Case dismissed: A vacation headed down the wrong track

Lynn Prater missed her train.

It’s worse than that, actually. There never was a train to miss, and she thinks her travel agent is to blame.

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Here’s the setup: Prater had booked a cruise with American Cruise Lines from Jacksonville to Charleston, with a brief stay in Orlando first.

My agent indicated that traveling between Orlando and Jacksonville would be no problem because an Amtrak train leaving around midday could get me to Jacksonville in time for my sailing.

After booking the air, she then found that she had read the train tables incorrectly. The train did not begin to run between Orlando and Jacksonville at the specified time until early April.

Furthermore, she found that the cruise was leaving earlier than she had thought, at 3 p.m., which would not make it possible to do what I had originally intended in Orlando.

Prater wants her agent to fix the problem by refunding $200 in agency fees and paying for a $180 price increase in her ticket to fix the scheduling error.

I contacted her agent at Advantage Cruise Travel to get her side of the story. Here’s what she told me:

I had never told her any train times since I hadn’t looked at any. I had just told her that Amtrak goes between Orlando and Jacksonville, which it does (but not early enough to make the mid-afternoon boarding time of American Cruise Line).

There’s also a Greyhound bus which only makes one or two stops and would leave the morning of the cruise and get her there on time.

Frankly, I feel that she changed her mind about Orlando, after telling me to issue the air ticket, and then fixated on the train times in order to not have to pay the change fee.

What a mess!

Prater was correct to use a travel agent for this kind of multi-stop trip, and it’s clear her agent tried to offer several options for travel. So I’m not sure if refunding $200 in fees is appropriate. Rather, it’s a question of whether the agent should cover the fare difference.

Prater could make a strong case for that if her agent sent her a confirmation — something akin to, “I have booked you on the 11 o’clock train from Orlando to Jacksonville.” But absent that smoking gun, this case isn’t leaving the station.

As a sad postscript, her agent reveals in a final email to Prater that she is thinking of leaving the business altogether. I guess problems like this can be demoralizing. I have a similar reaction when I get hate mail or when someone threatens to sue me.

What’s the takeaway from this? When you’re dealing with a travel agent — or any agent — be sure you have a good idea of what you want and can articulate it clearly. You don’t need to do it with lawyer-like precision, but don’t be vague, either.

Also, make sure you put everything in writing. Prater’s correspondence wasn’t complete, and I’m not sure if it’s because some conversations took place by phone, or that the client and agent were filling in the blanks by making assumptions.