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THE FINE PRINT

A safari canceled, a refund long delayed

It took 17 months for two couples to get $46,000 back from a Boston travel company.

Theresa Stablewski and James Stablewski of Danvers along with her sister and husband have been waiting for 16 months to get their $45,000 refunded on a canceled trip to Africa with Vantage Travel. The trip was canceled by Vantage due to COVID. Theresa said she was taken aback by a story in the Globe recently about Vantage's launch of a $70 million cruise ship in Boston. Theresa Stablewski holds a Vantage Travel brochure about Africa.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Theresa Stablewski looked at the pictures of the new luxury cruise ship launched in Boston harbor and shook her head in disgust.

To Stablewski, the photos, which appeared with a story in the Globe and on its website on Oct. 25, were galling. One showed a top executive of Vantage Travel smashing a bottle of champagne to christen the company’s new $70 million ship, Ocean Explorer.

For Boston-based Vantage, the happy occasion marked the company’s expansion into ocean cruising after being in the travel business for almost 40 years.

“Good for them,” Stablewski said she thought to herself. “But why can’t they give me my money back?”

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Two years ago, Stablewski, her sister, and their husbands, paid Vantage $46,000 in advance for a trip of a lifetime, a safari to Africa, scheduled for August 2020.

But the trip was canceled by Vantage due to COVID in June 2020. Vantage at first tried to entice the two couples into accepting a credit toward a later trip, but Stablewski and her sister firmly declined, and the company agreed to return their money.

That was 17 months ago. And all they’ve received from Vantage since then is the runaround.

“I wish them no harm,” said Stablewski, 72, a retired school secretary from Danvers. “But I certainly will never do business with them again.”

Had she known beforehand about the dockside gathering for the launch, Stablewski said she would have shown up at the press-attended event to pressure Vantage executives into finally making good on its promised refund.

“We are all over the age of 70 and retired and this is a large sum of money,” Stablewski said. “It’s our money and we want it back.”

Stablewski has a substantial file on Vantage, including copies of complaints filed by her and her sister (who lives outside of Buffalo) with the office of Attorney General Maura Healey. That office has received almost 500 complaints about Vantage, mostly from customers seeking refunds for trips canceled due to the pandemic.

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“So far, we have secured 50 refunds totaling more than $870,000,” the attorney general’s office said. “We continue to advocate on behalf of Vantage consumers awaiting their refunds.”

Christopher Elliott, whose nationally-syndicated “travel troubleshooting” column appears regularly in the Globe, in a recent piece called Vantage “one of the most complained-about companies, according to our records.”

I concur with Elliott’s assessment, based on the more than a dozen complaints I have received about Vantage, mostly from out-of-state residents frustrated by the lack of a refund from the longtime, local company.

A review of those dozen complaints shows Vantage tried to placate customers with “sincere apologies” and appeals for “continued patience and understanding during these difficult times,” but no refunds.

Stablewski did a good job dogging the company. Three days after the trip was canceled, she was on the phone with Vantage. According to notes she took contemporaneously, she and a Vantage representative (she got her name) agreed on the exact amount of refund she and her sister would get ($45,982) after negotiating over several contingency charges and credits.

The Vantage representative “said our request was in and there was nothing further for us to do,” Stablewski recalled when we talked.

Let me make a recommendation to anyone who has just finished a phone conversation like this one. After hanging up, put all the salient points in an e-mail and send it to the person you spoke with, asking for confirmation of its accuracy. Now you have a solid record to point to later on, if need be.

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Three months after being assured that a refund was forthcoming, Stablewski said she got a perplexing e-mail about possible upgrades on the now-canceled trip. She left a voicemail asking about it, but got no return call.

Later, a different representative told her she needed to talk to “a world event specialist” to find out about her refund.

And so it went, around and around.

“You are getting closer to the refund,” Vantage said in an e-mail in February. “Unfortunately, I don’t have an exact timeline but the refund was finally approved yesterday.”

At that point, Stablewski had been led to believe the refund had been approved eight months earlier.

In September, a Vantage representative told her on the phone that she didn’t know when the refund would be paid, but made it sound imminent by noting the company “makes payments on Fridays.” (That conversation was on a Thursday.)

I e-mailed Vantage on Stablewski’s behalf last week, asking, among other things, about the long-delayed refund “in view of the fact Vantage apparently spent a considerable amount of money to launch a ship.”

A Vantage executive replied: “Upon careful review of Theresa Stablewski’s file, we see that she was approved for a refund and this will be processed within 10-15 days.”

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It would have been nice if Vantage had overnighted checks to Stablewski and her sister. But that didn’t happen. Vantage continued for a few more days to take advantage of what amounted to a 17-month, no-interest loan.

Finally, on Tuesday, Stablewski and her sister got their money back.

Stablewski said the refunds put “a little skip in my step,” and will make for an even more “wonderful” holiday season for her family.

The Vantage executive with whom I had an exchange of e-mails wrote about the delay: “Admittedly, our response times were severely delayed and we know that our clients expect better customer service from us.”

About the complaints to the attorney general’s office, he said: “We have been in open communication with the AG’s office to respond to these complaints and remain committed to addressing them.”

And about the Ocean Explorer, he said: “This has been in process for over three years.”

Vantage has announced delivery of a second ocean cruiser next year. Let’s hope the company has paid all the refunds it owes before another bottle of champagne is smashed on the side of another expensive ship.


Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him @spmurphyboston.