Here's a rarity: a travel company that does right by its customers as it's going out of business. Relatively so.
On August 1, Jet-A-Way Holidays, a well-known specialty tour operator selling discounted packages to the Caribbean and Latin America, went out of business. But unlike the guys who ran Traveland.com (Read the recent article), at least they made an effort to set things somewhat right before they did.
Amy Janota, who is heading to Jamaica in November, got an email from Jet-A-Way that they were closing and that her air tickets were confirmed, but that the money for her hotel had been refunded to her credit card. Yeah, sure, it would have been better if the hotel had been paid as well -- but it's a mark of how badly some failed travel agencies have acted that I'm surprised that Jet-A-Way didn't just take the money and run.
Carol Mueller, a spokeswoman for major travel insurer AIG Travel Guard, said she was surprised when she spoke to a travel agency client of AIG's and heard that Jet-A-Way was refunding travelers' money for trips not yet taken.
"It's kind of unheard of when a company files for bankruptcy," she said.
While Jet-A-Way's phone numbers are disconnected and nobody responded to two messages left at the home number of Jet-A-Way president Bobby Fender, someone did respond to my questions at the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. The unnamed Jet-A-Way representative wrote that they'd considered completing all of their open bookings, but that they didn't want to take any more of their clients' money as they were going out of business, and they couldn't find a reliable operator to take over their remaining bookings.
So, because "the vast majority of all bookings traveling after September 1 were only on deposit ... In the end we simply notified every single client of procedures SPECIFIC to their booking based on the phase the booking was in, type of booking, etc. The only consistent item in every booking was that all reservations were left confirmed and no reservations were cancelled prior to our closing."
The company was killed by unspecified "internal" issues, the unknown representative said.
Now, those reservations were confirmed, but not paid. Individual travelers like Janota were sent e-mails with the contact phone numbers of their hotels and land tour operators so they could make direct arrangements. Inconvenient? Sure. Better than a company like Traveland? You betcha.
Janota, for one, ended up on top. "After all was said and done and I re-did everything on my own, I'm actually saving money. I saved, like, $100 on my airfare, and I'm going to the same place and everything," she said.
Jet-A-Way's customers got a relatively soft landing considering the company has folded up and gone away. But how can you protect yourself against a tour operator going belly up?
Heading back to our tips on "What to Do When Your Tour Company Goes Bust," we find Jet-A-Way didn't throw up many red flags:
- Jet-A-Way did give a real owner's name, address, and local phone numbers -- but those didn't do anyone any good after the company shut down.
- The local BBB's entry for Jet-A-Way is "being updated," so it isn't much help.
- Jet-A-Way still isn't on AIG Travel Guard's insurance alert list; AIG reps told us they hadn't heard about the company going under.
- Janota's airline tickets were confirmed properly.
On the other hand, neither Jet-A-Way nor Bobby Fender was a member of the United States Tour Operators Association, the National Tour Association or the American Society of Travel Agents. These groups are important because they're all places you can turn to if a member goes out of business.
Still, there are lessons to learn here.
Always, always, always book by credit card. If your bankrupt agency is honorable, they can give your money back via credit card much faster than if you'd paid with a check or cash. If they aren't honorable, the venerable Fair Credit Billing Act lets you get your money back if someone who charged you doesn't deliver -- for instance, if you paid a travel agency and they didn't pay your hotel.
Create relationships beyond your tour operator. Janota's path to fixing her bookings was smoothed because she had spoken to her hotel in Jamaica and forged an alliance with a reservations agent there. Being a person, rather than just a number, to your travel suppliers has more advantages than just being a safety net if your tour operator fails -- it also means you're more likely to be welcomed with a smile when you arrive.
Consider becoming your own tour operator. For simple air-and-hotel journeys, you can sometimes save money and reduce risk by cutting out the middleman and booking direct. Janota found that and was satisfied with the booking she made.