Nancy and Tony Merritt planned an August vacation with their 12-year-old son.
Their last trip — a nine-day tour from Yellowstone to Mt. Rushmore — was a successful one, so the family rebooked with the same tour operator.
Trafalgar Travel offered a trip called “Best of the Canyonlands.” It would last seven days and cover the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon.
The cost was $3,669.25, excluding air fare.
But when the trip happened, the family said they didn’t get what they were promised by the tour.
“Instead of cancelling our tour due to lack of reservations, [Trafalgar] threw nine of us in with another tour already in progress,” Nancy Merritt said. “Our seven-day tour ended up being a four-day tour, when we were essentially abandoned in Las Vegas because the other tour ended and those folks were flying out of the Vegas airport that evening.”
When the Merritts arrived, no one informed them that the tour would end on the fourth day, and they received no notification of changes leading up to the trip, Merritt said.
They ended up joining the tail end of a Yellowstone tour — the same one the family had already taken, she said.
“Those folks, approximately 40 of them, had spent eight days traveling and were winding down,” Merritt said. “Our tour was no tour at all but rather a bum’s rush through certain of the advertised destinations and an early drop off in Las Vegas – seemingly, to accommodate the other tour.”
The Merritts had several complaints.
For example, they said, they had less than half a day in the Grand Canyon, which they said they understood to be the highlight of the tour. Instead, the tour arrived mid-afternoon and the guests had to check in to their rooms and attend a dinner, Merritt said.
“At dinner we were told we would leave at 9:00 a.m. the next morning to head to Las Vegas,” she said. “We got no explanation from the tour guide other than, ‘This tour is meant to be a highlight at best. If you really want to see the park, you should come back on your own.'”
Merritt said during the tour, she asked the guide why he wasn’t providing daily schedules.
“Never did he tell us it was because the tour was at its end,” she said. “We found this out when we got off the bus in Las Vegas mid-afternoon.”
She said the tour guide rushed them through the hotel. Before he left, he booked a Hoover Dam tour for the family and told them to be in the hotel lobby in the morning.
Then he left, Merritt said, and the bus driver drove the travelers from the longer tour to the airport.
Someone else arrived for the Hoover Dam excursion.
“A man in shorts and a polo shirt showed up that morning, holding a Trafalgar gift bag, and walked us for blocks in the Vegas heat to a bus pick up location,” Merritt said. “He said he did it as a favor to our tour guide, and he didn’t know what bus was to take us to the Dam.”
They eventually made it to the Dam, but they couldn’t verify their tour reservation because the tour guide had made it in his own name, Merritt said.
ASKING FOR AMENDS
While they were on the tour, before reaching Vegas, Merritt emailed her travel agent to share her concerns.
“Trafalgar threw us into the middle of another (already started) tour when we arrived on Saturday. We got hardly any time at advertised destinations on our tour,” she wrote. “This isn’t what we signed on for and not what was advertised. Tried to stay on at Grand Canyon but would have had to pay our way.”
The travel agent said she’d look into it.
Merritt emailed the agent again after the Hoover Dam fiasco. She told the agent the latest about the trip, and requested some type of refund, rather than a credit towards a future trip.
When the trip was over, the travel agent contacted Merritt with a refund offer worth 10 percent of the tour’s cost.
The Merritts didn’t think it was a fair offer, so put their complaints in writing for the travel agent to forward to Trafalgar. The family asked for $1,000 back, which wasn’t what they thought they were owed, but they thought the number would lead to a quicker resolution.
Trafalgar told the travel agent that 10 percent back was the only offer, Merritt said. After that, the agent said they’d have to deal with Trafalgar directly.
That was Sept. 8, Merritt said, noting they never heard directly from Trafalgar.
The next day, the family tried a different approach through the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), a volunteer trade association for tour companies. The travel paperwork said Trafalgar participates in USTOA’s “Consumer Protection Deposit Plan,” and claims could be made for, among other things, “services that were not delivered.”
Per the group’s request, Merritt sent her story, and this time, she asked for a larger refund.
“We sought half the tour price then, on the basis that we had only half of the trip delivered,” Merritt said. “It was clear Trafalgar was ignoring us at that point, as we had no email or call as promised.”
USTOA reported back on Sept. 17 that Trafalgar said it was in touch with the agent about a resolution.
But Merritt checked back with the agent, who said she hadn’t heard from Trafalgar since Sept. 9.
That’s when Merritt asked Bamboozled for help.
A RESOLUTION? ANY RESOLUTION?
We reviewed the family’s travel documents, the online tour listing, the timeline of the trip and the emails between the Merritts and the companies.
We also found several online complaints about this tour.
Then we reached out to Trafalgar.
The company said guest feedback is at the heart of everything it does.
“It’s why we display unedited, uncurated reviews collected by an independent third party on our website and collect feedback via on-trip questionnaires,” said Paul Wiseman, President of Trafalgar USA. “We’re pleased to report a general 97 percent satisfaction rate based on our guest reviews, and, for this particular departure, our on-trip questionnaires showed consistent 4 and 5 out of 5 satisfaction ratings.”
He said the company promptly responds to all complaints and they’re reviewed on an individual basis to “determine appropriate actions/compensations, which our teams have done directly for Mrs. Merritt via her travel agent.”
Nancy Merritt looks at photos from her vacation.
Joe Warner/For NJ Advance Media
We took those comments to Merritt.
She remembered the customer questionnaire.
“The travel survey was completed before we got dumped in Vegas, before we knew our tour was ending mid-day Wednesday and not Friday,” Merritt said. “The guide had everyone do it prematurely — another red flag I should’ve caught.”
We went back to Trafalgar to ask specifics: about the differing itineraries, the shorter tour claim, the Hoover Dam mishap, why the travelers were not told of the trip changes in advance and the lack of communication after Sept. 9 as reported by the travel agent.
“There was no change to the daily itinerary for Best of the Canyonlands operationally,” Wiseman said. “The daily destinations, trip inclusions, and duration of the trip were delivered on the exact days as published online and in our printed brochure. ”
He said the company respects the relationship between its travel agent partners and customers.
“This is why, as in this scenario, we work through the agent, as they prefer, on consideration for any compensations,” Wiseman said.
He also said the company reviews every guest complaint in detail to offer what Trafalgar deems to be “a fair resolution,” but it said it couldn’t disclose the details out of respect for the customer’s privacy.
Even though she’s told us everything already.
So Merritt had no idea whether or not any offer remained on the table, so we recommended she try the travel agent again.
For weeks, Trafalgar didn’t respond to the agent’s requests.
Finally, on Friday, the agent got word. The company was still only offering the $353.64 refund.
Merritt hasn’t decided if she will accept.
“We feel we should have been informed immediately upon Trafalgar/Destination America being aware that our tour would not be conducted as a stand-alone tour and/or as advertised, and we should have had the option to cancel with no penalty and a full refund,” she said.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.