Can this trip be saved? The guest canceled — so who covers the refund?

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Christopher Elliott

Suzanne Cohen runs the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, a tour operator that offers kayaking trips in California’s rugged but breathtakingly beautiful Channel Islands National Park (no, that’s not hyperbole; check out our coverage from last year if you don’t believe me).

It’s a one-hour ferry ride to the island, and the fare is included in the price of the kayak tour. The ferry is nonrefundable within seven days of a trip, and so are her tours. But like everything else in life, there are exceptions to that policy.

She writes,

I have a guest who was scheduled for a kayaking trip today. This trip requires a ferry boat transport to get to the island. The ferry boats leave at 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., depending on the date. We talk to hundreds of guests in the office each week about this trip. It is our most popular trip.

Today a guest did not show up and our guide called her from the dock before the boat departed to see if they were planning to attend the tour. The guest claims that she thought the boat transport was at 9 a.m. for the day and the reservationist (which was me) told her the departure time was at 9 a.m., otherwise she wouldn’t have booked the trip.

This woman has had her confirmation with the meeting time for a week – her confirmation gives all the correct information for the trip and specifics she should check in between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. It is possible I gave her the wrong start time over the phone or that we were talking about a different date than she ended up booking, so the start time changed during the conversation.

Does the guest have a responsibility to review her confirmation when she gets it to ensure the tour she is booked on is the one she wants? Or should I apologize and give her the refund she requests?

Excellent question. Cohen says this isn’t the first time she’s had the problem, and is trying to come up with a “reasonable” policy for the future.

What should she do? This is no small amount of money: $170 per person for the tour, plus ferry seats at $59 per person.

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This feature normally deals with grievances between consumers and businesses, but it’s rare to get a look from the other side.

This isn’t an easy one. If Cohen inadvertently told the guest to be there at 9 a.m. but gave her a confirmation that said 7 a.m., then there would be shared responsibility. Yes, the guest is responsible for reading the confirmation, but if she was told to show up a 9 a.m., that might be a little confusing.

I think the guest should have tried to clarify the start time by phoning the Santa Barbara Adventure Company.

As to its policy, you might remind customers that it’s their responsibility to read the confirmation and verify the time for themselves. But at the end of the day, a tour operator is in the business of serving customers, and are you really going to stick them with a penalty of several hundred dollars?

I’m interested in your suggestions. Should Cohen refund the tour? What should her policy be?

By the way, I do have a resolution on this, and I’ll share it this afternoon.

Update: As promised, here’s what happened next. A few days after I asked Cohen if I could write something about her situation, she sent me the following update:

To let you know, I did issue a full refund to the woman yesterday. This means that I will pay for her two ferry tickets and eat the two spots she booked on a full tour on a Saturday in July (tour cost $170 per person – ferry seats $59 per person).

I really feel that she had a responsibility to look at her paperwork, as all the information was correct on her forms and she had plenty of time to review it. It also came out during the conversation that she reviewed the paperwork the night before and realized that the tour had an earlier check-in time than she thought, but instead of getting to the dock on time, she decided not come.

This is about the third time a guest has not read paperwork and then arrived for the wrong trip or date. I would really appreciate some feedback on this issue and how to handle it when it comes up next time.

Alright, any advice for her?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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