Dear Tripped Up,
When the pandemic broke out in March 2020, my wife and I cut short a trip to Norway, changing flights and canceling reservations that included a train ride from Bergen to Oslo that we had booked using Euro Railways. All the other vendors reimbursed us long ago, but we still haven’t received the $334 we’re owed from Euro Railways. In August 2020, the company’s director, Tom Louis, wrote to “ask our creditors for time to reorganize our finances” to avoid declaring bankruptcy. Fair enough. But since then, they have not responded to our emails. Any help would be very much appreciated. Douglas in Richfield, Minn.
I can’t say I’m surprised you never heard back from Tom Louis at Euro Railways, because from researching your issue, I suspect he never existed. In fact, the Euro Railways company no longer exists, either. The travel agency once registered in Coral Gables, Fla., went out of business in 2020, according to its former owner, Washington Cunha, whom I communicated with over email from his home in Brazil.
Beginning in August, Mr. Cunha wrote, the company will try to restart its business and gradually reimburse or refund money to customers. He added that the company was “really sorry” for the inconvenience. (Mr. Cunha would not say whether Mr. Louis was a real person, but I combed through many documents about the company and saw no sign of him, nor is there any trace of him on LinkedIn or the company’s social media; his writing style in the email you passed along contained grammatical errors similar to Mr. Cunha’s.)
If he is true to his word, there is a chance that you might eventually get your money back.
That said, I wouldn’t get your hopes up, as I’ll explain soon. But before we get into the nitty-gritty of your issue, your email was one of many I received complaining of tour operators and travel agencies dragging their feet on refunds for trips or other services canceled because of the pandemic.
In many cases, travel companies refunded their clients speedily; others never did. But while it is worth noting that the massive wave of cancellations that pummeled the travel industry in early 2020 caused vexing problems for all, third parties like travel agencies that serve as middlemen were hurt especially. These companies were waiting on refunds from railways, airlines, hotels and car rental agencies, and were thus faced with the challenge — as Mr. Cunha lamented to me — of getting repaid to be able to refund their own customers. Cash flow issues could become overwhelming, and sometimes it’s even more complicated than that, as agencies must follow the widely varying cancellation, credit and refund policies of the companies they buy from, and interpret those for the consumer.
Many smaller agencies, like Euro Railways, succumbed to the financial pressure and closed. Mr. Cunha told me that his staff had honored 68 percent of refund requests from customers despite rail companies — like Spain’s Renfe and Germany’s DB, he said — only honoring 23 percent of refund requests from Euro Railways. Mr. Cunha noted that in many cases he had received credit from the companies for future train travel but reimbursed customers in cash. (When I separately contacted these rail companies, a Renfe representative said all tickets had been refunded regardless of conditions and DB did not respond to a request for comment.) That left Euro Railways with a negative cash flow, Mr. Cunha said, even as it still owes $128,000 to people like you.
If that is true, you had particularly bad luck. Age-Christoffer Lundeby, the communication manager for Vy, the Norwegian rail company that runs the Bergen to Oslo trains, sent me documentation showing Vy had refunded Euro Railways for the value of your tickets, money that obviously never made it to you.
Unfortunately, you are not the first person to have problems with Euro Railways. The company has a history of complaints online, from this TripAdvisor thread that began 10 years ago to those registered with the Better Business Bureau. The state of Florida administratively dissolved Euro Railways in 2018 for failing to provide an annual report, and never reinstated it in the two years or so before Mr. Cunha stopped operating.
And perhaps most glaringly, in 2020, Euro Railways was sued by Rail Europe
I tried to follow up, and also broached the topic of whether Tom Louis was a real person. That appeared to be the last straw, and Mr. Cunha switched to Portuguese (which he knew I spoke), telling me to “go scare a pig,” a Brazilian equivalent of “go fly a kite” or “go jump in a lake.” He did not respond to subsequent emails.
So, alas, I couldn’t recover your money, but your story does shed light on two often confusing issues that could help fellow travelers: how to reserve train tickets in Europe, and what to do if you can’t get a refund.
For the train ticket question, I turned to Mark Smith, who founded the wonderfully obsessive train website Seat61.com. He said there’s really no need to use middlemen like Euro Railways. Instead, Google the train operator in the country where your journey starts and book directly through them.
“Ignore absolutely everything with the letters ‘ad’ in front of it,” Mr. Smith said, and go straight to the organic results. “You’ll save hours of your life by doing that.”
If you run into trouble — some European operators English-language sites are easier to navigate than others — try booking with the operator in the country where your journey ends, although then you won’t be able to get tickets printed at your station of departure so, be sure you get an e-ticket.
And for those still running into obstacles pursuing refunds because of the pandemic, here’s what I’ve discovered:
First, be sure you’re right. Occasionally, travelers book for the wrong date, overlook an email with an important change or opt out of insurance and then instinctively blame the company. (And by “travelers” I mean me.)
If you are right, start by exhausting all efforts with the company itself, always being firm but polite, and doing as much as you can in writing.
Then, turn to online reviews or discussion boards. You may or may not elicit a company response, but even if you don’t, you’ll be warning others about your experience. Be fair and rational — instead of venting, give a precise, detailed account of what happened.
Another option is to register a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, or with the attorney general of the state where the business is based.
Results may vary, but after receiving multiple complaints about the Boston-based Overseas Adventure Travel regarding pandemic refunds — as my predecessor, Sarah Firshein also had — I took one complainant’s advice and called the Massachusetts attorney general’s office.
Roxana Martinez-Gracias, a spokeswoman, told me that since January 2020, the A.G.’s office had received more than 950 complaints about the company and that “the majority” had to do with pandemic cancellations. The Consumer Advocacy and Response Division of the A.G.’s office has recovered more than $9.1 million from Overseas Adventure Travel, and nearly $4 million from other travel companies.
When I asked for a response from the company, I received a statement from Ann Shannon, a spokeswoman.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has created extraordinary, ongoing challenges for the travel industry,” she wrote in an email. “We continue to respond as quickly as possible to all travelers with refund requests under the circumstances.”
An underwhelming response, but at least she didn’t tell me to go scare a pig.
If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].