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An Australia tour that wasn't meant to be

By Christopher Elliott, Tribune Media Services
Rebecca Canter was looking forward to exploring the Great Barrier Reef on a trip to Australia that never happened.
Rebecca Canter was looking forward to exploring the Great Barrier Reef on a trip to Australia that never happened.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A traveler's first flight to Australia in cancelled
  • She takes a bus to catch another flight; the bus breaks down and she misses the flight
  • The traveler cancels her trip, but her insurance will only cover a portion of it
  • The tour company gives her a voucher after negotiating with the Troubleshooter
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(Tribune Media Services) -- First her flight is canceled. Then she misses another flight after her bus breaks down. Finally, Rebecca Canter decides to cancel her Australia tour. But her tour operator refuses her request for a refund. Can it do that?

Q: My friend and I recently booked a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji through Grand Circle Travel. The trip never happened, and now it looks as if it never will, even though I bought travel insurance.

Our flight from Boston to Los Angeles was delayed because of a mechanical problem. When it was fixed, we couldn't fly because our crew had timed out. The flight was eventually canceled.

The soonest our airline could get to Los Angeles was five days later. I called Grand Circle Travel, and a representative instructed me to call her back when I knew our new flight plans so they could connect us with the rest of the tour in Australia.

We found another flight from Washington, and took a bus from Boston to Washington. We made it as far as Maryland before the bus stalled outside of Baltimore -- another mechanical delay. We missed our flight.

At this point, we had no connection on Qantas from Los Angeles and had lost the majority of the Australia portion of the trip. One of the most important things we were looking forward to was swimming in the Great Barrier Reef and taking underwater photographs. We decided to cancel. My insurance company only refunded me $750 of $5,400 I spent. Is there anything you can do to help?

-- Rebecca Canter, Portland, Maine

A: Your trip really wasn't meant to happen. Trust me on this. After two mechanical delays and a missed flight, can you imagine what would have awaited you in Australia? Think of that swim on the reef. Think great white sharks and box jellyfish.

Aren't you glad you stayed home?

Grand Circle should have respected your choice -- recognized that fate was preventing you from traveling -- and helped you secure a refund. Instead, it passed you off to your travel insurance company, which returned only a fraction of your tour. Never mind the expenses you incurred trying to get from Boston to Washington.

Grand Circle's terms and conditions -- available on its Web site -- are clear about its liability in a situation like yours. It has none.

"Grand Circle is not responsible if an airline cancels or delays a flight for any reason, including weather," it says. "If you are unable to make your departure, it is your responsibility to work with the airline on which you are ticketed to reach your destination. Operator is not responsible for any additional expenses you may incur prior to joining your trip. Operator is not responsible for and will not provide any refund for portions of trips missed due to cancelled or delayed flights."

What's more, your travel insurance policy has exclusions that limit its liability, which explains why you only recovered a fraction of the cost of your tour.

An appeal to Grand Circle is your best option for a do-over. It sold you an insurance policy that covered a small part of your trip, but more importantly, the circumstances that led to your cancellation were truly extraordinary. The letter you drafted to your insurance company and sent to me was too lengthy. A tight, polite missive might have yielded a more desirable result.

I contacted Grand Circle on your behalf. A representative called you and suggested that if you had stayed in Boston, you might have been able to make your tour. Clearly, she wasn't familiar with your case. After some more back-and-forth, Grand Circle sent you a voucher for $3,400 that can be redeemed for a future tour.

(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org).

© 2010 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC