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School travel tour companies not refunding full payment for canceled trips

HOUSTON – The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just disrupt family vacations and trips. Many students had plans to travel abroad or out of state with classmates and teachers. Students won’t get those experiences back. And now parents are learning they may not get all of their money back either.

Thousands paid

Shalonda Middleton paid $2,726 for her son Jacob, who is an eighth-grader, to attend a six-day trip to Washington D.C. and New York City through EF Explore America. The coronavirus pandemic brought most domestic and international travel to a screeching halt, including Jacob’s trip.

When she and other parents from Humble ISD’s Westlake Middle School reached out to the tour company about getting a refund for the trip, they said they were told they would not get all their money back because the company had already begun paying vendors.

“You made these travel arrangements, but the travel arrangements are not successful,” said Middleton. “I need to see the spreadsheet that shows what you did for the amount of money that you feel that you should be keeping.”

According to the parents, at first, the company wanted to keep $750 but later brought that number down to $350.

Rules are constantly changing

Travel industry expert Sandra McLemore says for the first time ever, travel industry companies are in unchartered waters. The rules are constantly changing.

“There are two words that we need to pay careful attention to,” she said. “One is ‘cancel,’ and the other is ‘change.’ So what you really are gonna struggle with is the fact that the tour operator may not have canceled the trip, they may have changed the trip. Meaning if they haven’t canceled, they may not owe you a refund.”

McLemore suggested parents call back again and continue to request a full refund. Be sure to document who you spoke to, and when.

“If you don’t get the outcome that you want, I’m going to suggest that you wait until closer to the travel date,” McLemore said. “Waiting closer to the travel date might actually force the travel supplier to actually cancel, in which case you might be easier off getting a refund.”

If those don’t work, she suggests having an attorney look over the terms and conditions of your contract.

EF Tours’ response

When Channel 2 reached out to EF Tours, a company representative sent us an email that said customers have three options:

  • They can use the full value of the purchased tour for future travel.
  • They can transfer the full value to another person who might want to take the trip in the future, or
  • They can ask for a refund (minus $250-$350) EF Tours says they are returning every dollar not spent on planning their tours.

EF Explore America statement

"The health and safety of our travelers and staff have been our top priority for more than 55 years. We understand that the global pandemic has created uncertainty for every American household and, in fact, every household around the world. Our singular focus during this time has been to provide our customers with the very best and most flexible rebooking and refund options to protect their full investment in our tours.

Since the announcement of the travel ban on March 11, we have offered every customer the chance to move their tour to another date, thereby protecting every dollar of their investment. The vast majority of our 2020 tour groups have opted to accept flexible travel vouchers, allowing them to rebook their educational tours at no penalty or added cost. Vouchers include the value of all tour-related costs (including those that are typically non-refundable), they are transferable within a family or school community, applicable toward a variety of EF travel products, and good through September 30, 2022. At any time prior to that date, customers may exchange their voucher for the below-referenced cash refund.

For customers who prefer a cash refund, we are returning every dollar not spent on planning their tours. Our staff invest thousands of hours every year planning and iterating the details of every tour to ensure they are the best, safest, and most meaningful experiences for the students and educators who travel with us. As the situation has evolved, we have also continued to negotiate with our suppliers to find meaningful solutions and, whenever possible, to pass these savings on to our customers. For trips departing on or after May 15 we are refunding everything less $250 to $350 per person depending on mode of transportation, which helps to partially cover non-refundable payments to suppliers and staff.

We understand that the public health and economic impacts of this crisis are severe, and we are doing everything we can to support the families and individuals who were planning to travel with us. We are also being responsible about business resilience in order to continue serving the vast majority of travelers who are excited to explore the world in the future.

You can find more information on our travel vouchers here and FAQs regarding our response to the pandemic here."