September 29, 2003 -- The higher they climb, the farther they fall.
Last Wednesday, four-year-old Far & Wide (www.farandwide.com), a holding company for 21 well-known tour operators, went bankrupt and shut down several of its subsidiaries. Far & Wide was a fever-dream of the Internet boom, formed in the glory year of 1999 by financiers dreaming of an endlessly expanding travel industry. They didn't foresee the massive crash to follow after 2001, with travel battered by shock after shock: first the Twin Towers, then two wars, the SARS crisis, and a national economy that has been throwing more and more people out of work.
According to the Miami Herald, Far & Wide owes more than $75 million to its first line of creditors. The bankruptcy has disrupted travel plans for 15,000 people, who stand to lose $30 million in deposits.
Hoping to keep people traveling, dozens of tour operators have stepped up to offer discounts and even free travel for Far & Wide's confused customers. An industry group, the US Tour Operators' Association (www.ustoa.com), is offering $1 million to pay back consumers who are losing their hard-earned vacation money in the collapse. And if you're a Far & Wide traveler, read on -- your trip may even go on as planned.
It Sure Was Wide
Far & Wide owned a slew of tour companies:
- Adventure Center (www.adventurecenter.com)
- African Travel (www.africantravelinc.com)
- Brian Moore International (www.bmit.com)
- Central Holidays (www.centralh.com)
- Down Under Direct (www.downunderdirect.com)
- Grand European Tours (www.getours.com)
- High Country Passage (www.ultimatepassages.com)
- Intercontinental Travel Company (ITC) (www.intercontravel.com)
- IST Cultural Tours (www.ist-tours.com)
- Journeys Unlimited
- Lion World Travel (www.lionworldtravel.com)
- Pacific Bestours (www.bestour.com)
- Peter Voll Associates (www.pvatravel.com)
- Prism Holidays (www.prismholidays.com)
- Regina Tours (www.reginatour.com)
- Spanish Heritage Tours (www.shtours.com)
- Swain Australia Tours (www.swainaustralia.com)
- Swain Events (www.swainevents.com)
- Tourlite International (www.tourlite.com)
- Zeus Tours (www.zeustours.com)
They also operated many of the tours for United Airlines' vacation arm and had a subsidiary, Far & Wide-London, in Europe.
Many of these companies had been operating for more than 20 years; Zeus had been running tours to Greece since 1948. These were solid, reliable companies dragged down by the horrendous economy.
The good news is that according to Far & Wide, several of their companies are still operating, and will probably be bought back by their former owners. If your trip was with Swain Tours, African Travel Inc., Pacific Bestours, Adventure Center, Intercontinental Travel Company, IST Cultural Tours, Journeys Unlimited, Regina Tours, Down Under Direct, United Vacations or High Country Passage, you're probably OK. Get in touch with your tour operator.
"Tours leaving today are operating," said Nick Mancino, president of Regina Tours. "Our former owner is involved ... and anyone with Regina Tours is still traveling. But it could change tomorrow, depending on what the [bankruptcy] court wants us to do."
Lion World, as a Canadian company, is completely immune to the bankruptcy, says Lion World president Lucille Sive. They hold their money separately from Far & Wide and are so busy they're even hiring extra staff, she says. The same goes for Far & Wide-London, a British firm, Sive says.
Ian Swain, the former owner of Swain Australia, is trying to buy back both Swain and Pacific Bestour. Former Pacific Bestour owner Peter Yeung is also bidding for that unit, and is interested in picking up United Vacations Asia, the Herald reports. David Herbert, African Travel's former owner, is buying back his unit.
The travelers in trouble are those who booked with the other Far & Wide subsidiaries. When we tried to call Brian Moore, Central Holidays, Grand European, ITC and the main Far & Wide number, we couldn't even get anyone to answer the phone. Travelers with those groups were left stranded over the weekend at Heathrow or Shannon airports -- while air tickets are generally prepaid by tour operators, hotels are not.
Travel Industry Comes to the Rescue
Enter the rest of the travel industry. In an act of heroic goodwill, dozens of other tour operators have stepped in to help stranded Far & Wide travelers. An updated list is available on the US Tour Operator Association's web site at www.ustoa.com/Far&Wide_Assist.htm -- when we wrote this, they listed 20 operators willing to offer discounts or free trips to travelers who had booked with Far & Wide. We called all 20, and here's who we heard from:
- Abreu Tours (www.abreu-tours.com) is offering travelers who have put deposits down on Far & Wide packages a discount of up to $100 for packages over $2,000 per person, and a discount of $50 for packages costing under $2,000. This doesn't apply to special sales, and you must rebook by Nov. 15.
- Adventure Collection (www.adventurecollection.com), a consortium of nine independent adventure-travel operators, is honoring Far & Wide deposits of up to $500 on trips taken through the end of 2004.
- ATS Tours and Islands in the Sun (www.atstours.com or www.islandsinthesun.com) will credit you with the amount of your Far & Wide deposit, up to $350 per person.
- Brendan Worldwide Vacations (www.brendantours.com) will give a $150 discount to anyone who has put a deposit down on, or prepaid for a Far & Wide tour.
- CIE Tours International (www.cietours.com) is offering a 25% discount on escorted tours and 10% on fly-drive packages for anyone who can show that they lost money to Far & Wide.
- Collette Vacations (www.collettevacations.com) will credit up to $250 per person towards an escorted tour if you lost deposit money to Far & Wide. You can take your vacation anytime until the end of 2004, but you have to rebook it this year.
- Europe Express (www.europeexpress.com) will take $50 off any booking over $999 for people who lost money with Far & Wide if you rebook by Oct. 10.
- Gate 1 Travel (www.gate1travel.com will waive late booking fees and guarantee to match Far & Wide's prices. They say they'll work with Far & Wide travelers to use already-purchased airline tickets as part of a new package. They have a special Far & Wide help desk at 800/862-3333.
- Globus/Cosmos (www.globusandcosmos.com) will discount replacement trips by the amount of lost Far & Wide deposits, will offer a 35% discount off the land price of trips to Europe and North America for people who have fully paid for Far & Wide vacations, and 15% off the land price of other trips.
- Grand Expeditions, which includes Country Walkers, International Expeditions, The Moorings, Park East, Nautic Blue, TCS Expeditions and Travcoa, has a special Far & Wide traveler support number at 800/992-2005, extension 230. If you have fully paid for a Far & Wide tour that was supposed to depart in October, they'll offer space-available accommodation on a comparable Travcoa tour for "a nominal rate." Rebook as soon as possible. For passengers who just put deposits down, you'll get credit for your deposit up to 15% off the price of a Grand tour. You must rebook by the end of the year.
- Insight Vacations (www.insightvacations.com) will discount replacement trips by the amount of lost Far & Wide deposits, and will offer a 35% discount off the land price of trips to people who have fully paid for Far & Wide vacations.
- INTRAV/Clipper Cruises (www.intrav.com) is dealing on an individual basis, but says that if you put a deposit down on a Far & Wide tour, they'll try to offer you an INTRAV tour comparabl e to your Far & Wide journey for the remainder of your Far & Wide balance.
- Maupintour (www.maupintour.com) is giving 10% off their luxury tours to folks who lost their Far & Wide deposits, and wants you to know they have a $36 million bonded consumer protection program for refunds in the unlikely event they go out of business.
- Mayflower Tours (www.mayflowertours.com) will give you a discount in the amount of your deposit, up to $200; if you've paid for your Far & Wide tour in full and are departing before the end of this year, they'll give you a 30% discount off the land portion of a Mayflower tour. You must rebook by Oct. 31.
- Pacific Delight Tours (www.pacificdelighttours.com) will "try to minimize any loss" that Far & Wide travelers have incurred, and F&W victims won't incur any late-booking fees for booking trips within the next 45 days.
- Ritz Tours (www.ritztours.com) wins the generosity award. Pity they only handle trips to China. If you've fully paid for a group tour to China during October, and you have already received your air and river cruise tickets, they'll put you on one of their tours for free (subject to availability.) "We're not interested in making money, we're interested in letting travelers minimize their losses," says Ritz's Evan Chen. Bravo!
- Sunny Land Tours (www.sunnylandtours.com) will give you a discount in the amount of your prepaid Far & Wide deposit, up to $500, for any tour of 7 nights or more including international flights, as long as you rebook by Oct. 17.
- Tauck World Discovery (www.tauck.com) will give a discount in the amount of your Far & Wide deposit, up to $500, for trips through August 31, 2004.
- Trafalgar Tours (www.trafalgartours.com) will discount their trips by the amount of your lost Far & Wide deposit; if you've already fully paid for your trip, they'll offer a 35% discount off the land price of Europe vacations and a 15% discount off the land price of other trips.
- Uniworld (www.uniworld.com) will honor Far & Wide deposits of up to $400 if you book a Uniworld river cruise by August 31, 2004.
So What Do You Do?
Consumers flattened by Far & Wide have several ways to get their money back.
- If you used a credit card to book your trip, and haven't yet received your airline tickets, you're probably protected. Call your credit card issuer, explain that Far & Wide has gone bankrupt and cancel the charge.
- If you had trip cancellation insurance, it may also apply in this case. Call your insurer, and have your receipts and documentation ready.
- If those options don't work, the US Tour Operator Association has a million dollars to split between people affected by the Far & Wide collapse. You'll need your Far & Wide receipts, and either your cancelled check or a written refusal of a chargeback from your credit card company. You have until the end of the year to file a claim form, at which point the million will be split evenly between all claimants (up to the amount of their losses). Head to www.ustoa.com next week for the claim form.
- That million may go up by $200,000 if the National Tour Association, the other tour operators' group, gets into the act. According to group president Hank Phillips, their lawyers are currently figuring out whether they can hook their own consumer protection plan up with the USTOA's, increasing the money available to pay back aggrieved travelers. Stay updated by checking out www.ntaonline.com.
- Your last resort would be to go to the bankruptcy court, the United States Southern District Court in Miami, and file a petition as a creditor to get your money. Your chances for getting your money back this way are nearly nil, because you'd be in line behind all the "secured creditors" -- shareholders and travel suppliers who were stiffed by Far & Wide.
Protect Yourself, But Keep Traveling
This bankruptcy makes buying independent travel insurance and using credit cards to charge travel even more important, according to NTA's Phillips and Bob Whitley of the USTOA. For more information on insurance, see our Travel Insurance at a Glance..
Don't let this bankruptcy put you off traveling. The travel industry is slowly recovering from the past few years' slump, and further bankruptcies are less likely than they were in the past. They only way to keep travel providers afloat is to continue to see the world. Protect yourself, but get out there.
Do you have a comment about this column? Were you directly affected by Far and Wide's recent Chapter 11 filing? Please, share your thoughts on our Packagers & Tour Operators Message Boards.