Travel agencies stingy with refunds

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Travel agencies stingy with refunds

When Ahn Ji-seon bought a five-day-tour package to Phuket with a stopover in Bangkok, her heart fluttered with the expectation of exploring grand palaces and floating markets in the capital city of Thailand and beach resorts on the scenic island.

Upon arriving at Bangkok Airport, however, the 33-year-old woman learned that she couldn’t move beyond the airport because the travel agent mishandled the stop-over procedure.

The agent failed to indicate that the traveler was going to stop over in Bangkok before moving on to Phuket. She was able to reach Phuket after being stranded at the airport for a few days, but the mistake made by her travel agent had already spoiled her mood and disrupted her entire trip.

As soon as she arrived in Seoul, she went straight to the travel company to complain.

But the tour company reluctantly said that it can only return one-fifth of what she paid, citing company policy. The tour package cost 1.38 million won ($1,208) and the suggested refund was only 230,000 won.

Ahn joins a rising number of travelers who have had their trips tarnished due to the negligence of travel agencies and often fail to be properly compensated. Travelers are claiming mistreatment by travel agents ranging from emergency landings in other destinations to exorbitant tips, but they are rarely compensated by the travel agents.

Korean travel agencies are known for having extremely stringent return policies, often leaving travelers out in the cold with ill-prepared services that offer insufficient or no compensation.

Not pleased with the tour company’s management, she reported it to the Korea Consumer Agency and posted her story on the Blue House’s official Web site, where citizens can voice their complaints. She was finally given a 50-percent refund by a state-run Tour Information Center, but it took three months.

“Older people mostly use tour packages and I doubt that they could complete this complex process,” Ahn said. “I hope the government tourism body will grade the service level of tourist agents so that the elderly can avoid those poor-performing agents,” she said.

The number of cases where tourists were unhappy with the service provided by travel agencies increased to 1,280 last year from 910 in 2010, according to the Tour Information Center, a government agency tasked with handling the complaints of travelers.

The most predominant cause of dissatisfaction last year, with 355 cases reported, was linked to cancellation policies.

The complaints related to arbitrary itinerary changes increased 151.1 percent last year, with 113 cases. Despite the increase in complaints, change may be slow in coming. Rules and regulations regarding consumer rights for travel are almost nonexistent.

“The compensation rules for the tour packages and flight tickets before one’s departure are relatively clear, but the rules for what happened during travel are not clearly defined,” said a representative of the Fair Trade Commission who requested anonymity.

“To determine the service level of a tour package is highly subjective, so measuring the level of a consumer’s satisfaction can be really tricky,” the representative said.

Legal experts emphasized the need to create the guidelines.

“If the argument surrounding the tour packages keeps mounting, we need to find a way out by establishing the guidelines,” said Song Oh-sik, a professor at Chonnam National University Law School.

BY MIN KYUNG-WON [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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