How to get money back when a trip turns toxic

October 31 2012 by Ellen Roseman

Air Canada Vacations turned down a claim by an older couple, who flew home from Cuba after finding their hotel was overbooked. It appealed the couple’s win in small claims court and had the decision reversed in a higher court, saddling them with $9,500 in legal costs.

My column surprised and shocked many readers, who thought tour operators had to give refunds to clients if they couldn’t fulfill their promises. In a follow-up today, I said there actually was such an obligation under Ontario’s Travel Industries Act.

The Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) is trying to raise its profile, using videos to drive home the message that you can get refunds for services paid for and not received.

TICO can help you pursue your travel complaints, though it has no power to resolve them.

I handle many travel complaints and I find that most companies don’t give money back easily. They offer a small discount on a future trip, and if you fight back, they offer a larger discount. They want you to come back for another holiday.

But if you had a bad experience, the last thing on your mind is dealing with the same company again. The result: Your voucher for a future trip may not be used. Or it may expire, since there’s usually a one-year deadline.

I’m posting advice below from people who travel all the time. They have some ideas on what to do when a tour operator or travel agent lets you down.


  1. PA

    Oct 31 2012

    In Ontario, the tour operator has to notify the client no later than 48 hours before departure of any changes, especially accommodation.

    They have to offer you an equal or better substitution, refund or alternate vacation package — not necessarily the same travel dates.

    Reputable tour companies and resorts honour this legal requirement under the Travel Industry Act.

    The Supreme Court of Ontario vs. Hola Sun judgment extends that authority of Ontario contract law to foreign destinations when the tour operator is an Ontario company and the tour is booked here.

    Hola Sun tried to argue that they had NO control over their foreign partners, who are supposed to honour their tour packages. The Supreme Court said they come under the umbrella of the Ontario company’s agreement with them.

    Otherwise, it would be impossible to impose travel standards on foreign companies because the complainants would have to travel back to the destination, then determine whether or not there was authority in that jurisdiction.

    When dealing with substitutions for accommodation, I suspect the tour operators usually try to claim no knowledge of the resort arbitrarily making changes.

    The traveller should ask for proof in writing about when the decision to make changes was made. And they should ask the tour operator the same thing.

    In my case, Hola Sun claimed they got a “last minute” fax advising of changes. When I got their office manager on the stand, the story fell apart.

    There are exceptions under the Travel Industry Act. Outside bus tours, independent local operators offering various services, taxis, local restaurants etc., are all exempt for obvious reasons.

    Also, natural disasters (mainly weather), which are acts of God, are outside the mandate of the law.

    READ THE FINE PRINT: Get out your magnifying glass, because most travel ads have fine print at the bottom describing the details the tour operator wants travellers to know.

    In my case with Hola Sun, they give their address and suggest you write to them in order to get their travel magazine, which (in part) describes their version of the travel conditions you agree to when you book a tour package.

    There may be some question about the validity of those conditions if challenged before the courts.

    Indeed, I noticed changes in Hola Sun’s fine print wording after my case.

  2. AM

    Oct 31 2012

    It surely has happened to me that I have arrived somewhere – specially in the Caribbean – and the hotel was oversold or I got the room over the garbage cans.

    You fix the problem there – even moving to another hotel. Tour operator rep should be able to help. Air Canada Vacations is tops!

    Of course, this couple had booked through Sell Off Vacations. This implies it was last minute, does it not? Perhaps the hotel never got the booking on time to advise the room was not available.

    In the original article, it was most upsetting that you did not mention TICO at all. A few years ago, even those of us in the travel business for many years had to pass an exam to “certify” ourselves.

    Most of the info we had to learn was about protecting the consumer. That is why I was surprised that this couple got into so much trouble by opting to return home right away. Perhaps a temper tantrum?

    Enjoy your columns very much.

  3. E and B L

    Oct 31 2012

    We still schedule 10 weeks all inclusive vacations yearly. We’re going again tomorrow.

    There’s only about three things needed for a good holiday.

    First: Your travel agent’s phone number and itinerary. Never book online. You need someone at home to fix things where the tour companies live.

    Good travel agents will match advertised pricing. The travel business is becoming very competitive. So it costs you a bottle of wine at Christmas.

    Don’t rely on the tour operator’s representatives. They seem to have an intuition for trouble. They’re not always around when things go south.

    Second: Carry TICO’s 1-800 phone number. These guys are invaluable is sorting things out. We know from experience.

    Third: Pay for everything with Visa. They unquestionably refund your money if there is a problem.

    That’s about it! Here’s one more thing: Forget about Cuba. We’ve been to every part of the main island and Cayo Largo. All it has going for it is the northern beaches.

    The service and food quality is considerably better in Mexico’s Riviera Maya.

  4. CS

    Oct 31 2012

    I am just wondering if anyone in the travel industry is ever held liable.

    I am in the middle of an incident where I booked a vacation after SELL OFFS said my children could go to the kids’ club. Then I found out they couldn’t, as they were too young.

    Also, I called a few months after booking and found out I could get the exact same trip for $800 cheaper. They have a price drop guarantee, but you need to fill out paperwork and I was not informed of this.

    While I am not sure if the operators of the trip I booked and the revised price I was quoted were the same, they have a lowest price guarantee that I guess is filled with so much legal detail that one could never attain it.

    I spoke to the supposed supervisor of customer service and she said, “We don’t have to tell you about that” (meaning they don’t need to tell consumers to fill out the form in order to receive the price drop guarantee).

    The supervisor’s resolution for my issue was to send me to another resort where there was a kids’ club. I would get a lower category room if I did this.

    I wish I was in your position where I could fight for consumer rights, as this is absolutely ridiculous that companies can get away with things like this.

  5. DG

    Oct 31 2012

    My daughter and I learned a valuable lesson last September (2011), when we booked a vacation to the Galapagos Islands through Lent Travel in Port Hope, Ont.

    I usually make my own arrangements, but for this one thought we would be better to use a travel agent. Bad idea!

    They turned the arrangements over to Goway Travel, who, I understand, turned the final portion over to a local subcontractor.

    We arrived in Ecuador, spent the day, and then were transported to the airport for our flight to Baltra.

    Unfortunately they had never heard of us, no airline tickets, no cruise reservations, nothing.

    We did have our itinerary with us, which noted the amount of money we had paid, and after two hours of haggling, we were put on a plane.

    Arriving in Baltra, there was no one to meet us, no transportation to the port, etc. Again, my daughter found an English speaking park employee who managed to commandeer a bus that was there to transport the airport workers back to their homes and drove with us to the port and contacted the ship.

    Of course, they had also never heard of us, but they did have one cabin left, so they took us on board.

    When we returned home, we contacted the travel agency, and Goway Travel, and the Better Business Bureau, all of whom said “how sad, too bad, but you did get your cruise, so what is the problem!”

    Obviously, when using any kind of a travel service, it is “Buyer beware!”