When Pam Anderson and her boyfriend Marc Strenk visited Dubai this fall, they wanted to see the famous fountains. The couple thought they’d found a perfect tour on Viator through TripAdvisor — until a “system error” forced them to pay for their tickets three times.
That’s right, three times.
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Now Anderson is trying to get a refund from Viator, but there’s no easy path to retrieving her money. Her case is the latest example of corporate intransigence and a system designed to take your money but never return it. It also shows the value of paying with a credit card.
A “must-visit” Viator tour with a nonexistent ticket
Viator, the tour site owned by TripAdvisor, describes the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Fountains as “must-visits.” The tower looms over the fountains on Burj Lake. Viator’s tour allows you to visit both in “one hassle-free outing.”
Anderson looked forward to admiring the dancing fountains from the lake’s floating boardwalk. The 30-minute tour would then take the group to the Burj’s Level 124 and 125 observatories for a bird’s-eye view at sunset.
At the moment, the tours “start” at $90 per person on Viator. (Editor’s note: The tour is now unavailable on the Viator site)
Anderson’s boyfriend paid $160 for two tickets one month before they arrived in Dubai. He received a confirmation that instructed him to contact the tour provider, Just Dial Holidays, for tickets.
He did, but the tickets never arrived.
Who’s responsible for this mess?
“I contacted the local tour operator on the day of our tour via Whatsapp at 2:30 local time for our 5:30 tour,” says Anderson. “The local operator stated that he would need to cancel our original tickets, provide a full refund, and he would reissue the tickets, same time and date, due to a system error on his end.”
Anderson tried to charge the tickets again on her boyfriend’s Amex card. But Just Dial Holidays said it couldn’t take American Express cards. So finally, she forked over her Visa card number, which worked. Just Dial charged her an additional $149.
“At 4:54, we decided to stand in the ticket line for the Burj Khalifa,” she recalls. “I showed the ticket lady my email that said we were paid and confirmed. She explained that she could not provide tickets without the voucher. At that point, she called the local tour operator, who explained that he still had a system error, and we should wait ten more minutes.”
A few minutes later, a Just Dial Holidays rep again, and he said he would cancel the tour and refund her money.
Anderson paid another $121 for two tickets.
What’s the problem with this Viator ticket?
Does anything strike you as peculiar about this case? Viator advertises this tour for $90 per person on its site. Anderson paid $80, but then the price went down to $75 and finally $60, give or take a few cents.
Takeaway number one: Tour prices are dynamic. If you can wait until the last minute, you might find a better rate.
The second thing you’ll notice is the multiple parties involved in this affair. First, there’s TripAdvisor, which owns Viator, a company that sells tours online. There’s Just Dial Holidays, the local tour operator, and then there’s the actual tour operator, which is represented by Just Dial.
That’s a lot of parties. When you have that many companies involved in a single transaction, there’s a greater chance something can go wrong. And when it does, one company can point the finger at the other until you’re so exasperated that you walk away. And that’s exactly what happened next.
A long, impossible road to a refund through TripAdvisor
A few days after their tour, Anderson submitted a refund request on Viator for both credit card payments. Viator quickly agreed to refund Marc’s Amex booking but didn’t respond to a request for the second reservation. (Actually, Viator should have refunded the first charge automatically, without anyone having to ask.)
Anderson sent an email to the first TripAdvisor executive contact on our list, politely asking for her refund again. No answer. A week later, she emailed TripAdvisor’s CEO. Also, no answer.
“I know I can probably dispute the charges on my Visa card,” she says. “However, I thought it best to try to advocate for the refund before I disputed the charges.”
That’s a great idea. You can challenge your bill under the Fair Credit Billing Act if you live in the United States. Among other things, the law protects you from any unauthorized or incorrect charges and services you didn’t accept or that weren’t delivered as agreed. But as I note in my story on how to fix your consumer problem, you don’t want to wait too long. You have 60 days after the first bill to file a dispute.
Indeed, a credit card can be an indispensable tool for consumers, as long as you use it correctly. I favor a simple, no-fee credit card issued by your bank or credit union. Pay off the balance every month and don’t play the points and miles game, which is both addictive and dangerous to your financial health. I know, I know — I’m digressing!
But I agree with Anderson — it’s better to let the system work before trying the “nuclear” option of a credit card dispute.
How this Viator case resolved
I wish I could report that when my team reached out to Viator, it offered a speedy refund. But I can’t. We reviewed Anderson’s case and could see that Viator and its affiliates were holding Anderson responsible for a “system” error. They were also holding her refund hostage.
Our executive director, Michelle Couch-Friedman, reached out to TripAdvisor, Viator’s parent company. The company said its hands were tied since Anderson made her second reservation outside the Viator system. Michelle recommended that Anderson file a credit card chargeback.
In response, Anderson’s bank refunded not only her tour but the foreign exchange fees plus interest as well. Now that’s what I call a resolution!
How to book a tour and avoid “system errors”
We’ve covered Viator on this site before. It offers a lot of interesting tours, and as long as you stay within its booking ecosystem, you have some protections. But you can avoid problems like Anderson’s by following these recommendations.
- Book through a trusted source: Unfortunately, the Viator site makes it look as if the company “white-labeled” the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Fountains tour. That means, it looks as if Viator — or TripAdvisor itself — is leading the tour. You have to call to get details. Who is actually running the trip? How many “middlemen” are involved?
- Read the reviews: Again, unfortunately, there are no reviews on TripAdvisor for this tour. But you can find reviews for other tours on the site and on other sites like Klook. Note: TripAdvisor has a well-earned reputation for allowing unverified reviewers to post fake testimonials, so look for consensus among the reviews, but do not pay attention to outliers.
- Use a travel agent: A trusted travel advisor can act as a buffer between you and a stubborn tour operator. Agents take a commission, but you might consider it as a form of insurance. When things go south, the good ones will fight for your refund. (And if they don’t, it’s time to find a new agent.)
I can’t believe Anderson and Strenk had to pay for their Dubai tour three times. I also can’t believe Viator didn’t step up and help the couple get their money back, forcing them to dispute their credit card charges.
This is not good customer service.