Numerous would-be travellers are furious with the Rocky Mountaineer as they are out thousands of dollars for rail tours that were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The frustrations centre on the company changing its terms and conditions for the 2020 season to offer people credits for future travel dates rather than refunded deposits that customers would be entitled to ordinarily if trips were cancelled well in advance.
The company is instead offering credits for 110 per cent of monies paid — a temporary measure good for 2021 or 2022 that was implemented due to this year’s season being cancelled due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
The situation has people like Wayne and Ari Millar from Australia butting heads with the Canadian company after it initially refused to refund them $13,000 Australian dollars.
Carole Green, husband Ralston and her parents, who are from New Brunswick, are out a combined $34,000 Canadian for a planned eight-day trip they were supposed to take this past June.
The Millars’ rail tour was planned as a way to celebrate Wayne’s retirement.
For Green, she took the trip to watch over her elderly parents, who have health issues.
The Millars opted to start a Facebook page dubbed “Rocky Mountains Train Rorts” in May to share their experience and advice with others trying to get refunds.
The social media page to date has nearly 200 members, one of whom tabulated lost deposits among 45 of the group’s members in the $400,000 range.
Myriad concerns were raised amongst comments from some 20-plus individuals KTW perused between social media, travel review websites and KTW’s own email messages.
Many said they cannot or might not be able to take their trips in the next two years, which is why they booked for 2020. Other points of contention include age of travellers and travel fears due to the pandemic, medical or financial needs, inability to get insurance and a lack of compassion in Rocky Mountaineer keeping monies for services that weren’t provided when other companies have provided refunds.
Some people reported being able to get a refund, but only after months of putting pressure on the company.
“It amounts to theft,” Michelle Stringer of Melbourne, Australia, said in a message to KTW.
Stringer said her travel agent was eventually able to secure a partial refund of the $13,500 AUD she had paid in full after numerous emails. Stringer said she has yet received said refund.
Jan Wilson from Melbourne, Australia, told KTW she was a bit lucky. She is out $2,600 AUD, but would have paid $13,000 for her and her husband’s August trip had her travel agent not advised her to hold off paying the full amount while the pandemic played out.
“We’re just very annoyed,” Wilson said, noting her travel insurance wouldn’t cover their deposit. “They haven’t provided the service and we don’t know if they can provide a service next year or the year after.
“I just don’t think we should be held to ransom to travel,” Wilson said.
The Rocky Mountaineer cancelled its season under the force majeure clause in its terms and conditions — an unforeseeable event (the pandemic) beyond its control.
Under the policy, bookings made more than 61 days prior to departure require a 20 per cent deposit, with a cancellation fee in that timeframe of the same amount. Between 46 and 60 days prior to travel, a guest must pay for 100 per cent of the trip and is charged half of that for cancelling. Cancel within 45 days of departure and the Rocky Mountaineer keeps 100 per cent of the trip cost — excursions that can cost thousands of dollars per person, depending on the length.
The force majeure section of its terms and conditions states the company is not responsible “for the performance of this agreement if prevented or delayed by acts of God, strikes or other labour relations matters, accidents, weather, traffic, airport conditions, lack of performance by third-party suppliers, or other causes beyond their reasonable control from meeting its terms.”
The document also recommends travellers purchase trip cancellation insurance and notes prices and information in the brochure are subject to change without notice.
The Millars paid for their trip in full by January of this year, but cancelled in March as Ari required major surgery.
By cancelling more than two months before the trip, they were supposed to receive an 80 per cent refund, but, the couple said, Rocky Mountaineer initially refused even after they pleaded that they needed the $13,000 for medical expenses, sending documentation to prove it.
They had also bought travel insurance, but said that company wouldn’t pay out for anything pandemic-related.
The Millars were eventually able to get 80 per cent of their money back from Rocky Mountaineer through a credit card charge-back for services they weren’t provided, Wayne said.
“The bank then pursued their [Rocky Mountaineer’s] bank [to reverse the charge] and then that gives them a bad credit rating, so the minute that happened, they buckled,” Wayne said.
He said he was disappointed the company didn’t initially stick to its refund policy by keeping the penalty fees, but allowing guests to recoup most of their money.
“I would’ve thought it’d be a no-brainer — give the people their money back, they’ll rebook, do the right thing and be a reputable business. It was just a nightmare and still is,” Wayne said, noting they are still pursuing their remaining 20 per cent deposit under B.C.’s Frustrated Contracts Act.
The Millars said their experience has soured them on ever coming to Canada to see the Rocky Mountains.
“I don’t want to go anywhere near Canada now,” Wayne Millar said.
The Greens, who are retired teachers, continue to implore the company to issue a refund, as Carole’s parents are both 84 and have health issues that may make it impossible for them to travel in future years, even if the pandemic eases.
“My big concern is what if one of my parent’s dies and they can’t go? Is that company going to keep that money?” Green asked.
Carole and Ralston care for Carole’s parents who booked what was supposed to be one last big trip, keeping it in Canada under their doctor’s advice. They booked the trip last fall and paid in full by January of this year.
“Then, of course, COVID happened,” Green said.
In the spring, the company cancelled their trip and offered them travel credits. Green said the hope was conditions would ease so they could go in the fall, but her parents’ health was deteriorating so they eventually opted to cancel the trip altogether.
Green began pushing for a refund, which the company denied, offering only credit for trips in 2021 or 2022.
She said she doesn’t feel as though Rocky Mountaineer is very compassionate to its customers.
“It’s a lot of money for them to hold on to. We could have been investing that money. What are they doing with it?” Green said.
She said she had no hope of receiving a refund until recently, when a representative from the company reached out, asking for more details about her parents’ health conditions and why a credit wouldn’t be acceptable.
COMPANY IN TOUGH SPOT
Rocky Mountaineer chief executive officer Steve Sammut told KTW he has empathy for people who are looking for refunds, but noted the company is in a difficult situation.
“If we were to go full-on refunds on this, the truth is it wouldn’t work,” he said, adding the company wouldn’t be able to keep its 150 or so employees who have thus far escaped being laid off.
Sammut said the firm had about 75 per cent of season sales in place by February, but not all deposits were paid in full. With the company having spent millions ahead of a season that never was, he described the company as in a position where it is trying to preserve cash.
“We want to make sure that we can deliver the service to a lot of those guests who book with us,” he said. “We want to make sure we keep the jobs, make sure we come back in the future for our partners. If we’re not extremely careful with our cash, that gets tougher to do to ensure survival.”
The company has taken other steps to reduce costs, including cutting staff and implementing wage reductions to hold on to funds.
Sammut said “it would be tough” on the company if it were to have large outflows of deposits from booked 2020 trips. He said those dollars are essentially being used for ongoing costs — to pay employees, for train maintenance and to cover leases and interest payments.
“Unfortunately, you can’t turn those costs all off,” Sammut said.
The Rocky Mountaineer delayed its season numerous times since April until it announced a full cancellation in July, despite having drawn up health and safety protocols for rail tours. Sammut said with 85 per cent of guests coming from outside Canada, the company would have lost a lot more money had it tried to run in 2020.
“You’re talking about running trains with — even if the domestic people had shown up — maybe five per cent of the usual volume,” Sammut said. “We felt we had no choice [but to cancel the season].”
He said Rocky Mountaineer has tried to be flexible and work on a case-by-case basis, offering in some instances the ability to rebook beyond 2022, as well as ticket transfers to other guests.
“At the end of the day, we want to get people on the train,” Sammut said, noting the company has tried everything short of mass refunding.
Sammut said the firm has been lucky because most customers still want to travel with Rocky Mountaineer and are rebooking.
Of a projected 75,000 guests, more than half have rebooked or taken credit.
Asked why the company cannot offer refunds to those who request them if most customers are rebooking, Sammut noted it’s unclear what their situation will be in 2021.
“Are those borders going to be open for sure? We’re trying to manage through as carefully as possible,” he said.
Sammut said there have been some cases in which refunds have been given for extenuating circumstances and terminal illness.
The company, he said, is trying to do what’s best for everyone and isn’t “sitting on piles of money here and thumbing our nose at people.”
“When you’re in that minority of stakeholders where you just want your money back, you don’t care about the rest of the stakeholders and I appreciate that,” Sammut said. “But, honestly what we tried to do here is make sure we get through because we think it’s in the best interest of all stakeholders if Rocky Mountaineer is still here in a post COIVD-19 world.”