Travel Troubleshooter: Tour firm pockets an airfare refund

Posted: August 12, 2012

Question: My wife and I have traveled for more than 45 years together with no real problem with tour agencies and travel companies, including many Third World countries and remote places - until now. We were returning from a tour of India, and due to weather in London, our flight was canceled by British Airways.

We were able to make alternate arrangements with Air India for a direct flight to the United States, since British Airways did not resume flights for three days. British Airways refunded our flight to the tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel. But the tour operator claims it is their policy not to refund this to us because it is part of a land-plus-air package.

Our travel-insurance company paid us for all the expenses we incurred, but not the cost of the flight, since they said we should be reimbursed by Overseas Adventure Travel.

I have talked several times to a representative from Overseas Adventure Travel, but they say this is their policy. Before I consult a lawyer, I would like your comment. - Donald Kne,

Chagrin Falls, Ohio

Answer: OK, here's my comment: It's your money. Overseas Adventure Travel should return it. Immediately.

If British Airways refunded the unused portion of its flight to your tour operator, it shouldn't pocket the money. But here's the problem: Airlines typically don't offer refunds on nonrefundable tickets when there's a weather-related delay. But in this particular instance, BA bent its own rules and offered a refund.

The Overseas Adventure Travel representative with whom you spoke didn't believe BA would do that. She thought you'd made alternate arrangements to come home and were asking for a refund to which you weren't entitled.

A company representative told me that they were unaware of the refund in their system and that the phone agent was simply repeating the policy that it couldn't refund a nonrefundable airline ticket.

Putting your grievance in writing might have changed the answer, forcing Overseas Adventure Travel either to consult with BA or to check with its own accounts-receivable department, both of which would have readily confirmed the refund. Instead, you reached a representative who just parroted company policy.

For what it's worth, I don't think Overseas Adventure Traveler would have kept your money. If you'd asked an attorney to send a letter to the company, it would have coughed up a refund quickly.

How to avoid a situation like this? You could have either asked British Airways to refund your ticket directly to you at the time of the cancellation, and if it couldn't, to verify in writing that it had sent the money to your tour operator. Sending Overseas Adventure that documentation might have persuaded it to do the right thing.

None of that should have been necessary. The company should have sent you a check for the refund as soon as it had the money.

"Clearly, we didn't communicate well internally on this one," a spokeswoman told me. Overseas Adventure Travel refunded you $882 for the unused airline tickets.


Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the cofounder of the Consumer Travel Alliance.

E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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