by DVOC Council
Posted February 27, 2004
Updated May 31, 2007
(The Council and Officers of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club offer this article as a service to the club membership. DVOC has received specific reports that allege unprofessional and improper conduct concerning birding tour companies and we wish to prevent harm to any of our members.)
Just about everybody has heard the term “Buyer Beware!” Normally it conjures up images of sleazy used car salesmen, companies that sell cure-all products and, more recently, people who sell dubious goods through spam E-mails. In the birding community, honesty and integrity are generally considered the norm. Lists, big days, and sightings of rarities are all based on the honor system. Even questionable reports are assumed to be caused by an observer being overzealous or incautious, not by deliberately being dishonest. Generally, the operators of birding tour companies are viewed as being held to the same standards, and normally this is true.
The February 2004 issue of Birding (Volume 36: Number 1) published by the American Birding Association has an article on problems with birding tour operators. These warnings and anecdotes all referred to tour operators that were overzealous, incautious, and perhaps a bit “spacey”, but did not mention tour operators that might be dishonest. Unfortunately, fraudulent practices also occur in the world of birding tours. This article will hopefully help you avoid a bad experience. So what are the signs you should look for to ensure that your time and money are well spent when you book your next trip?
Problems Getting a Refund
Tour operators do cancel trips. While disappointing, this is a normal part of the business. Whatever the reason for the cancellation, a full refund should be offered immediately. Your money was sent to pay for expenses that never occurred, so there should be no problem having it returned.
There are reports of tour participants being unable to get their refunds from cancelled trips. The common thread involves the operator providing a mixture of excuses, delays, broken promises, and simply ignoring the “problem”. It appears that such operators hope that the outcome will be an exasperated client who simply gives up.
Case: After one participant was unable to obtain a refund through numerous phone and E-mail messages over a period of months, he went as far as sending registered letters. The tour company operator refused to sign for them.
Case: Three participants published an open message to a list server that outlined the problems they encountered as they tried to receive a refund for nearly a year. Delays included “the check is in the mail” and “the check must have been lost in the mail”. Promises included “I’ll send you another check immediately”. Once enough time elapsed, all inquiries were simply ignored.
Another obvious sign of trouble is an aggressive push by the tour operator to carry the client’s refund as a credit. While an offer to carry a credit may not be a problem for you, an operator should never try to “sell” this as an option. Operators that aggressively push credits over refunds may be financially incapable of returning the money and delivering the tour as advertised.
Borrowing Money and Credit Cards
Believe it or not, there have been reports of people being asked to “loan” a tour operator money or use of a credit card during the trip. Can you imagine being half way around the world and suddenly being asked for a loan to fund the trip? What do you do? The operator obviously doesn’t have the money to continue the trip, which puts you in a terrible spot. Or perhaps you’re asked to put the trip’s vehicles on your credit card? Promises are made, of course, that the card will just be used to make the rental and the bill will be paid before the charges are actually placed on your card. Once you’re home, the truth arrives in the form of a bill. As the finance charges accumulate, your calls for repayment go unanswered.
Reports have been received that this has been done many times to both participants and tour leaders. Participants are asked to loan money or for a loan of their credit card throughout the trip. Tour leaders have arrived at their destinations with assurances that the expenses are covered. Suddenly they are standing at a hotel a long way from home and they are being told that the bill hasn’t been covered.
Case: One participant was asked for a loan of several thousand dollars, and still has not been able to recover all of it. Several people have reported this.
Bounced checks should be an extremely rare occurrence for any company or individual, and a bounced check that is not instantly made good, including any bank charges incurred, is strong evidence that the operator is dishonest or in dire financial trouble or both.
Once checks are being routinely bounced, the problem has become more complicated because the participant’s money has been used to pay for some other trip or expenses, and cannot be refunded. When bounced checks become an operator’s regular way of doing business, you can be sure the owner has a cash flow problem and is using your money to finance other people’s travel.
Case: One person that had loaned the tour operator money received two separate $1000 checks, both of which bounced.
Case: One leader demanded payment of previous expenses before leading another trip. The check arrived just before the trip, was deposited, and bounced. Further bills were incurred on the trip. None of the expenses have been repaid.
Other problems have been reported such as the “mistaken” use of another person’s credit card for trip expenses, overcharging for airline tickets, sending undated checks for payment, failing to pay tour guides and lodges, and skipping out on meal checks for an entire group at a restaurant.
As you can see, any one of the above practices would be considered at least a serious breach of ethics, but when numbers of examples accrue to one or two tour companies repeatedly, it is incumbent on birders to BEWARE and to protect themselves, their time and their money.
What Can You Do to Protect Yourself?
It is very important that you ask around about any company that will provide a bird tour service. The trip you are planning may be very expensive, and it pays to be careful as you would if you were buying an expensive appliance. You’d consult Consumer Reports, talk to your friends and shop around before making a decision. Feel free to question the members, officers, and council of DVOC about their experiences with tour operators. When possible ask several people about their best experiences and their favorite tour company. Sharing information, both good and bad, is part of the reason why people join bird clubs in the first place.
Another source to use is the Better Business Bureau. See the box at the top of this page for specific instructions on how to search the Better Business Bureau's records.
The vast majority of bird tour operators, like the vast majority of birders, are honest people. This article is not intended to scare you away from taking tours. Tours are a great way to see areas and species that you might never see on your own. We would just like you to ask around and perform basic “due diligence” before selecting a company for your next birding trip.
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