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May 2020    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 35, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Plenty of Tales of Woe Among Traveling Divers

Paid for a trip? Donít set your heart on a refund

from the May, 2020 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

After Undercurrent asked subscribers for stories of how their travel arrangements were affected by the pandemic, we were inundated with tales of woe. In general, people are being offered vouchers for future trips to the value of the money they have paid, but in many cases, future prices will increase, meaning a shortfall.

Airlines, strapped for cash, are also reluctant to make straight refunds. Lufthansa, the state airline of Germany, is technically insolvent, and others are close behind. IAG (owners of British Airways and Iberia), one of the better-placed financially, states they have cash reserves for only a few months. Singapore Airlines is mothballing some of its A380s in the Australian desert, obviously not expecting recovery of the long-haul travel market soon. How this bodes for smaller airlines that fly tourists around the Caribbean or Indonesia is unknown, but it can't be good news. Should airlines even survive the travel bans, social distancing rules may reduce passenger payloads by at least 50 percent with a resultant increase in fares.

So, stuck between a rock and a hard place, it looks like any money you have paid upfront will be worth less when the time comes to reinstate your travel plans -- sometimes even if you have a voucher.

Dive Operators

For the most part, dive operators are working hard to balance the economics of good customer relations with staying in business, but some divers are not happy, for good reason.

Mary Ann Heck (Gainesville, FL) booked a trip through Caradonna Adventures on Caribbean Explorer II out of St. Maarten, which was canceled, and says "Caradonna has not been successful in getting a refund from Explorer Ventures. The Prime Minister of St Maarten closed the airport and shut down the island on March 17, 2020. Explorer Ventures demanded final payment on Mar 20 when they knew the dive trip would not happen." While we understand the difficulty operators would have refunding everyone's money -- and that many divers are happy to reschedule -- some divers are seriously affected. Heck, for example, has had her working hours cut by a third, so she'd like the cash back. And, she is still waiting for Caradonna to get her a refund of her Delta air ticket (purchased through Caradonna), noting that her traveling companions, who bought their tickets directly from Delta, have received their refunds. We emailed Clay McCardell, owner of Explorer Adventures, to talk about this and other problems reported by readers, but he did not get back to us.

Ellen Smith (Edina, MN) was booked on the Tiburon Explorer in the Galapagos, operated by Explorer Ventures, but was advised to wait before rescheduling, since it would carry a 15 percent surcharge and 2021 prices were likely to be more expensive.

Rescheduling Isn't Always Feasible

Just because months back an operator set higher prices for 2021 and 2022, it doesn't mean they must maintain those prices; in fact, claiming so at this stage seems premature at best and certainly callous. The economic downturn will drive down prices, it will drive down travel, it will increase competition to fill spaces, and will surely mean less business. Citing higher prices for trips a year to two from now is unnecessary and will not ingratiate operators with their customers.

For example, Bruce Leibowitz (Newark, DE) had fully paid back-to-back trips to Socorro on MY Rocio del Mar canceled. Because rescheduling in 2021 clashed with another trip, he rebooked for 2022 and says he's being levied an additional $200 even though they'll have $8000 of his money interest-free for two years.

Blanket policies refusing refunds and only offering rescheduling puts a serious burden on some people, such as Undercurrent subscriber Daniel Niborski, who lives in Bariloche, Argentina, Patagonia, in fact. After his and Nery Tomba's liveaboard trip with Emperor Divers in the Red Sea, booked through Divers Around Spain, was canceled, they were offered a voucher to be used within 11 months, but no refund. He says it will be very difficult for the two, living on the other side of the world, to organize a second trip to the Middle East, and they may have to suffer a significant loss.

Josh Hall (CO) was treated even worse by liveaboard MV Dolphin, departing from Palawan in the Philippines. He wrote, "Despite multiple appeals to PADI Travel and to the dive operator directly to be reasonable about working with me because of canceled flights with airlines by the airline and level 4 'no travel' State Department warnings -- both dive operator and PADI Travel said ''tough." They said the Philippines is going to open May 1, and they are going, and if I don't make it -- it's my tough luck." Undercurrent tried to contact PADI Travel/Diviac on behalf of Hall, and though we made contact, they did not follow through on our questions; in fact, on May 1, the PADI travel website listed many liveaboard trips departing in May, but The Dolphin showed no trips until October. Josh has since contacted Undercurrent to confirm, "The dive boat operator has stated that even if he does not go or is prevented from going, he will keep everyone's money."

Even without the huge travel problems stemming from the coronavirus, online travel sites have a poor reputation for problem-solving. Val Laval (Toronto), who booked directly with the MV Infiniti, got a refund in 24 hours.

It was good news for Jim Squires (Saint Simons Island, GA), who had booked a trip to Cozumel. When he pulled the plug on it, Roatan Charters got him a refund of hotel less ten percent booking fee, a full refund from Dive with Martin, and a refunded flight cost from United Airlines. He was philosophical when he wrote, "For me, it has been an inconvenience and disappointment, but that is such small potatoes when I think about how the people in dive and travel industry are trying to cope or those individuals who become ill just try to survive."

Insurance Woes

If your trip gets canceled, take a shot at getting your trip insurance refunded. It worked for Adrian Snyder (Greenville, NC), whose trip with a group from Chicago to Captain Don's Habitat, Bonaire, got rescheduled for 2021, and DAN refunded their unused travel insurance.

When Jack Dempsey (San Diego, CA) heard his trip on the MY Kona Aggressor was canceled, he called them right away and got rebooked for the end of October, and DAN Travel Insurance changed the dates of travel. Let's hope everything is back to normal by then.

And, we must mention again, "Cancel for Any Reason" insurance carriers have found plenty of reason not to honor their policies and have proved to most people who have tried to collect to be a step short of fraud given the name of the policy. John Kirkiner (Skillman, NJ) was told that the coronavirus was a "Force Majeure" and his Cancel-for-Any-Reason CSA Travel Protection Policy did not cover him. Says John, "What a scam." Yes, indeed.

Travel Agents

Travel agents work on their clients' behalf and had put a lot of time into putting together trips before coronavirus canceled those trips; they earned their money, and most folks think they should be able to keep it. Wayne Joseph (San Mateo, CA) and his wife were booked through Underexposure for a trip to Bonaire that was canceled; Underexposure refunded $800, keeping $200 of the $1000 they had paid. He wrote, "At first I was a bit perturbed not receiving the full refund, but after reading your article in the most recent Undercurrent, I changed my mind and felt it was fair to all concerned. Everyone is losing out on this sad turn of events."

There Can Be a Lot of Money at Stake

Group bookings require big money. Susan Welch (Stuart, FL) had booked her group through Reef.org for a trip on an Explorer Ventures boat in Raja Ampat that was canceled. She wrote to Undercurrent, "It is a very expensive trip. Because they were fully booked next year, we were offered a trip in two years, but they want an extra $350, because the trip is one day longer, which we'd have to pay a year before departure. I am not comfortable with them holding our money for two years, then requesting more, one year out. They want us to continue to invest in them with no consideration for the $100,000 we have already given them. Who knows if they will even be in business in two years?"

She added, "In a situation like this pandemic, the closer you are to a departure, the more expenses the boat will incur. I don't think we should expect to be reimbursed for food that was purchased, for example, or expenses directly related to the trip. On the other hand, why should we pay the national park fee?"

Mike Lever of Nautilus Adventures summed up the unprecedented situation in which the dive travel industry finds itself, when he wrote to Undercurrent, "I think the thing is that virtually everybody in the dive industry are good people. Everyone is stressed, fearful, outside our previous experiences, and often making mistakes. We're worried about staff, worried about going bankrupt. It's super easy to make a mistake in handling issues and easy to make a mistake and come up with a misguided, wrong policy."

Yes, it's indeed tough for each and every one of us. Stay well, our fellow divers.

- Ben Davison

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