Is this fishing trip refund dead in the water?

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By Christopher Elliott

Jim McClenathan was looking forward to a fishing trip to Montana this summer with a group of friends. But then the men found a better deal and asked for a refund. Even though the fishing lodge promised to quickly return the money, the checks haven’t arrived yet.

Is this fishing trip refund dead in the water?

This is a slippery case. It turns out that while the fishing lodge was dragging its feet on the refund, one of McClenathan’s friends didn’t pay his deposit. Confusion ensued. Their fish tale serves as a reminder to be careful with your paperwork when you’re acting as your own travel agent.

Don’t worry, our advocacy team untangled the mess just in time for their Montana fishing adventure.

How the fishing trip refund story started

McClenathan and his pals booked a week at the iconic Kingfisher Lodge on Montana’s Bighorn River. The trout fishing up in Fort Smith, Mont., is said to be incomparable. And the lodge promises to go above and beyond.

“Our commitment to hospitality runs deep,” it says on its site. “We promise to exceed your expectations.”

Apparently, it also exceeded McClenathan’s budget. He and his friends had each paid a $1,000 deposit earlier this year. Or so he thought. Unbeknownst to him, one friend didn’t pay his deposit. I’ll get to the details in a moment.

“We later learned that we could have the same trip booked through a different lodge in Fort Smith for a far better price,” he says. “So back in February, I informed the Kingfisher that I was sorry to let them know that our lodging plans had changed.”

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The Kingfisher Lodge promised them a 90 percent refund if they had to cancel their reservations 45 days or more before their arrival.

Fast forward to April, when McClenathan contacted us for help.

“I have twice requested refunds of deposits for my fishing colleagues,” he says. “My refund requests have been cordial and respectful. The lodge owner indicated three weeks ago then refund checks would be sent. To date, none of us have received refund checks from the Kingfisher Lodge.”

What to do when a fishing trip refund never comes

Wait, did he say “checks?” Dwayne reviewed his paperwork, and sure enough, they had paid their deposit by check. The likely reason? The lodge charges a 3 percent fee for any transactions by credit card. That not only deters guests from using a credit card, but it also gives the property far more power over the money, and particularly over refunds.

When a company promises you a refund but doesn’t follow through, you have more leverage if you paid by credit card. A promise by the Kingfisher Lodge in writing might be viewed as a debit memo by McClenathan’s credit card company. If the lodge didn’t follow through, he could have disputed the charge and received a full refund.

But with a check, you are at the company’s mercy. All McClenathan could do was ask repeatedly — and politely. The lodge had his money and could return it whenever it pleased. Or not at all.

Seasonal lodges in remote areas don’t always play by the same rules as the rest of the travel industry. (See the Becker’s Lodge case from last year.)
McClenathan and his friends had waited more than two months for their fishing trip refund and their patience had run out. That’s when he called us.

The real reason for the cancellation

Dwayne asked for the paper trail between the lodge and McClenathan. New facts emerged. He’d been a regular guest of the lodge for the last 13 seasons. On his last visit, he’d spent almost $10,000. So he was a big fish, as you might say.

But when the lodge’s ownership changed about a year ago, he says it raised its prices. He’d gone fishing last year under the new ownership. (Related: Need a tour refund? Try these expert strategies for getting one.)

“We had hoped to go again,” he adds. ” But their price increase was too great this year.”

I looked at the price tag for McClenathan.

Where is his fishing trip refund?

That’s about $460 a day for some of the best trout fishing in the world. Is that too much? Perhaps — unless you love trout fishing. But maybe that explains why one of his friends didn’t pay the deposit.

On a related note, if you’ve never gone fly fishing in a river before, you have to try it before you decide that $460 a day is too much. Once you’re hooked, you may think no price is too high.

What did the Kingfisher Lodge have to say about this?

Dwayne contacted the lodge on McClenathan’s behalf. A few days later, we had some good news.

“I have heard back already saying checks are in the mail,” he told our team. “Without your help, I don’t know how long our wait would have been.”

But when he received the checks, he discovered a problem. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

One of my guys made a $1,100 deposit and according to Kingfisher website he should have gotten a 90 percent refund. In fact, he got a check for a 76 percent refund.

Another colleague got a less than a 90 percent refund.

As for me, I got a 64 percent refund.

Better than nothing but the host decided that since one of the other clients never sent in a deposit, he would take that deposit penalty out of my refund. I acted as the event organizer for my group but I was never responsible for the bills of my fishing friends.

Sadly, things are ending on a sour note and we may never be able to return to this venue.

His friend never paid his part of the deposit

So we have a fuller picture now of this fishing trip refund. It looks like one of McClenathan’s friends didn’t pay the deposit, so now the lodge is taking his penalty out of the refund.

Unless McClenathan agreed to act as the tour organizer and assume financial responsibility for the group, that seems unfair. He says he made no such agreement.

So we find several useful lessons in this fish story. First, how you pay for any consumer product, whether it’s a fishing trip or a fishing rod, really does matter. I’m not exactly a fan of credit cards, but they can protect you in ways your checkbook can’t.

Second, if you’re going to be your own travel agent, make sure you know all of the rules before you make a reservation. The Kingfisher Lodge treated McClenathan’s party as a tour group and held him responsible for all of their deposits.

A representative for the Kingfisher Lodge says he discussed the terms with McClenathan by phone, but there doesn’t seem to be a written agreement.

McClenathan will need to collect the 10 percent penalty from his friend if he wants to be made whole. That’s an expensive lesson learned. But it could have been much worse.

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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 three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and 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 X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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