Last fall, Kent Schroeder and his wife were looking forward to spending their anniversary at a Sandals resort in Jamaica. Then tragedy struck and his wife unexpectedly died. But when he tried to cancel the Sandals trip, he encountered an unbending company policy that wouldn’t allow for a refund — even under the terrible circumstances. But why wouldn’t Sandals allow the grieving widower to give the trip away to his daughter?
That’s what Schroeder wants the Elliott Advocacy team to find out. (Reprint)
This story is both sad and infuriating, but it also raises a question: What happens when you have to cancel your prepaid vacation? And how can you protect yourself from losing everything?
To be clear — Schroeder did lose everything, regardless of the results of our advocacy: the love of his life.
“I contacted Sandals,” he says. “They offered to extend the vacation period and I could take someone else.”
He couldn’t imagine traveling to Jamaica without his wife and, of course, wanted to cancel the Sandals trip completely.
“I asked Sandals if I could cancel and transfer the trip to my daughter and her fiancé,” he says. “They said no. It had to be me. At 84 years old, I don’t think I can find anyone to go to a place like this, nor do I want to.”
Sandals: You can’t cancel your trip for a refund or give it away
Whoa, hang on! Sandals was telling an 84-year-old recently widowed man that if he didn’t use his vacation credit, he’d lose it? Yes, it was. Sandals’ refund policy, outlined on its site, is clear:
If the guest desires to change, but not cancel a reservation:
- Received between 30 and 15 days prior to travel; a revision fee of $200 per person would apply.
- Received 14 days or less prior to travel; subject to full penalty.
- All requested changes to reservations are subject to Unique Travel’s sole discretion, and any changes must be approved in writing. Only one name change permitted.
Why does Sandals only allow one name change per reservation? If you permitted both names on the reservation changed, you could resell the entire room to a different party, potentially creating a gray market for all-inclusive resort stays.
Why won’t Sandals let this widower give his trip away?
While the change rule is understandable, should it be applied to everyone, including a recent widower?
No. The company should have reacted with compassion to Schroeder’s request to cancel his Sandals trip. But something — it’s not clear what — got lost in translation. First, my team asked Schroeder for his paperwork, but all he could show was an invoice.
All of his negotiations with Sandals had taken place by phone, it turns out.
Trying to fix a problem like this by phone is tricky. If Sandals is going to make an exception to its one-name rule, it should ask for a death certificate. You’re going to need a paper trail of correspondence between you and the company if you want to cancel your Sandals trip and assign the credit to family members to use.
Was there a communication problem between Schroeder and Unique Travel Corp., the company representing Sandals? Schroeder thought so, but that seems unlikely. He booked his trip directly with Sandals. No agents involved.
What really happened? Unless we review the recordings of the phone conversations, we’ll never know. But here’s my guess: I think Sandals, like so many other travel companies, has heard every sob story possible from guests who want to cancel their trip. Those travelers try all sorts of ways of wiggling out of the cancellation policy. Believe me, our advocacy team has heard them all as well.
I suspect its representatives either didn’t understand Schroeder or thought he just didn’t want to go on vacation and was trying to resell his trip to a friend.
How to avoid getting stuck with a worthless vacation credit
Schroeder could have taken a few easy steps to ensure he didn’t get stuck with a worthless vacation credit:
- Work with a reliable travel advisor. A good agent will fight for a full refund or a name transfer, communicating directly with the company on your behalf. Sandals has an army of agents that help sell its properties. But the agents work on your behalf, too. After all, you’re paying their commission.
- Buy travel insurance. A travel insurance policy would have allowed Schroeder to recover some or all of the costs of his trip. Then he wouldn’t have to worry about finding someone to take his place on a vacation he’ll never use.
- Do your due diligence. No one reads the refund policies when they book a vacation because no one thinks they’ll need to invoke them. But a quick review of Sandals’ terms and conditions would have at least allowed Schroeder to make a more informed choice about his vacation choice.
Instead of helping, Sandals sent him an invoice
Rather than reaching out to Schroeder with compassion and helping him, Sandals sent him an invoice for $517 — a change fee for rescheduling his vacation.
But Schroeder had already paid a change fee. He and his wife were originally scheduled to vacation at another Sandals property. But then she needed hip replacement surgery and they paid a $500 change fee to rebook in Jamaica.
“Each time the date and location changed we paid additional fees,” he told me.
He refused to pay the extra $517 because it would just be money thrown away.
“If I lose the entire payment I might as well save the $517,” he added.
Again, I’m not sure if the Sandals representatives fully understood why Schroeder wanted to cancel his own trip and give it to his daughter. If they did, they would have never sent him a new invoice. Right?
How to fix a Sandals cancellation problem like this
I think Schroeder might have avoided turning this into a featured advocacy case by reaching out to one of the Sandals customer service contacts on this site — in writing. Sandals has a reputation (at least among our advocates) of going above and beyond for its customers, even when no one is looking.
Calling Sandals, as I’ve already said, was not the best way to solve his problem.
Of course, the all-inclusive resort didn’t have to do anything for this customer. He knew the rules — or should have known the rules — before he booked the vacation. He didn’t have insurance, which would have protected him. But as a practical matter, travel companies — yes, even airlines — typically offer refunds when a spouse dies.
And bear in mind that Schroeder wasn’t even asking for a refund. He just wanted to give the trip away to his daughter and her fiancé.
Our executive director Michelle Couch-Friedman reached out to Sandals on his behalf to ask if he could give the trip away under the circumstances. A few days later, we received the good news:
I received a call from Sandals yesterday saying they had decided to honor my
request to transfer my February reservation to my daughter and her fiancé .
I contacted my daughter and told her the good news and they will be using my week at Sandals, Montego Bay, Jamaica. Case closed. I’m sure they must have heard from you and decided to avoid any negative publicity in such a situation.
I’m happy that Sandals did the right thing for him. But I wish it had done so without us having to get involved.