Guys, do you lose sleep over this? Perhaps; it’s every bride’s and groom’s wedding nightmare. Vendors turning scam artists. Wedding vendors going bankrupt. Money lost, hopes dashed, once-in-a-lifetime celebration in tatters.
First of all, big sigh. Much like anything else in life, weddings do not come with guarantees. Not even if you do all the right things. Even if you get your money back – which would probably be concern #1 – how do you get back your optimism and faith in life?
Second of all, like with other things in life, it always helps to do the right things. You minimize your risk, you increase your chances of financial recovery, you insist on your rights.
Perhaps you’re arranging travel for out-of-town guests. Perhaps you’re planning your honeymoon. Perhaps you have a destination wedding. While we are not experts on how to properly defend your rights, we’d like to suggest a direction for further research.
Many people don’t know about this, but you should. We have consumer protection when we buy travel from an Ontario travel agent registered with TICO (Travel Industry Council of Ontario). TICO runs a compensation fund and reimburses consumers who paid a travel agent, but did not get travel services due to bankruptcy of the travel agent, an airline, or a cruise company. You will be eligible for the compensation whether or not you are a resident of Ontario, and regardless of whether you are traveling to – or outside of – Ontario. There’s compensation for travelers whose trip gets canceled before it starts, and there’s help to those who are stranded at the destination (including replacement costs for transportation, accommodation and meals).
You may also research TICO’s monitoring powers. TICO receives regular financial reports from its travel agents, and monitors how well trust funds are managed. Trust funds are money which has been paid to the travel agent for onwards payment to the end supplier of the service – airlines, hotels, etc. When it finds something suspicious, or in response to a consumer complaint, TICO can conduct a more thorough inspection or investigation of a particular company. TICO publishes the names of travel agents who were found to be operating without registration (you can find its charges and convictions list online), as well as names of those whose registration was revoked as a result of a violation (revocation and suspensions list). Should you have a complaint about your dealings with a travel agent, TICO will take it seriously.
TICO strives to ensure transparency when it comes to travel agents working with customers. ‘The price you see is the price you pay’ is the rule, and an itemized invoice should leave no questions about what exactly you are paying for. Misrepresentations in advertising and dealings with consumers are not tolerated. It is the agent’s job to ensure all information is correct, to explain to you what’s involved in modifying or canceling your travel, and to answer any questions about travel documents and entry requirements (when changing your last name, it is not uncommon to make mistakes).
As always, there is small print. Absent an explicit violation of the law, TICO is not omnipotent. In case of a dispute, TICO will encourage consumers and travel agents to resolve their complaints directly. If it fails, TICO can attempt to mediate – but it cannot force a travel agent to pay you or perform any service for you.
The compensation fund has limitations as well. You would not get any compensation for emotional distress or indirect costs – only a refund of monies you actually paid to the travel agent. If you paid for your travel with air miles, credit card points, or a credit voucher – not cash or credit card – you will not qualify for reimbursement. If your trip got affected by a bankruptcy of a hotel or a venue, as opposed to an airline, you’re out of luck. If your Ontario travel agent bought the services through another, non-Ontario company, that disqualifies you. If travel cannot happen due to what they call ‘force majeure’, that disqualifies you. If your flight got canceled due to weather or mechanical failure, as opposed to bankruptcy of an airline, the TICO fund will not reimburse you – but you may get compensation from the airline. If you receive the services but are dissatisfied with their quality, the compensation fund is not designed to help you. Compensation will not exceed $5,000 CAD per person and is time-limited to 6 months (regulation as of Nov 2018).
In fact, when you think about it, you may decide that your credit card travel insurance – or travel insurance you buy separately – could provide much more comprehensive coverage. But TICO compensation is available at no cost to you. Go ahead, compare the all-in price of a flight directly from an airline and through a travel agent. If the cost is roughly the same, consider buying it through an Ontario travel agent to take advantage of this additional protection.
No regulation / compensation framework is perfect. But the fact that it exists is heartening. There are so many vendors working hard to make your big day a dream come true, and so many things can go wrong… I think the wedding industry would be so much better if there were more frameworks like that.
Note: regulations that define TICO’s mandate can be changed at any time. The short summary above is based on the information available in November 2018. Research up-to-date regulations and ask questions. If you are considering working with a travel agent outside of Ontario, check if a similar regulation applies to them. For example, BC and Quebec have similar systems.
Another note: the news stories about the travel agent mentioned above continue to crop up. Another couple stepped forward, citing problems with their booking. One of the couples was able to clear the path to their destination wedding after all. Another couple received their deposits back. Until an investigation by police and the consumer protection agency is complete, it is not clear whether these issues were a result of an honest mistake or intention to scam.