Emily James thought that participating in an international volunteer program would be the perfect way to experience a new culture, make new friends and see the world. Things didn’t quite go the way she had envisioned. Now she wants to know if we can help make this volunteer mismatch right. “A volunteer mismatch leads to a sudden end to this trip to Italy”
Question: I am a teacher at a high school in San Francisco that has lost $5,000 to Southwest Airlines. Our 12th-grade class did fundraising all year to raise enough money for a trip to Bahia de Los Angeles in Baja, Mexico, to stay at a Marine Biology lab owned by Glendale Community College. This trip was to allow the students to perform community service at the elementary school there, and for the Sea Turtle rescue station.
We booked seats as a group and per our contract paid in full by cashier’s check for our 39 tickets. A few days later, a travel advisory was issued because of swine flu. Since these are minors on a service project, we felt we had to change our plans. Southwest would not refund our tickets, so we accepted our only alternative to fly somewhere else of equal value. This only option was Las Vegas — not really a suitable alternative.
As time passed, and the restrictions eased, we asked if we could go back to our plan of flying to San Diego where we would pick up a bus to Baja. Southwest says it would not accommodate this request. We are dumbfounded. Can you help us? — Ellie Capers, San Francisco
Answer: Since when is Las Vegas an acceptable substitute for a volunteer vacation to a marine lab in Baja? Southwest should have found a better way of accommodating your class group.
Your case raises several red flags. The first is the cashier’s check, which is pretty much the same thing as forking over cash. Wherever possible, you should be using a credit card, since it protects you in case something goes wrong (for example, the company files for bankruptcy or sells you defective merchandise).
When any travel company insists on payment in cash or as a cashier’s check, don’t walk — run.
“Forget this volunteer vacation — let’s go to Vegas!”