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Montana parents upset over thousands in charges over canceled student trips

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Posted at 6:00 PM, Apr 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-24 20:09:12-04

BILLINGS — Parents across Montana are voicing frustration with a Montana travel company’s standard cancellation policy amid the COVID-19 pandemic after school trips were canceled and full refunds are not given out.

Now a class-action lawsuit against Global Travel Alliance has been filed, and some 60 complaints have been filed with Montana’s Office of Consumer Protection, where officials say there is an active investigation.

On Friday afternoon, a lawsuit was filed in federal court in Billings on behalf of dozens of Montana families.

Plaintiffs in the suit say Billings-based Global Travel Alliance, which operates in Montana and several other states, breached its own contract cancellation policies as a means to profit from the virus.

Global Travel Alliance works with school districts to lead education travel to Washington, D.C., Costa Rica and Europe and was set to help lead a group of Sacajawea Middle School students from Bozeman through three European countries this June.

The trouble, according to parents, is the trip isn’t being fully refunded despite the unforeseen economic circumstances of the pandemic.

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Bozeman parent Julie Wrobel

“We’re living in really unusual times and I feel like unusual circumstances call for unusual accommodations,” said Bozeman parent Julie Wrobel.

Wrobel told MTN Investigates she already has paid over $4,000 for the trip that her 8th grade son won’t get to attend.

She says Global Travel Alliance is sticking to its standard cancellation policy even as the virus forced hundreds of school trips across the country to get scrapped.

“The frustrating thing is that Global Travel Alliance is upholding their standard cancellation policy, which is to withhold 30% of the overall trip cost for anybody who cancels this close to the date,” she said. “But we didn't actually cancel.”

Wrobel says parents at her son’s school were emailed on April 21 from Global Travel explaining the company’s cancellation options and asking parents to choose one.

“We received a reminder email of the standard cancellation policy, and the COVID-19 stuff had actually already started so the timing was interesting,” she said.

The email asked parents to choose either a voucher good for 75% of the cost of the trip for following year or a 70% refund on the canceled trip.

Wrobel says for the company to stick to their standard cancellation policy seems unfair considering the current state of the world.

“I have a hard time understanding how they can rationalize keeping 30% of every child's trip cost, which is $1,257,” she said. “I don't understand where that $1,257 is going? And when you multiply that times 18 kids, it means Global Travel Alliance is pocketing over $22,000.”

However, those with Global Travel Alliance told MTN Investigates on a phone call Monday that the travel industry is among the hardest hit and that their financial commitments have already been made.

Although the company didn’t respond to our requests for a taped interview, they did pass along the statement below.

"As a Montana company we have been serving local communities for many years, and we are heartbroken to see any upcoming trips affected due to COVID-19. Planning a group trip requires making financial commitments to our vendors months in advance. Our Standard Cancellation policy takes into account those commitments. We are working on behalf of the families to provide alternatives and larger refunds when available," the statement read.

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According to officials with Global Travel Alliance, the company employs roughly 50 people and has not laid off or furloughed employees because the company is staying very busy working to get refunds back from vendors.

“A lot of vendors are not funding refunds as well,” said Steve Maehl, vice president for the company. “All of our travelers agreed to booking conditions.”

Those with Global Travel Alliance also say they understand the frustration from parents and students and that their team is working to get back everything it can from vendors.

“We are in a position where vendors are behind right now,” said Maehl.

However, Wrobel says if that's the case, Global Travel Alliance hasn’t made that clear to parents.

“I haven't seen a list. I don't understand exactly what those costs are,” she said. “And I have a hard time with a business owner, feeling okay with taking $1,257 from 18 eighth graders in order to float the business."

While officials at Bozeman’s Sacajawea Middle school said late Friday afternoon that the school has no money tied up in the trip, they were contacted by the Montana Office of Consumer Protection regarding complaints about Global Travel Alliance.

Wrobel says parents impacted at her school are teaming up to take their complaint higher.

“Collectively we may be represented by a single person from Bozeman who is now in contact with the Office of Consumer Protection,” she said.

She also says her son will be onto high school next year, so the option to use a voucher for the trip is not likely. She also currently has a fifth grader who will be eligible for the same trip in just a few years.

However, she won’t help fund the trip if Global Travel Alliance is the chosen vendor.

MTN Investigates reached back out to officials with Global Travel Alliance late Friday afternoon for comment on the class action lawsuit. We are waiting for a response.