Bamboozled EXTRA: Travel company closes, leaving tourists lost

Pat and Frank Guardino were at the airport on Saturday, heading to Montecatini, Italy, for a 9-day tour.

It was by chance that they struck up a conversation with another couple at the Alitalia check-in area.

“Have you made other plans?” the other couple asked.

The Guardinos didn’t know what they meant.

The tour operator, Club ABC Tours, has gone out of business, they were told. If the Guardinos didn’t make other plans, they’d find their reservations in Italy, from hotels to transfers and more, did not exist.

“Alitalia called the hotel for us. It confirmed we had no reservations,” said Pat Guardino.

They didn’t go on the trip, for which they paid about $5,400, but they might be among the lucky ones. Some travelers were reportedly stuck overseas with no reservations.

Indeed, an unknown number of travelers may be facing a staycation instead of a dream vacation after the popular tour operator that’s been in business for almost 50 years stopped answering customer calls.

Club ABC Tours, owned by Crown Travel Service of Bloomfield, shut its doors on Oct. 1, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB). The agency received several calls from customers who had received notices of trip cancellations or were unable to contact the company, and Club ABC didn’t return calls from BBB.

Those findings were supported by customer complaints and questions on several travel chat boards. Previous posts showed many happy customers, but those in the past week complained that customers were unable to contact the company about upcoming trips, or they were told that trips they had paid for will not take place.

Some travelers said they were even left overseas without reservations. Agnes Bedor posted: “On an ABC Tour that left JFK for Rome Oct2. … that’s one day after they closed their doors. Of course we were not notified of their demise till 3 days later when we found out nothing was paid for, all reservations were cancelled and the 20 people in our tour returned home, each buying new tickets.”

Others reported last-minute cancellations. Edith47 posted: “I was notified on October 4th as we were sitting at the gate waiting to board our plane to Casablanca. We were lucky we turned around and not flown. As a customer of more than 18 years we are flabbergasted. No information is available.”

Calls and e-mails to the company by The Star-Ledger were not returned, and the company’s websites are no longer operational.

The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs said it has received approximately 25 calls so far this month, but it could not confirm an investigation is taking place.

Travel expert Arthur Frommer said on his website that the company had filed for bankruptcy last week, but no filings were on record for either company name, or for owners Robert and Thomas Paris, as of late yesterday.

Frommer, though, said there are two big lessons to learn from the reports of this company’s reported demise. One is to pay for travel with a credit card so you hopefully have recourse should something happen to the travel company.

“Second, take out a trip cancellation policy from an independent insurance company and not from the tour operator,” Frommer wrote in his blog. “Several of the persons who phoned me told how they had bought insurance from Club ABC, and were now worried — they didn’t know whether this was the case — that Club ABC may never have bought the policy from a travel insurance company.”

But the BBB said that even if insurances were paid for through Club ABC, the contract would not cover refunds if the travel company went out of business.

Many of the trip insurance policies were reportedly purchased through insurer Trip Mate, which told The Star-Ledger it’s received about 150 inquiries since Oct. 1 about trips booked with Club ABC. Trip Mate, which is independent of the travel company, confirmed that policies do not provide trip cancellation coverage in the event a company goes out of business.

The Guardinos said they were told their insurance with Trip Mate would only cover illnesses.

“We paid by check and have verification that the check was cashed,” said Pat Guardino, who had taken six successful trips with the company. “The money was paid in August. What did the company do with this money?”