Ben Wickens had dreamed of visiting Rome so when the opportunity came up as part of his high school graduation trip, he worked hard for more than a year to cover part of the $3,800 cost of the trip.
“I’ve never been to Europe. I was really looking forward to it,” said Wickens, 18, who graduated from Saint John High School in New Brunswick last spring.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and his school trip to Spain, Italy and France was cancelled.
“It was understandable, but it was kind of disappointing still,” said Wickens, now a University of New Brunswick science student.
The pandemic wiped out travel plans for tens of thousands of people, including students who were planning to go on school trips. Six months later, many have not seen refunds despite buying insurance.
So in August, Wickens’s stepmother started a Facebook page to connect frustrated families.
Anne Nichol has already heard from hundreds of parents at more than 55 schools across the country and estimates they are owed more than $6 million.
Writing cost off as a loss not an option for most
“There’s very few people who can write off $4,000,” Nichol said from her Saint John home.
“For us, it would basically ease some of the burden of university. Times are a little tough right now with COVID and everything else that’s going on. It would be really great to get the money back.”
Depending on the timing of the cancellation, tour company Explorica Canada has been paying out partial reimbursements. The closer to departure the trip was cancelled, the less money has been refunded.
“Some of the parents, if their trip was cancelled 30 days in advance or more, they’ve received a 25 or 30 per cent refund. Our trip was cancelled the night before. So, we received $100,” Nichol said.
WATCH | Anne Nichol describes the frustration parents feel trying to negotiate with two companies to get refunds for school trips:
Many families are in that situation, she said.
Insurance for the trip was mandatory, and all of the polices were underwritten by Old Republic Insurance Company of Canada or Arch Insurance.
Some parents paid by credit card and were refunded the full amount under their credit card insurance policy. But others paid by cash or e-transfer to save the credit card fee and did not have that option.
Explorica says it’s fulfilled its obligations
Explorica declined an interview request through its public relations agency.
“We understand this has been an incredibly frustrating and confusing process for our customers, so to keep them as informed as possible about this issue, we also launched a web page with the latest information, which you can view at learn.explorica.ca/trip-refunds,” Samuel Lessard of Edelman Montreal wrote in an email to CBC News.
On the website, Explorica maintains:
- Explorica has fulfilled its portion of refunds owed to customers under its program terms.
- Explorica has sent all information to Old Republic Insurance Company of Canada and Arch Insurance in order to process claims.
- ORIC and Arch Insurance are attempting to use the unique circumstances around COVID-19 to redefine their rights and obligations under these travel policies and shift the losses of this pandemic back onto you.
- The way in which these insurance providers have characterized Explorica’s involvement is categorically false and leaves the impression that the insurers’ goal is to obstruct the process at the expense of students and families.
Insurance companies say they need more information
ORIC and Arch Insurance did not respond to multiple interview requests.
However, in correspondence, both companies have told parents they have not received the information they require from Explorica to review and process the claims, such as any refunds Explorica has received from airlines or hotels.
“Unfortunately, we have experienced difficulties in obtaining the necessary information to assess your claim,” ORIC wrote to one parent in a letter dated Aug. 21.
“The policy is clear; it provides coverage for non-refundable, prepaid expenses for travel arrangements, less any credits or refunds, including replacement travel options.… As a secondary payer, we are unable to determine the amount owed until this information is received from Explorica.”
Exploring legal options
Last Friday, Newfoundland and Labrador lawyer Travis Payne sent a letter to Explorica, ORIC and Arch on behalf of parents.
“And the tone of the letter is basically, ‘Get on the same page. You owe a duty to your insured to perform your contractual duties in good faith and pay these refunds out so the money gets in the right pocket.’ And the fight among them — that can happen afterwards if necessary,” Payne said.
He has given the companies until Friday to respond and warned in the letter, “We are exploring all possible legal options, including class action litigation.”
Some schools have also been writing letters on parents’ behalf.
Complaints to regulatory bodies
Meanwhile, members of the Facebook group are writing letters of complaint to regulatory bodies, Nichol said.
Explorica Canada is based in Toronto, so it is a registered member of the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO).
TICO has already received dozens of letters of complaint from across Canada, said Dorian Werda, vice-president of operations.
“We appreciate that this is a frustrating situation for consumers. Our priority is to reach an equitable solution. TICO’s mandate is to ensure consumers are protected, so we take complaints very seriously,” she said.
TICO has launched a review to see if Explorica has breached any regulations of the Travel Industry Act and will follow up accordingly. Its most serious enforcement tool is to revoke a company’s registration, but that is only done in the most “egregious” cases, Werda said.
The Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Ontario (FSRA) has also received complaints about the travel insurance that families purchased through Explorica, issued by either ORIC or Arch Insurance.
An FSRA spokesperson said this appears to be a contractual dispute, and although FSRA regulates insurance companies, if the matter is related to a contractual dispute, it falls outside its authority.
“As the insurance policy was sold as part of a travel package by Explorica, the travel company has a role in order to ensure conditions, prior to submitting a claim, are fulfilled,” said Serina Yau, FSRA’s senior adviser of corporate communications.
‘I don’t think I’m going to get my money back’
None of this is leaving parent Patrick Tietz with a lot of hope.
“I don’t think I’m going to get my money back. That’s the honest truth,” he said from his home in Redcliff, Alta.
Tietz paid cash for two trips to Quebec as part of the French immersion program at St. Mary’s Junior High School in Medicine Hat, Alta.
One trip was for his son, Lachlan, 15, who has Type 1 diabetes; the other was for his wife, Dannette, so she could monitor his health.
Now unemployed, Tietz said he could really use that $4,700 to pay his residential property tax.
“They’re doing everything possible to break everyone’s spirits so they don’t have to pay anyone a dime,” he said.]