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Tripped Up: What to Do If Your Travel or Tour Company Goes Bankrupt

For 2021, my husband, sister and I signed up for a five-day Tremendas-Tawas-Lake Huron tour hosted by Pardson, the Ohio company that publishes Birdwatcher’s Digest magazine. In total we paid about $4,800. The tour was canceled that year due to COVID-19, but we accepted the credit because we were eager to see the rare Kirtland Warbler. Shortly before the rescheduled trip departed in May 2022, the company emailed them saying they were closing and someone would contact them about a refund. No one did, but in my own efforts I reached out to Jack Harris, the person responsible for the Pardson breakup. He said the only way to get the money back is through a credit card. But American Express said I was too late. can you help? Atlanta, Paige

My inbox is full of messages from people like you who have no idea if the company you booked your trip with will be able to maintain your solvency until the departure date.

But most of those complaints are about lost flights or cruises, not missed opportunities to see planes. Yellow-bellied songbird So rare that it breeds almost exclusively in the shade of young jack pine trees in Michigan and Wisconsin.

It is beyond the scope of this column to see how this lovely bird behaves in the more mature shade. But I can tell you the frustrating reasons behind your money being lost forever, even though many others in similar situations can get their money back with relative ease. can.

We are essentially talking about bankruptcy. However, I am not using that term here because, strictly speaking, the term applies only to cases brought in the federal court system. Often the infamous Chapter 7 and 11 provisions are used. Pardson, which has published birding magazines and operated tours since 1978, filed a lawsuit in Ohio state court.

But for our purposes, federal and state processes are more alike than different, like crows and crows. And both systems have one very easy way for travelers to get their money back, and there is another way with longer odds if the first way fails.

An easy way, but only under certain conditions, is to use a credit card. First, travelers must use a credit card. Debit cards and other payment methods will not work. The reason is that credit card issuers must comply with the Fair Credit Billing Act signed into law by President Gerald R. Ford in 1974. Under his one provision of the law, credit card issuers are obliged to refund cardholders who have suffered a billing error.

The law’s definition of “billing error” also includes a company’s subsequent failure to provide goods or services. How does bankruptcy turn what was a legitimate purchase retroactively into a billing error?

I used an Amex credit card with an annual fee of $500. However, when the magazine canceled the tour in 2022, it turned out to have given them bad advice to wait until someone contacted them about a refund. If they had advised me to contact my credit card company immediately, I would probably have gotten my money back.

The Fair Credit Billing Act strictly requires contacting your card issuer within 60 days of purchase, but this is true. American Express spokeswoman Jessica DeFilipo wrote in an email: “Generally, the 60-day limit can be extended to cardmembers for up to 120 days from the time of purchase or, in the case of pre-booked travel, from the date of travel.”

That last part is important because many people book their trips well in advance. Spokespeople for Bank of America and Chase said both companies have similar policies for their credit cards.

That’s great for everyone but you. You said Mr. Harris, a recipient of Pardson, advised him to try American Express and explain that he had just learned of the company’s bankruptcy.

But that was almost 11 months after the travel date, and as you know, American Express rejected your claim, probably because the travel date was too long. (Ms. DeFilippo writes that “every case is evaluated independently” but cannot comment on your specific case.)

That leaves us with a second, more dangerous path to refunds. That is to file a claim against the company’s liquidation assets, which are now under the control of Mr. Harris and which require approval from the Civil Court in Washington County, Ohio.

Marvin Sicharman, a longtime bankruptcy attorney and a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, tried to counteract those expectations. Here’s his take after I explained your case:

“I want to say to my creditors, ‘Close your eyes.’ What do you see? None? Well, that’s what you recover.”

Harris declined to comment. I knew the court documents contained that information, but I struggled to access them until I had the expert assistance of Brenda Wolfe, the Washington County Court Clerk since 1979. (she answered mine on her first call).

When Pardson went bankrupt, the company had few assets other than vans and computer equipment, according to documents. When I forwarded the papers to Mr. Sitcherman, he said these assets would hardly cover Mr. Harris’ fees. Anything more than that would go to employees or secured creditors, such as banks that can seize property from mortgages and auto loans, he said. As an unsecured creditor, filing a claim is hardly worth your time.

Court documents revealed that Harris had a judge approve the sale of the magazine itself to a new owner. But the owner who changed the name of the magazine BWDwas only responsible for paying back approximately $200,000 to the contractor and had no liability for the tour.

The new publisher also did not respond to my email, but a local NBC affiliate report from March 2022 a new publisher has taken over some of the old staff, and, frustratingly for you, one of the reasons the magazine went bankrupt is “we don’t want refunds on birding tours because of the pandemic. I had to do it,” he pointed out.

This will start a two-part lesson. Part I: If your trip is canceled and you are given the choice of getting your money back or accepting a credit, you will receive your money. Part II: If you are given no choice, ask for money anyway. If the company fails or doesn’t run the tour, you’re out of luck.

Good news for everyone here. The above scenario is generally true. If the company dissolves, we will never see each other again. There is more hope for consumers when businesses are resurrected through bankruptcy, as they may try not to alienate loyal customers.

And there’s a lesson fellow Tripped Up reader Jen from Brooklyn learned earlier this year. Her family’s trip from New York to Sicily was interrupted after the two-year-old Norwegian carrier Flyer had an accident. filed for bankruptcy In January, a plan for her husband and sons to fly to Oslo on a major airline and then catch Flyer’s low-cost Oslo-Palermo flight fell through. When Freia went bankrupt, they had a round-trip ticket to Oslo and from there there was no easy way to get to Italy. After writing to me, yet within 60 days of her purchase, Jenn asked for and received a refund on her Chase Sapphire Preferred card. But the cost and inconvenience combined with her new indirect flight made her regret her days trying to save money on her untested airline.

When I suggested to Mr. Sitcherman that travelers might want to avoid new, untested companies, he said it wasn’t that simple. “The average consumer has no way of judging the creditworthiness of the companies they do business with,” he said.

But thanks to Ford-era laws, you can minimize your risk by using the best credit card you have.

If your best travel plans fell through and you need advice, Send an email to TrippedUp@nytimes.com.

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