Tom Aikins and his daughter Papassorn, 17, are both upset and unhappy that an educational tour company is offering a voucher for future travel, rather than a cash refund after her trip to Italy with other classmates at Old Orchard Beach High School was canceled by the company due to coronavirus in that country. Tammy Wells Photo

OLD ORCHARD BEACH — A tour company that organizes European and other educational tours for young people is offering vouchers for future travel, but no option for a full monetary refund after a trip to Italy was canceled earlier this month.

The practice by EF Tours of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has an Old Orchard Beach father and his 17-year-old daughter, who was planning to go to Italy with five Old Orchard Beach High school classmates, upset and disappointed.

Tom Aikins said his daughter Papassorn Aikins, currently a high school junior, might not be able to take a trip next year, and if she is, she might not be interested in a destination offered. And while company officials have said the vouchers are transferable, he said he believes it is unlikely his daughter would receive the $3,500 she spent if she attempted to sell the voucher.

The family purchased the trip insurance offered through the company, Aikins said. The insurance policy, by Specialty Insurance Solutions, appears to apply if the trip is canceled by the traveler, he said, but doesn’t speak to a trip being canceled by the tour company. An email to Specialty Insurance Solutions to the address provided, seeking comment, was acknowledged as received by an automatic email, sent by EF Tours. No comment on the situation involving the cancellation was forthcoming from the insurance company by the newspaper’s deadline.

Papassorn Aikins, who is employed after school at a Saco supermarket, figures she worked about 450 hours so she could take the trip, which was canceled by the tour company as Italy began to experience the spread of coronavirus and a U.S. State Department travel advisory emerged.

“When I heard about the trip, I decided I wanted to go, so I started working to save up,” she said. Now that the trip is canceled, and the company is offering vouchers, she said, she is “mad, disappointed and irritated” at what has transpired.

EF Tours cancellation policy, available on the company’s website, refers to their Peace of Mind program, which allows vouchers or a change of date for the group tour or some other similar modification if there is Level 3 or 4 U. S State Department Travel Advisory 44 days before the date of departure. A Level 3 advisory went into effect for Italy on Feb. 29, and a Level 4 for some parts of the country that day. On Sunday, March 15, the U.S. State Department issued a global health advisory that said people should reconsider traveling abroad.

Following cancellation of the Italy trip,  Tom Aikins said an alternative trip was offered to Greece, but organizers turned that down in light of a likely 14-day quarantine upon their return.

Aikins said EF Tours had originally said that those whose trip was canceled had until March 16 to decide if they wanted a voucher, but late last week he said company officials told him the deadline had been extended to the end of March.

Aikins said EF Tours solicited students through literature distributed at the school. He said Superintendent John Suttie had said he would do everything he could to help, but in Aikins view, that hasn’t happened.

“No evidence the school has done anything, and I assume if they had done something, they would tell us,” Aikins said.

Suttie said RSU 23 is having discussions with EF Tours, “but there may be only so much we can do.”

Suttie noted that the tours are not associated with any club or any activity within the school. “It is non-school sponsored travel, not organized by the RSU board or approved (by them),” said Suttie. He said the travel is made through individual contracts students make with the company to travel abroad with a chaperone, in this case an OOB teacher, employed by EF Tours. “We are working diligently to help with $300 (for each of the six students) for the travel insurance and the application fee, the school has offered that. Beyond that, it is up to the company to decide,” Suttie said.

When asked for comment, EF Tours issued a written statement.

“We are postponing all student travel programs through April 30, and will provide a transferable travel voucher for the full amount of the program cost good through September 30, 2022,” EF Tours wrote, in part. “The vouchers may be used for any tours in the EF family of programs or at EF’s International Language Campuses. ”

On its website, EF Tours spoke to questions about monetary refunds: “EF Educational Tours books large volumes of flights and hotels months, if not years, in advance,” the company wrote. “For this reason, EF has designed its cancellation policies to take into consideration the investments we make in your tour long before it departs.”

Aikins said he has been in touch with the Maine Attorney General’s Office about the situation.

His daughter was preparing to go to her supermarket job following an after-school interview with the newspaper on Thursday.

“I’d like to have all of my money back,” she said.

UPDATE: EF Tours on Thursday, March 19, let us know they have updated their policies and are now offering partial cash refunds to those who booked group travel through April 30.

“The long-term impact of the COVID-19 virus on global travel is unclear, and the situation remains fluid and is changing on a daily basis,” the company wrote in an emailed statement. “Given these circumstances, we are now offering our tour groups with travel plans through April 30 a cash refund (less $1,000 per person) as an alternative to transferable travel vouchers, which, of course, also remain an option.”

The company said it was also working to adjust rebooking options, voucher program and cancellation policies by instituting fee freezes and expanded timelines.

“All travelers with trips through April 30 will automatically receive a transferable travel voucher for the full amount paid (including all non-refundable payments) good through September 30, 2022,”  the statement continued. “Individuals or groups may also exchange their voucher for a cash refund less $1,000 per person.  The $1,000 fee allows us to partially cover costs related to non-refundable payments to suppliers and staff, while funding the flexible rebooking options in our Peace of Mind program.”

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