When Sue Koopman cancels her vacation, her friend is presented with a bill for a $375 single supplement. If she doesn't pay it immediately, the tour operator threatens to cancel her vacation. Can it do that? And is there any hope for getting a refund of the $375 fee after it's paid?
Q: I need your help getting a refund for a single supplement that I don't think I should have to pay. With a friend, I recently booked an Africa trip through Overseas Adventure Travel. We're both in our mid-60s, so I bought trip insurance.
My friend, with the philosophy of "if anything bad happens, I'll pay for it," did not. Two weeks before we were supposed to leave, I started getting back pains and my doctor recommended that I not take this trip. My insurance company reimbursed me in full.
My problem is that when I notified Overseas Adventure Travel of my cancellation, they demanded that my friend pay a $375 single supplement, and if she didn't, they threatened to cancel her trip that day. I paid the supplement, since she was out of town.
My friend asked Overseas Adventure Travel to refund the supplement, but it refuses. What should I do? -- Sue Koopman, San Francisco
A: It was nice of you to cover your friend's single supplement. It was not nice of Overseas Adventure Travel to threaten to cancel her trip unless you forked over another $375.
Single supplements are a charge added to your hotel or cruise rate based on an assumption of double occupancy. From your tour operator's perspective, a single traveler takes up a room that would ordinarily accommodate two people and needs to pay extra because it's only getting half the money it normally would.
Overseas Adventure Travel's policy on single supplements is clear. Where applicable, the supplement must be paid. Here's a link to the rule.
The company offers what it calls a "roommate matching service" in case you want to double up with someone else. It has some tours that don't charge a single supplement, and to be fair to the company, the single supplements it charges are based strictly on costs.
But what were its costs?
If you had already paid for your vacation in full, and were getting a refund from your insurance company, then Overseas Adventure Travel would have received all of the money to cover the cost of the single supplement. So it appears your friend was being charged a single supplement as a matter of policy.
If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, with a merchant insisting that you pay up right away, try to slow down the process. Ask the agent to e-mail the chapter and verse of the policy and an invoice for the price difference, and request a reasonable amount of time to settle up. Unless the company is running a scam -- or unless you're traveling that day -- it should be allowed.
At my suggestion, you wrote a brief, polite letter to Overseas Adventure Travel, and it sent you an equally brief and polite reply confirming that the supplement needed to be paid. I contacted the company on your behalf, and a spokeswoman confirmed that it was well within its rights to charge a single supplement.
The company's records don't indicate that an agent demanded you pay the supplement immediately. "This would not be a productive course for us, nor would we ever threaten one traveler with another traveler's trip cancellation," the spokeswoman told me.
Overseas Adventure Travel considers this a "misunderstanding" and has reimbursed your $375 as a goodwill gesture.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.