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August 2003 Vol. 29, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Travel Insurance? Credit Card Refund? Donít Count On It

from the August, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Before Jeffner Allen of Newfield, N.Y., booked a week at the Manta Reef Lodge on the Tanzanian island of Pemba, she had extensive e-mail correspondence with the owner, Ranjit Sondhi, about the diving and the conditions. While acknowledging that the rainy season sometimes begins in April, Sondhi assured her that "visibility is fairly consistent in Pemba, with 50 to 100 feet min. ...The west coast is protected from big waves, so boats can always make it anywhere along the coast. ... Night dives are possible most days, even with one person, although we should know in advance so guides are prepared."

Based on those assurances, Allen purchased a package with 10 dives. To avoid a surcharge, she prepaid in full using her Visa. She was faxed a "credit card authority and approval document" from an outfit called One Earth Safaris, which she filled out, included her card number, and faxed back. Allen tells Undercurrent that she didn't receive any statement of terms and conditions and nothing is on the lodge's website ( To be on the safe side, Allen purchased Travel Guard trip insurance.

Upon arrival at Manta Reef, Allen was told that it might not be possible to dive at all. High waves, unpredictable tides, and strong currents prevented the resort's dive boat from going out and created a lack of visibility that made even shore diving unfeasible. Because Manta Reef is in a remote location, Allen felt she had no choice but to check in, but immediately requested a refund, since her only reason for booking was to dive. She was told that only Sondhi himself could decide, but he refused to take her phone calls while she was there. They offered her a berth on a live-aboard as an alternative, but she had already told Sondhi the dates didn't coincide with her travel schedule and she's prone to seasickness.

Allen left the next day. When she got home, she had an e-mail turning down her refund request. Sondhi claimed that she could have made shore dives next to the lodge, though the staff had told her of the minimal visibility. Then he wrote: "According to the Terms of the Booking, I regret that I am unable to refund your payment, as this is now deposited in the Lodges [sic] account and according to the Terms of Agreement on cancellations between a Tour Operator and a Hotel In Tanzania, we are not entitled to any refunds if no cancellation is received in advance."

Howzat? Sondhi's e-mail address in Kenya is He controls both the lodge and the tour operator. So if you buy Sondhi's "explanation," we have an African uncle who'd like your help transferring millions of dollars to the U.S.

Allen contacted both Travel Guard and Merrill Lynch, issuer of her Visa card, seeking restitution. Travel Guard told her that changes in plans are excluded from their coverage. Merrill Lynch also turned her down, stating, "The merchant did not have the opportunity to render services, as you chose [to] make an early departure," which left her subject to Manta Reef's fuzzy refund policy. Merrill copped out on the question of whether the diving conditions met the minimal conditions Allen had been assured of.

The big mistake? Paying in advance to an unknown operation. Undercurrent gets several cases like this annually. While a travel agent or tour operator might have helped her get a refund -- or steered her to a different place -- paying in advance can have serious risks.

Ben Davison

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