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Christopher Elliott / Travel & Leisure

Travel Troubleshooter: Charged an extra $400 for a vacation I can't take

Q: I recently booked a retreat to Costa Rica through a yoga studio in New York. Just before I was supposed to leave, I was admitted to the emergency room and had to cancel my trip.

My airline gave me a credit, minus the $150 change fee, which I accepted. The yoga studio had a $300 nonrefundable deposit, which I also understood it could keep.

The problem is the retreat center in Costa Rica. It insists on charging me a $400 nonrefundable fee for canceling, which it is deducting from an initial payment of $1,600.

Not only am I in a tight financial situation with hospital bills piling up, but I also believe this is completely unreasonable. I was never advised of the retreat center's cancellation fees.

Is there any way you can help me with this? -- Ruth Hartmann, New York

A: Your cancellation fees should have been clearly disclosed at the time of booking, and as far as I can tell, they weren't. That left you to assume you could get most of your money back.

Further communication between you, your yoga center and the resort showed the hotel would charge a 50 percent penalty, which is why they were asking for another $400 for a stay you couldn't use.

I think this is one of those times when travel insurance would have been helpful. If you were able to make a successful claim, the insurance would have covered all of your costs, including the $400 charge from the hotel.

Yours is a cautionary tale for anyone booking travel in a nontraditional way, such as a membership organization, scuba diving store, or yoga center. These are not professional travel agents or tour operators, so they may leave out a few details when it comes to the terms and conditions.

For what it's worth, I don't think your yoga center's omission was intentional. Rather, as a center representative later admitted, it could have been clearer.

You need to be extra careful when you're booking a trip in this way. Ask about the cancellation policy, and if possible, get it in writing. And do that before you make your reservation; that way, if the terms seem unreasonable, you can ask a question -- or decline to book the trip.

The bottom line is that according to the terms of your purchase, the resort was well within its rights to keep your money. But as I mentioned earlier, they should have told you about it before you made your reservation.

I contacted the yoga center on your behalf. After some more back and forth with you, and in consideration of your medical condition, it agreed to send you a check for $400.

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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 co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.





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