Dear Tripped Up,
After two pandemic-related delays, we were finally set to take a $34,309 Nile cruise with Viking, leaving Oct. 25 and including several days in Cairo and additional excursions to Jerusalem and Petra, in Jordan. But the war broke out, and the Middle East is very unstable. Viking canceled our excursion to Jerusalem, refunded that money and rebooked our flights for Oct. 29. But we don’t think Egypt or Jordan is particularly safe right now either, especially for Jews. We are older, and are heartsick at not seeing Jerusalem and terrified at the thought of being targeted as American Jewish tourists during this war. Viking still has $29,435 of our money. We only want a voucher to take the same trip in the future. Can you help? Joseph and Antonia, Oakland, Calif.
Dear Joseph and Antonia,
Every traveler calculates risk in their own way, often through a mix of personal experience, news reports and emotion. That’s why it is unsurprising you are far from alone with your worries about traveling now — in recent weeks, plenty of consumers on online discussion boards have echoed your concerns.
This is also a high stakes issue for the travel industry, and it is hardly isolated to travel to countries surrounding Israel. Wildfires, earthquakes and, of course, the pandemic have disrupted travel in the last few years, and often people fear traveling in proximity to natural disasters and human-created emergencies. But does the fact that you are afraid for your safety require a tour operator to refund you your money?
I emailed Viking on your behalf on the morning of Oct. 24. Three hours later, you received a $29,435 credit toward a future cruise, good as long as you book within 12 months.
Was this a coincidence? I honestly don’t know, since Viking responded to neither my initial email nor multiple other requests for comment.
But the credit did represent an about-face from the company, whose replies to your earlier repeated inquires via email had included mostly boilerplate language. “We completely understand your concern and we are sorry to hear of your disappointment,” Viking wrote in one response. “You should know, the safety of our guests and crew is our highest priority.” They also told you they “work closely with our global network to understand the situation firsthand” and “are prepared to make any future adjustments as needed.”
To paraphrase: “You’re out of luck.”
You did make more progress by phone after receiving these rejections. On Saturday, Oct. 21, as you told me, a “lead customer support specialist” said she would check with management and get back to you by the following Monday. She did not, but eventually responded by saying she would try again. The next day, I wrote in.
Whether it was her or me or both, the fact that Viking parried your initial requests should not be surprising. There is only mixed evidence that travel to Egypt or Jordan could be any more dangerous than when you made the booking.
Yes, the State Department last month issued a “Worldwide Caution” notice that travelers should be alert to “the potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations or violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests,” but that’s not specific to the Middle East, North Africa or any destination. More relevantly, the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued a “Demonstration Alert,” warning that protests, “potentially including anti-U.S. sentiment, may occur in Cairo or elsewhere in Egypt.”
But despite the possibility of demonstrations, the fact that Egypt borders Israel does not necessarily equate to danger throughout the country. Sudan, Egypt’s southern neighbor, has been at war for six months, which has not seriously disrupted Egyptian tourism. And the State Department, which assigns danger levels from Level 1 (“Exercise Normal Precautions”) to Level 4 (“Do Not Travel”), had labeled Egypt a Level 3 (“Reconsider Travel”) in 2020, long before the Israel-Hamas war. Jordan, your other destination, remains at Level 2, on a par with France and Peru.
So though it may be obvious to you that travel to Egypt is too dangerous right now, it is not obvious to the State Department, or to companies like Intrepid Travel. Matt Berna, Intrepid’s president for the Americas, told me the company has neither canceled nor modified its Egypt (and Jordan) trips because of feedback from ground staff. “We have operations teams working with hotels, he said, “and group leaders out in the tourist sites and in the streets with the groups. They’re feeling what’s happening every day” and reporting in to the country offices. A State Department Level 4 warning, though, would trump that, he said.
Travelers like you are left in a difficult position when their risk assessment differs from the company they booked with. Even for those with travel insurance, geopolitical events are generally excluded from coverage — only a “cancel for any reason” policy would cover such a disruption.
“The consumer is kind of faced with this awkward option of going on a trip and being really fearful or not going on a trip and losing money,” said Jeffrey Ment, a travel industry lawyer who has fielded “probably 100” related inquiries from clients since the war began.
But the companies he represents are also in a bind, he stressed, because — though we travelers rarely think about it — they have already spent some or even most of what you’ve paid them. “Follow the money,” he said. “Maybe it’s gone from a travel company to a cruise line, or from a cruise line to a fuel supplier, a food supplier, a staff supplier or an entertainment supplier. And those other companies are not giving the money back, because travel to Egypt is open and on.”
“You can’t force Viking or anybody else to just gratuitously refund the money that they don’t have,” he added.
Well, you can’t force them, but you can sometimes entreat them.
Mr. Berna told me that Intrepid’s internal policy does make room for this. “While we don’t publicly announce free changes and free cancellations,” he said, “if someone calls in and feels like they’re just not going to have an enjoyable trip, a safe trip, then we’re allowing them to change to a different date in the same region” or even a future credit.
Or, as Mr. Ment told me when I asked him to assess Viking’s decision to grant you credit: “It’s common practice. The squeaky wheel wins.”
Luckily there are many squeak aids available to travelers, even beyond writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. (I welcome all travel-related complaints, though my capacity to squeak about Middle East refunds will likely not go beyond this column.) There’s posting online reviews, and registering more formal complaints through the Better Business Bureau and Elliott Advocacy, both nonprofits. The offices of your state’s attorney general are used to taking on travel companies (though state laws vary), and you can ask your credit card to squeak for you through a chargeback request, as long as you are ready to go back and forth with them for months.
Still, everyone should start with a personal squeak: Call or write to the companies yourself, attempting (with patience and politeness) to get bumped up the customer service ranks until you reach someone who has the power to make an exception.
If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to TrippedUp@nytimes.com.
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