During the pandemic, it’s easier than ever to ruin your anniversary — especially if you’re planning to travel. Willie Williams found this out in a most unpleasant way.
Last month, Williams and his wife were eagerly looking forward to celebrating their anniversary on a sunny beach in Jamaica. A few days before departure, they were patiently waiting for Rite Aid to provide the results of their pre-trip COVID test. But all their anniversary dreams were ruined when those test results came too late for them to board the plane.
Instead of celebrating their anniversary in the tropics, they spent it staring at a $3,500 nonrefundable invoice from Vacations To Go.
Now the couple is pleading with the Elliott Advocacy to pull their anniversary plans out of the ruins. But is that something we can do?
Never in the history of Elliott Advocacy have so many rejected travelers shown up in our inbox asking for help. This case is another cautionary tale in a long string of painful sagas detailing unfulfilled adventures and financial loss.
Planning an anniversary trip after a long quarantine
Last spring, Williams and his wife decided to plan a memorable trip for their anniversary. They wanted to travel to Jamaica, where they could enjoy the tropical sun after so many months in quarantine.
But realizing that traveling during the pandemic can be complex, the couple decided to use Vacations To Go to plan the trip. They felt that booking their journey with a real person would alleviate much of that confusion.
“We booked our trip to Jamaica with Vacations To Go,” Williams remembered. “Our agent Romy handled the airfare, travel insurance, and hotel. It was easy.”
After booking the anniversary trip, the couple excitedly started planning everything they would do in Jamaica.
Unfortunately, they wouldn’t end up doing anything at all in Jamaica.
But they didn’t know that yet.
Pre-trip COVID testing at Rite Aid. How long does this take?
Williams knew that the pandemic had inspired new entry requirements for Jamaica. He visited the Jamaican embassy website and learned that all visitors must complete a Travel Authorization.
Part of the approval process to visit requires proof that the traveler is negative for COVID.
Four days before departure, Williams and his wife made an appointment to take a free COVID test at their local Rite Aid.
I called Romy from Vacations to Go to clarify the timing of the COVID test. But she told me that it was too early, and that we should schedule the test for Saturday. Based on her guidance, I rescheduled the COVID test at the Rite Aid pharmacy.
It turns out that neither date would have worked to save this anniversary trip from ruin — at least not at the Rite Aid testing site.
Romy was correct that a test taken four days before entry would be too soon. According to the official Visit Jamaica site, to receive an approved Travel Authorization, a passenger must have a negative COVID test result, and: The date of the sample collection must be within 3 days of the date of travel.
But the results of a free test taken at Rite Aid just three days before departure had very little chance of returning in time. At that point, the best way to prevent the anniversary disaster that eventually came to pass would have been to find an alternative testing site — one that could provide a guaranteed return date.
However, the couple rescheduled the free COVID test for the next day at Rite Aid.
Waiting and waiting for Rite Aid to send the test results
Rite Aid provides a free COVID testing service for customers — however, the company makes no guarantees as to when you’ll receive your results.
For Williams, two days passed, and there were crickets from the lab.
We started to panic and asked Romy what we should do. All she kept telling us is that the trip was nonrefundable. Then she started telling me we should have bought special COVID insurance that would have covered this situation. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about.
Unfortunately, the couple had only purchased regular travel insurance — and it would not cover a trip missed because of a delayed COVID test.
As the clock ticked closer to the departure time, Williams and his wife obsessively checked for an update from Rite Aid.
It never came.
Romy said that if we canceled, we would receive no refund. So we just kept hoping and waiting. The morning we were supposed to leave, we finally accepted that our anniversary was ruined. Because Rite Aid hadn’t sent our results in time, we weren’t going anywhere.
Asking Elliott Advocacy: “Can Vacations to Go ruin our anniversary like this?”
When Williams’ plea for help landed on my desk, he sounded defeated — but was placing all the blame on Romy. He was still under the impression that her COVID testing guidance was incorrect.
I just want to tell you about what happened to me. I saw your article in the Washington Post and wanted to share my most recent experience with Vacations to Go. Our anniversary trip was ruined because our agent told us to delay our COVID test. We didn’t get the results in time and missed our trip. Maybe you can suggest some help.
As I read further through Williams’ paper trail, I knew that whatever good news I might be able to get for him would depend on some amount of goodwill from either Vacations to Go or American Airlines Vacations.
Fact: It is always a traveler’s responsibility to know and possess every bit of documentation needed to enter foreign lands.
Also a fact: Because of the pandemic, there are more requirements than ever that travelers must be aware of and consider. Right now, it’s quite easy to end up missing a much-anticipated trip while also losing all the money you invested in it. Our files are quickly filling up with these cases.
In Williams’ case though, I was a bit confused. After all, he was aware of the requirements for entry. Even so, the couple had just let the clock run out without attempting to go to another COVID testing site. I asked him how this had happened.
We looked around and we couldn’t find another available site that could give us the results right away. In our area, rapid tests are mostly for people who think they have COVID. Our local airport doesn’t offer that service yet, either. And by the time we realized there was a delay with the Rite Aid lab, it was too late. Now our anniversary is ruined and they won’t credit us or refund the $3,500 — as if people just have money to throw around. We aren’t asking for a refund — we would just like a credit so we can try again.
Asking Vacations To Go, is this traveler entirely out of luck?
I decided to contact Vacations To Go for some clarification. I wanted to find out if there was any way to save any part of the cost of this lost anniversary trip.
I have one of your customers here that appears to have failed to get the required COVID test in time for his vacation to Jamaica a few weeks ago. I’m a bit unclear why he couldn’t get a COVID test in time for the trip. But what I would like to know from you is if he was able to alert you in time? Did you cancel his reservations so that he wasn’t a no-show? Does this couple have a future credit with Vacations To Go or with the airline and hotel? At this point, he is unclear about the fate of the $3,500 he spent on this trip. Can you shine a light on this issue and let me know what happened concerning this cancellation? Thank you!
The bad news came quickly.
It was a hard no for refund or travel credit.
“Vacations To Go is simply a travel agency.”
Dear Ms. Couch-Friedman,
Thank you for your inquiry. We can certainly understand Mr. and Mrs. Williams’ frustration at not being able to take their vacation as they originally planned.
I think it is first important to point out that Vacations To Go is simply a travel agency. American Airlines Vacations determines the payment and cancellation guidelines for Mr. and Mrs. Williams’ reservation, not us. However, while Vacations To Go cannot control the policies of each vendor, we will always do what we can to assist our clients.
And I made sure that Vacations To Go understood our position.
Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. Yes, of course, I understand that Vacations To Go is just the travel agency and isn’t responsible for this traveler’s missed vacation. I was just curious about this traveler’s situation. It’s odd that he couldn’t find a place to get a quick test, and then he just missed his entire anniversary trip because of it. I assume that his vacation is nonrefundable because it’s a discounted, package deal? Did this couple end up getting marked as a no-show?
I will send the case over to our contact at American Airlines to see if she can clarify if there is any value left for this missed vacation. 😊 Michelle
The verdict from Vacations to Go: The couple did not ever officially cancel their trip. Because they continued to hold out hope that the results would appear in time, the clock had run out and they were no-shows.
Asking American Airlines: Is there a way to save this ruined anniversary?
American Airlines Vacations typically offers deals that are discounted and, as a result, frequently nonrefundable. It appeared that the anniversary trip Williams booked had “use it or lose it” terms. But I wondered if because of the unusual circumstances of the pandemic there might be some flexibility in this case.
I decided to ask our executive contact at American Airlines.
How are you?
I hoped your team might look at this case and let me know if you can do anything for this couple.
So I’m not sure why they couldn’t get a COVID test result before their flight to Jamaica, but there seems to have been some problem with the Rite Aid lab.
Instead of going to another location, the couple waited until it was too late and missed their American Airlines Vacation (booked through Vacations To Go). At this time, I believe everyone involved understands the request for a future credit is probably a goodwill gesture request. When I spoke to Vacations To Go today they also seemed a bit confused by this case.
I was just hoping your team could look and see if there is any possibility of a do-over here. I realize these packages are booked in a different way than regular flights. But is there any hope for this couple to recoup any of their loss?
Thanks for having a look! 😊. (Michelle to American Airlines)
The good news from American Airlines
And soon, the good news came from American Airlines. Given the unusual circumstances of the pandemic, American Airlines would grant the Williams a full travel credit on their nonrefundable trip.
Good news! The team has issued a future travel credit in the amount of booking for the customer. They just left a voicemail and sent an email to follow up letting them know.
Williams is thrilled, and he and his wife are busy planning a do-over. And one thing is for sure — they won’t be using the free COVID testing service at Rite Aid before their next anniversary trip!
How to prepare for travel during the pandemic, so you don’t ruin your anniversary!
Of course, no one wants to knowingly ruin their own anniversary plans. However, in this case, there were steps Williams could easily have taken preemptively to avoid the shockingly disappointing outcome. But this couple is not alone. Each day, our team receives additional cries for help from travelers who’ve run afoul of the constantly changing rules for successful navigation of the world.
Here’s what to keep in mind while preparing to travel internationally — anniversary or not — during the pandemic.
- Research your entry and return requirements.
There has never been a time in modern history in which travel has been more unpredictable and complicated. It’s no exaggeration to say that entry and re-entry requirements for international travelers are changing at lightning speed. If you choose to venture abroad during the pandemic, you must commit yourself to a research project. That is to say, you must be willing to spend a significant chunk of your pre-trip planning learning about and making sure that you understand, and comply with, all the requirements for travel to and transit of any destination on your itinerary. And don’t forget to check the requirements for re-entry to the United States.
- Plan for your official COVID test.
Nearly every country worldwide now requires visitors to provide proof of negative COVID status. That’s true even if the traveler has been fully vaccinated. In preparation for a trip, visit the U.S. Department of State and the online embassy or consulate of your destination to determine testing requirements. Some countries might indicate the test must be performed within a certain number of days. While other, more strict destinations will invalidate a test after a specific number of hours. Remember what happened to Sarah Sigie last year when she arrived in South Korea with an expired COVID test? If you don’t want to get “locked up abroad” too, make sure to pay careful attention to the timing requirements of the test. Also, keep in mind that not all tests are acceptable for travel or re-entry to the U.S. Before spending money at a COVID testing site, verify that you can use the results for official purposes. Finally, don’t forget to confirm whether or not the site can provide you with your results in time for your trip. Free testing sites typically have a slower turnaround. The Rite Aid this couple used offers free testing but no guarantee of when the results will be available. If you need your results quickly or by a specific time, expect to pay a fee. Pro-tip: The Visit Jamaica site provides a handy COVID testing calculator that travelers can use for other destinations as well. The calculator is set to tell you exactly when is the right time to test for your trip.
- Use Timatic.
The professional version of Timatic is what airlines use at the check-in counter to determine if a passenger has all the required travel documentation. This database is updated many times per day to keep up with the ever-changing health regulations and documentation policies worldwide. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) makes the free version of Timatic available to all travelers. If you’re planning a trip, this tool is invaluable. You can check your health, visa, and passport requirements for your destination and transit countries as many times as you want — for free!
- Work with a professional travel advisor.
Our team always extols the value of a good travel advisor. But during this particular time in history, the services that such professionals provide can’t be overstated. When you book your vacation with a skilled agent, that person will take much of the guesswork out of your travel planning. You can find an American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) verified travel advisor here.
- Prepare yourself for surprises — get travel insurance.
If you intend to travel internationally, it’s essential to be prepared for surprises. Before you book a trip, consider what might happen if you test positive for COVID abroad and need to extend your trip in quarantine for 10-14 days. Will your employer be ok with that? Can you afford the unexpected expenses? Do you have insurance that will cover treatment in a foreign country? It’s important to note that many destinations now require travelers to have valid international health insurance. You can use a site such as InsureMyTrip to compare various travel insurance policies based on your personal needs. It’s critical not to skip this crucial part of travel planning. Because as we’ve seen in recent cases (My honeymoon ended in disaster at the airport. Who owes me $7000?), if you don’t have that proof of valid medical coverage, you likely won’t be going anywhere. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)