Through a neighbourhood travel agent, in December 2019 I booked a tour of northern Italy, scheduled for May 2020. I also bought an expensive and comprehensive insurance policy that would allow me to cancel FOR ANY REASON. I stumbled upon this agent’s office in a local mall during the late winter of 2019. I told her that I was alone and on a limited budget. She told me there was a tour company that catered to solo travelers, and ordered their brochure for me in advance of the 2020 season.
The agent booked my ticket through a wholesaler. When I asked to reserve a window seat I was told I had to pay for reserved seating. This surprised me, but since I hadn’t been on an overseas flight in twenty years I accepted this. After all, I was dealing with a licensed agent who had been in practice for twenty-five years.
In February the agent notified me that I had been bumped from a scheduled flight and was being transferred onto another one. When I asked what would happen to the reserved seat for which I paid extra her response was, “What difference does it make. You’ll make your connecting flight.”
On Sunday, March 1, the CDC issued a travel advisory on northern Italy. The same day, Delta Airlines cancelled all its New York-Milan flights until May 1. I was scheduled to fly from New York to Milan. My flight was scheduled for May 5, so it wasn’t cancelled—yet.
On Monday, March 2, the Canadian government issued a travel advisory on northern Italy. On Thursday, March 5, the tour company cancelled The Italian Lakes tour. When the tour was cancelled, I asked the travel agent to cancel my flight. Though she had sold me an expensive Cancellation For Any Reason policy, she refused to do so. She urged me to wait for Delta to cancel my flight. “This way we won’t have to go through insurance. If Delta cancels, you’ll automatically receive a refund. It will be a lot easier, this way. I know my business. Trust me. I’ve got you covered.”
In the ensuing weeks, a new law was created stating that anyone who purchased an airline ticket before January 21, 2020 (On January 20, WHO officially recognized the virus as a global threat) was automatically entitled to a full refund, whether they had purchased insurance, or not. But I had.
On Wednesday, April 15, Delta cancelled my flight. Which is when, after e-mailing the notice from Delta, the travel agent called and instructed, “Now you pay a processing fee.”
“What processing fee? I don’t understand. You said if the airline cancels, then I don’t have to pay any fees. You said there would be a fifty-dollar fee if I cancelled, but if Delta cancels I would receive a refund automatically. Isn’t that why we waited?”
For me, while witnessing Italy’s agony, the five weeks between the cancellation of the tour and the cancellation of the flight was a nerve-wracking wait. Many people went through this “wait,” but I didn’t have to. I had complete and comprehensive coverage.
On the phone line, there was an almost imperceptible hesitation. Less than a pause; more than a beat. Then the travel agent responded, almost too quickly, “You misunderstood. If you had cancelled, Delta’s fee would’ve been much more than fifty dollars. But because THEY cancelled its ONLY fifty dollars. Actually fifty-two, with the tax. It’s the flight that’s cancelled, not your ticket. If you don’t pay the processing fee then the airline won’t cancel your ticket. Instead, you’ll get credit. And Delta could go bankrupt. But don’t worry. You’ll get the money back on the fee. We’ll claim it from insurance.”
I accepted, and hung up. Then I remembered that my credit card was reaching its expiry date, and I had activated a new one. I called the travel agent to give her my new credit card number so she could charge Delta’s “processing fee” to my card.
On Saturday, April 18, I received another call from the travel agent bearing “Good news!” This news was so good that instead of e-mailing, once more, the travel agent called. And on the weekend, too. I was told that if I paid Delta’s “fee” out of pocket (which was, I began to suspect and would later have confirmed, a fee invented by the imaginative travel agent), along with a thirty per cent “penalty” (which would also prove a work of fiction by the creative travel agent) to Manulife, (the insurance company), then Manulife would refund seventy per cent of the price of the insurance policy.
“But why would I give up my insurance? It’s—its—insurance! It’s meant to protect me! Especially with what’s going on now! You said Delta might go bankrupt! What if I don’t get my refund? Then at least I’m covered by insurance.”
“You’ll get your refund. I issued it on Wednesday. Even if Delta goes bankrupt you’ll get your refund because once the refund has been issued the money is out of Delta’s hands. It’s gone to Visa. Delta can’t retrieve it. YOUR REFUND HAS BEEN PROCESSED. Whatever happens to Delta, you’ll get your refund. Expect to see it in three months. And even if you didn’t get your refund from Delta, I’ve got insurance. You’re protected because instead of booking the trip on your own, you went through a licensed travel agent. I wouldn’t propose this to you unless I was sure that your refund is safe.” Then the travel agent’s soothing tone turned harsh, and the bullying began.
“Don’t you know the difference between 52 dollars and 197?!” Fifty-two dollars was the amount of Delta’s supposed fee, and 197 is what would be left after I paid Manulife a 30 percent penalty. My refund was becoming expensive.
“I know the difference between 127 dollars and fourteen hundred!” Which was the price of my ticket, the taxes, and the reserved seat.
I don’t consider myself a stupid person, or a particularly weak one, but the travel agent had all the answers before I asked the questions, and I finally succumbed. “O.K. So have Manulife deduct their 30 percent penalty, and send me the rest.”
“It doesn’t work that way.” The travel agent’s tone turned confidential. “I’ve got a friend who works there. She expects to lose her job in the next few weeks. She told me privately that Manulife is going bankrupt.” (Another major institution going bankrupt? At the height of the lockdown, everything seemed possible.) “But she says she’ll help us out. I have to pay her privately so she’ll issue the 70 per cent refund. Which means you have to pay me directly so that I can pay her. You make out a cheque to me. This is a good deal. I urge you to take it. If not, you’ll lose everything.”
“Fine, I can bring you a cheque on Monday.”
“Monday may be too late. Manulife could be bankrupt by Monday. My office is closed, so you can come to my home.” (which is in the neighbourhood.)
Caught in the force of momentum, on Sunday afternoon, April 19, in torrential rain, with an umbrella in one hand and a cane in the other (I don’t have a car. I can’t afford one), I limped to the travel agent’s large family home. With a great grin, she greeted me from behind a wide front window. She opened her door a crack and snatched the cheque from my hand. Then she slammed the door in my face.
I didn’t sleep that night. I felt awful. What had I done? How gullible could I be?
At nine am on Monday, April 20, I called Manulife. My call was transferred to their travel department.
“Why are you willing to refund part of what I paid for the travel insurance policy? Why are you being so generous?”
“What?! But we issued a full refund to you on Friday! It’s already in process! We don’t usually do that, but the travel agent convinced us to do it because there was no claim.”
“Not even a claim for fifty two dollars?”
“No. Nothing. No claim. We’ve sent you a full refund. 275.73. Don’t you want it?”
No wonder the travel agent twisted my arm. Having succeeded in scamming me once, she was so sure she’d be able to extort more money from me that she cancelled my travel insurance even before we spoke. She was almost right.
My next call was to my bank. “We can stop the cheque now, but if it’s already gone through, there’s nothing we can do.”
I wrote the cheque on Sunday the 19th, but dated it for Monday, the 20th. It was just before 9:30 on Monday morning. I am a generation older than the travel agent. I did not realize that she had already deposited the cheque through her phone. Still, the cheque was successfully arrested because, I assume, we dealt with different banks, and there is a two-day hold on transactions from one bank to another.
I notified the travel agent that I had stopped the cheque. She was furious. “But I’ve already deposited it! If I deposit a stopped cheque the bank will charge me a fifty-dollar penalty! I’m not going to pay fifty dollars! If that cheque doesn’t go through and I’m stuck with a penalty, YOU’RE going to pay it!”
The cheque did not go through. I do not know if the travel agent was charged a penalty, because she never told me. What she did was to call and wheedle, “I’ll give you another chance. Come on. Write me another cheque. It’ll be the last one. After this, you won’t have to pay any more.” Then she offered an alternative. “If you don’t want to write me a cheque, you can bring me cash.”
I declined the travel agent’s latest offer. Instead, I called Delta. Checking the date and time of the cancelled flight against the credit card number under which it was issued; I was told that I would receive my refund “between three weeks and a month.”
“Really? That soon? I was told three months.”
Testily the Delta agent repeated, “Between three weeks and one month.”
My next call was to Visa. “I want to stop my card, but I have a refund coming through. What will happen if I stopped the card before receiving the refund?”
“To prevent fraud.” I told my story to the Visa rep. I assume she was a young woman. She had a young voice. “Something similar happened to my grandmother!” The Visa rep erupted. “She hasn’t traveled for a long time and she went to a travel agent to help her book a trip. When the flight was cancelled the agent started bullying her and wouldn’t give her a refund. Just because my grandmother is an older woman, it doesn’t mean she can be pushed around! We work, we’re busy, but we care! I went to the travel agent with my grandmother and you better believe she changed her tune!”
“It stinks, doesn’t it.” I interjected. “Doctors have died trying to save lives, and travel agents exploit a global tragedy.”
“My grandmother isn’t alone and nobody is going to think so!” The Visa rep was almost crying. “I’m not going to let anybody push around my grandmother!”
My credit card was stopped.
A month later, I still hadn’t received the refund. Once more, I called Delta. This time, I was transferred to the refund department. After forty-five minutes on hold, I reached them.
I was never going to receive the refund. It was never issued. The Delta agent exploded. “Your travel agent dropped the ball!”
I told the Delta agent my story. Like the Visa rep, he erupted. “You bought an airline ticket, not a gift card. If you had cancelled then yes, there would have been fees. But we cancelled, so there are no fees. If your travel agent extorted a fee from you in our name then she committed fraud. She also made us look bad. I’m sorry you’ve been put through this. I hope you’ll come back to Delta.”
“Well, if I can get my money back then I’ll be able to reinvest it when the time is right. But I’m not rolling in dough. It took me years to save for this trip and I don’t have that many years left. I can’t afford to lose money.”
“Under normal circumstances, you’d receive your refund within a month. But we’re swamped. Right now we’re working on refunds for flights that were scheduled to fly in late March. We’ll examine this.
“Unfortunately, there’s another layer. Because of the way the travel agent issued your ticket, we can’t send you a refund. She issued it through a wholesaler, so if we were to issue a refund, we’d be obligated to send it there. The wholesaler would be obligated to forward the refund to you.”
“Wasn’t the travel agent obligated to send my refund to me?”
To this, the Delta rep had no reply. I told him how much I paid for the ticket. Slowly and carefully, he responded, “I can’t see how much is owed to you. The agent may have padded your bill. Because of the way the agent issued the ticket, the information is blacked out. I can’t even see who the wholesaler is. She cut us out of the loop.”
And I no longer had insurance.
On Tuesday morning, August 11, I was lying on the grass outside the deck of the outdoor community pool. I listened to voices coming from the water. One voice stood out. It was the loudest mouth in the pool. It was the voice of the travel agent.
On this hot summer morning, many people were at and in the water. Almost every recreational facility is closed and no one is traveling. Not even a travel agent.
I lay on the grass, and thought about it. Then I got up, went to another section of the large pool, dunked, cooled off, and thought about it. Then I threw on my sundress, packed my gear, and thought about it. Then I stood and approached the pool deck.
“Mrs. C____ I called. “When can I expect my refund!”
The travel agent was surrounded by a bevy of admirers. She is a local vedette. Everyone knows her.
The travel agent was quick on the draw. From the water she shouted, to the sky, to the crowd, and to me, “You’re not gonna get it ‘cause YOU’RE A BITCH!
On the pool deck, I stood my ground. “Regardless. I am still legally entitled to a refund.”
“Take it outside!” Another woman in the water shouted at me. It was to be expected. I was making a fuss. I was making a scene. Even worse; I was being unpleasant.
“No.” I cut off the woman in the water. “I want witnesses.”
The travel agent blinked. Her voice seemed to weaken. “You can’t get a refund because Delta is only giving credit.”
I glared at her. “I called Delta.” In the water, the travel agent appeared to gulp, like a guppy. I repeated, almost shouting. “I called Delta!” The travel agent shut up. At least, she shut up to me. As I was leaving I noticed a group of curious onlookers in the water surround her, like an ambush. “What happened? Who is she?!”
Caught, the travel agent blustered, “She’s abnormal! She’s abnormal! She’s just abnormal!”
I went home. While the travel agent was holding court in the sunshine, I was lying alone in a darkened room, gasping for breath and feeling something I’ve never felt before. The pressure was prolonged and severe. I sent a message to my brother, who is a physician in Ontario. The instant he received it, he called. “At our age,” my slightly younger brother intoned in the doctor’s voice he dons when an alarm goes off, “Chest pains are serious.”
Your money, or your life?