked the next sections.
Who qualifies for a priority claim in this bankruptcy?
At the end of last year, Judge Bostwick approved an order that would possibly provide some limited refunds to Vantage Travel customers who had filed “Priority Claims.” But there are multiple stipulations and limitations to this “Consumer Deposit Claim” order. Here are the bullet point takeaways:
- To be eligible, a Vantage customer must have already filed a 410 Notice of Claim with the bankruptcy court, expressly claiming priority treatment.
- Legally, the cap on a priority claim is $3,350. But in the vast majority of cases the deposit amount required by Vantage was only $500 or $1,000 per customer. The only dollar figure the Court will consider as a priority claim in this bankruptcy case, is the initial deposit.
- Customers who paid for their travel arrangements in full do not qualify for a priority claim.
- The only situation in which Vantage customers are entitled to a priority claim is where they made only an initial deposit, but did not prepay for the trip in full. For example, if a customer’s trip cost $40,000 and they made an initial deposit of $500 and then subsequently paid the remaining balance of $39,500, they would have no priority claim for any amount.
- All Vantage Travel customers who timely filed a priority claim have until June 30, 2025 to determine whether they should opt out or keep their credits.
- It is highly unlikely that there will be any cash distribution on claims before the third quarter of 2025.
Where will the money come from to pay priority claims?
Oh, one last critical part of the above equation: There is currently no money to distribute. The only way any priority claims will be processed is if Mr. Gray, the trustee, can recover money to do so.
Some of those funds will come from Vantage’s remaining assets – for example, funds currently being held in reserve by the company’s credit card processors and bank, or insurance claims. Some recoveries may depend on Mr. Gray bringing litigation, which has an uncertain outcome. But the bottom line is that the recovery process will need more time before payments to customers can be determined.
How a Vantage Travel customer can check if they qualify for a Priority Claim
If you’re unsure if you filed a priority claim or if you qualify, here’s how to quickly find out:
- Did you pay off your trip in full? If you did, then you don’t qualify and you don’t need to go to the next step.
- Go to the Vantage Travel claims page in Stretto.
- In the search field, type in your last name and find your 410 Form.
- Click on the plus sign and see if there is a dollar amount in the priority claim field. If there isn’t then you don’t qualify for priority claim status.
The vast majority of the hundreds of Vantage customers who opted out of thousands and thousands of dollars in travel credits in the past several weeks do not qualify for a priority claim. Which leads me to believe that most of those people opted-out because they didn’t understand the notice.
The reality is that the number of Vantage customers who qualify as a priority claimant is miniscule. In fact, I recently randomly checked over 100 claims in Stretto and not even one person qualified.
What is the real value of the travel credits?
There is another segment of Vantage Travel customers who are opting out because they misunderstand the value of their credits. Too many times to count, I’ve found posts in our private Facebook group, received emails or phone calls from customers with sizable credits who tell me they’re “worthless.”
This almost always stems from the customer’s misunderstanding as to how they can spend their credits. This confusion leads to a poorly constructed math equation.
To determine whether you want to keep or reject your travel credits, it is crucial to “do the math,” correctly.
A frequent misunderstanding among Vantage customers is that they can only spend 50 percent of their credits on each trip. If that were true, it would make it quite difficult to get any real value out of these credits.
But that isn’t the case.
Pay for up to half your cruise with travel credits
Vantage Travel customers can use credits to pay for up to 50 percent of the cost of an ocean cruise with Aurora Expeditions or Vantage Explorations. That means if they’ve got $10,000 in credits, they can spend it all on one trip as long as the base cost is more than $20,000.
Of course, if you’ve got a very low value travel credit, you may not find any real benefit to spending it with the new company.
The other frequent complaint I receive is that Aurora Expeditions only takes passengers to cold weather climates.
While that is historically true, the cruise line is currently expanding their geographical coverage. The company is adding destinations to their schedules via Vantage Explorations with more itineraries on the way. You can review all the newest cruises which expand into warm weather climates in Europe and Latin America on the Vantage Explorations website.
Vantage Explorations is a brand new company, just launching. And the good news is that those credits are good for 5 years. That will give Vantage Explorations plenty of time to develop into a tour operator more closely aligned with the former company in terms of trips.
And don’t forget, you can give those travel credits away as gifts as well.
The bottom line for Vantage Travel bankruptcy victims
No Vantage Travel customer should feel compelled to make a decision about opting out at this time.
There is no rush and there is zero benefit to rejecting those credits (or using them) in 2024. No one is getting an express ticket to the head of some mythical Vantage Travel refund line by opting out. And, by waiting until the June 30, 2025 deadline for opting out, Vantage customers can see how the Aurora Expeditions /Vantage Explorations trip schedules develop in the coming months.
Every Vantage Travel customer has until June 30, 2025 to take a breath, let things settle, thoroughly read through all the documents and articles, ask questions and then make a decision about those credits. Formally opting out is legally binding and is a decision that shouldn’t be made hastily, because it can’t be changed later.
If you’re a Vantage Travel customer who believes you made a mistake opting out in the past several weeks, you can contact me or Mr. Gray, the trustee, for a limited time to reset your decision.
Mr. Gray intends to reach out to all of the Vantage customers who opted out directly, to assist anyone who does want to change their opt-out decision. He has emphasized to me his desire to make sure that the Vantage customers get the most from their claims under the current circumstances of the bankruptcy case.(Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)