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Can a tour guide cancel your trip and refuse your refund request, too?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

What would you do if a belligerent tour guide canceled your trip and then refused to refund your deposit? It happened to this photographer. Here’s her frustrating story.


When coronavirus started closing down Italy, Meryl Silver wondered if it would force her to cancel her upcoming trip. She didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Soon, the private photographer who was hosting the Italy-based workshop announced he was “rescheduling” the event.

So, if the trip was canceled, why wouldn’t he refund her $1,200 deposit? 

Silver’s unpleasant tale will make you think twice about handing over cash deposits without a detailed contract. If you do, you’re risking not just your money, but as you’ll see in this case, maybe even your sanity.

Note: This article comes from our archived Tales from Consumer Advocacy Land. I first published Silver’s frustrating travel fiasco when it happened. The lessons contained in her experience remain as valid as ever today. 

Looking forward to a photography workshop in Italy 

Just before the pandemic hit the world, Silver read about a photography workshop in Milan and Lake Como. It looked like an excellent opportunity to see Italy and improve her landscape photography skills. So she contacted the photographer, Joe, who was hosting the workshop and paid the $1,200 deposit. Joe soon sent her a confirmation of her space in the program, and Silver made the rest of her travel arrangements.

She spent all winter happily anticipating her Italian photography adventure.

But then, in February, everything began to unravel. When the coronavirus first started spreading across Italy, Silver was alarmed. It became apparent that her guided Italian photography tour was in jeopardy.

Then, on March 9, in response to the increasing numbers of coronavirus cases, the Italian government announced a shocking lockdown.

“When the coronavirus closed Italy, I assumed that I might have to cancel the trip,” Silver explained. “But, I still had a little hope since our tour wasn’t set to begin until May 4.”

That would soon change.

A canceled trip, so where is the refund?

That little hope dissolved with the arrival of an email from Joe, the photography guide.

From the warning sent out by the CDC and current airline issues such as dropping flights, we just can’t ignore what’s happening in Italy, and specifically the Lombardy region where Milan is situated; and it’s not going to get better by this May.

Joe to his workshop participants

The announcement was carefully worded to avoid saying that Joe was canceling the tour. Instead, as many tour operators did at the time, he rebranded the trip cancellation as a “postponement.” Joe told his participants that he would be rescheduling the workshop for the following year — almost 14 months later.

At first, things remained cordial between Joe and Silver. She explained to him that if she canceled her flight, American Airlines would give her a credit that would expire before the next photography workshop. Silver asked Joe to just refund her deposit for the canceled tour. Her words seemed clear, but he pretended to miss her point. 

“I was just on hold for over 2 hours with American Airlines,” Silver explained to Joe. “The agent said I could only reschedule by sometime in October without a penalty.”

Here is Joe’s bizarre response:

“You deserve a glass of VERY good wine on me,” Joe answered. “… since we think so much alike!!!😂😂😂”

Confused by Joe’s answer, Silver tried again.

“Well, I’m thinking if I have to reschedule by the fall, I won’t be able to go with you next year,” Silver told him. “Is that what you are thinking?!!”

It wasn’t.

And that was the end of any friendly overtures between the two. Things were about to take a very ugly turn.

“You canceled this trip. Please refund my deposit!”

Silver spent the next few weeks trying to figure out what to do. She didn’t mind rescheduling the trip to Italy for the fall, but 14 months into the future seemed too precarious. Besides, she thought, why should Joe be able to hold onto her money for all that time? The $1,200 deposit only pertained to his personal fee for the workshop, which he canceled.

This time, without mincing words, Silver sent Joe a formal request for a refund of her deposit. In response, he claimed that he did her and the other tour members a favor by postponing instead of canceling. Joe told her that he would be entitled to keep all of their deposits outright if he had officially canceled. He encouraged her to read the cancellation policy for proof of this information.

I read the cancellation policy, and I did not cancel this trip. You can call it postponing, but I gave you a deposit for a trip in May of 2020 and not 2021. What if you did not “postpone” the trip, but I decided to postpone the trip? Would you have to take me on the trip on whatever days I decided?

Silver asking for the refund

She then told him that she still intended to go to Italy and didn’t cancel. Silver asked him if he would be there to give her the workshop.

You are canceling. I’m merely postponing so people don’t lose their deposits when they cancel. If you call that selfish, I’m sorry you feel that way.

You are the only one that has a problem, and everyone appreciates that I’m not taking their deposits and just creating a new workshop in 2021… which per the policy, would be in my rights.

Joe

Joe then forwarded Silver some emails from the other participants in which they agreed to the rescheduled trip.

Exasperated, Silver decided to send a request to my advocacy team to see if we might be able to help.

“Can this guy cancel my trip to Italy and keep my deposit?”

When Silver’s request for help landed on my desk, the coronavirus was causing our helpline to blow up. Some days, I answered up to 75 emails or more from distraught travelers. The pandemic was slamming every aspect of the travel industry. Each day, we saw new, creative ways for airlines, cruise lines, and other travel providers to avoid issuing refunds.

I was on a mission to warn consumers not to cancel their trips unless they could do so without penalty. These hastily made cancellations were unnecessarily costing travelers lots of money.

But this case was different. Silver still had her flights and hotel in place. She had not canceled the trip — although by now it seemed clear that coronavirus was going to make the journey impossible. But Joe had preemptively canceled the tour two months ahead of schedule. Now he wanted to keep his customers’ deposits for over a year. 

Those deposits were only meant to hold a space for a photography class that Joe intended to teach on specific dates. But now, because of the coronavirus, he couldn’t do it. He had canceled the trip for the dates originally agreed upon.

Finally, the tone between Silver and Joe in the paper trail would have made a future workshop quite unpleasant. A refund of the deposit seemed like a proper resolution. It was clear these two could never travel together.

But I needed to see that contract that Joe said allowed him to refuse to refund the deposits. And that’s when things turned even uglier.

What’s in that contract for this workshop in Italy?

We were contacted by one of your clients, Meryl Silver, who planned to attend your workshop in Italy in early May. Obviously, due to the coronavirus pandemic, you were forced to cancel that workshop. Ms. Silver says that she asked you to refund her deposit since she has no idea if and when she will be able to attend a future workshop. She says that you believe you’re entitled to keep her deposit.

Can you please provide the contract that allows you to keep the deposit of a client who booked a workshop that you have canceled? We’ll be publishing an article about her experience, and we would like to make sure that we represent both sides fairly. If you do not have a contract that allows you to keep her deposit, can you please refund Ms. Silver’s $1,200? Thank you!

Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer advocate

If you’re a regular reader of my column, then you know I always strive to be fair to both sides in my advocacy and reporting of the cases I mediate. But there are times when one side or the other is so defensive that mediation is virtually impossible. With the contentious nature of the earlier email exchanges between Silver and Joe, I thought this case might be a tough one.

I was right. Soon Joe answered me with a threat.

She has the cancellation policy, ask her for it. Be advised that I did not cancel but postponed because I did NOT want to keep the deposits, which was in my right to do so. All other participants were fine with it. Btw, I sent her all the other responses, and when the time comes, if necessary, I’m sure they will be willing to make a statement.

If you show me in any slanderous light, I will seek appropriate action against all parties… here in Houston.

Joe to Michelle

Then he sent the “contract” that he believed allowed him to keep the deposits.

This contract doesn’t say you can refuse to refund the deposit

The cancellation policy doesn't say that the tour operator can refuse to refund the deposit if he cancels the trip.
Nowhere in this cancellation policy is there a clause that allows the guide to refuse to refund the deposit if he is forced to cancel the trip.

I pointed out that this contract only discusses cancellations by the participants, not if he cancels the trip.

Joe was unconvinced and repeated that everyone else on this trip was OK with him retaining the deposits indefinitely. He also believed that, initially, Silver agreed to allow him to keep her deposit.

“I didn’t cancel the trip. This is a postponement.”

“I did not cancel,” Joe told me. “I’m fine with it being on the record, so scare tactics don’t bother me.”

It doesn’t matter if you think she was ok with you keeping the deposit. She isn’t. She needs the money back, and she asked you to refund it. You’ve rescheduled this workshop 14 months from now. Anything could happen during that time. Ms. Silver wants her money back. The right thing to do as a businessperson is to return the money for this particular client because you do not have a contract that allows you to keep it. I’m certain your lawyer will tell you that if you show him or her that contract. It’s great that all your other clients want to allow you to keep their deposits, but this particular client needs her money back. Thank you!

Michelle to Joe

That didn’t move Joe either.

I did a little research and discovered that Joe’s unpleasant demeanor doesn’t appear to have been inspired by the global pandemic. He has a history of turning on customers who don’t see things his way. Here’s a Yelp review from several years ago.

A one-star review on Yelp for this photographer, Negative reviews show this bad behavior isn't isolated.
Always read reviews before booking: This Yelp review shows the photographer has a history of turning on his customers in unprofessional and insulting ways.

At this point, I didn’t think further back and forth with Joe would be productive. I sent Silver another email and copied Joe and gave her a few additional avenues that she could use to try to get her deposit back from Joe. She certainly had no intention of ever going to one of his future workshops. I suggested filing a complaint with the attorney general in her state, and if that didn’t work, she might consider going to small claims court.

Then Joe threatened that he would file a lawsuit as well (he didn’t explain what his lawsuit would be about). And he started sending Silver insulting emails, which she forwarded to me. He told her he was 75 years old and wasn’t going to let her bully him into refunding her deposit.

This certainly hadn’t gone the way I had hoped. But then…

Surprise! Some additional insults and… your refund

Over the next week or so, Silver would copy me on emails that Joe continued to send. He told her that her photography skills were poor, and he repeated his intention to take her to court.

Then one morning, Silver opened her email to find yet another message from Joe. With trepidation, she opened it, expecting more insults. There were insults there, but also a surprise announcement of a refund.

Based on new findings and talking with friends that are doctors, it might take up to eighteen months for a vaccine. Therefore, I went ahead and canceled the workshop. Trust me it was not for you, or the threats, bullying, and scare tactics I received; I never gave them a second thought. It’s because of the people that have taken so many of my workshops, those are the only people I care about. If anything were to ever happen to me, I would want all of them to have their deposit. I will get back to them when it’s safe to re-schedule.

However, you were not included in my email, nor will I ever communicate with you ever again.

Joe in one last insulting message to Silver

Silver was incredulous. It was her greatest hope to never hear from him again.

One week later, Silver was relieved to find her refund check in her mailbox and she couldn’t be happier.

*I’ve intentionally left Joe’s last name out of this article to protect Silver from additional harassment. 

What to do if your travel provider cancels your trip and refuses your refund request

  • Make sure to read and understand your contract
    Remember, the terms and conditions of your contract will dictate whether you’re owed a refund if you (or the provider) cancels your trip. It’s always best to familiarize yourself with that document before there are any problems.
  • Follow these proven steps to resolve your consumer problem
    Bookmark Consumer Rescue’s comprehensive guide to fixing your own problems. Consumers can resolve most disputes on their own with those tips… as long as you’re dealing with a reasonable merchant.
  • Consider a credit card dispute
    Whenever possible, always pay for your travel plans with a credit card. The reason? The Fair Credit Billing Act can protect you when a merchant is unable or refuses to provide services as agreed. Your bank can investigate and retrieve your money if the facts are on your side. Of course, if you pay by cash or check, you do not have that same protection – as many Vantage Travel customers found out last summer. The safest payment method is always via credit card – even if your travel provider offers you discounts to use cash. 
  • File a complaint with the attorney general’s office in your state
    If you or your travel provider cancels your trip and the business won’t give you the refund you believe you’re owed, filing a complaint with your state’s attorney general’s office can often do the trick. That office is the highest legal authority in your state and will investigate your complaint. This often leads a company to correct a problem more quickly. Here’s how to find the AG’s office in your state. 
  • Ask Consumer Rescue for help
    Of course, if all else fails and you’re still left empty-handed, there is one more place to turn: Consumer Rescue. Our team is always here, ready to rescue you from your consumer problem – our help is always friendly and always free of charge! (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)
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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.