Troubled travel agency going out of business | Update
January 16, 2012 · Updated 10:20 AM
Update Friday, Jan. 13:
Adventure Travel & Cruise owner Launa Blahm has confirmed her agency is going out of business, in the wake of numerous recent complaints from dissatisfied customers, which are being investigated by the Port Orchard Police Department.
The website for Adventure Travel was offline Friday. Reached by phone late Friday afternoon, Blahm said she is contacting clients who have already booked trips to make sure their arrangements are completed, but she is not booking any new travel business.
By TIM KELLY and BRETT CIHON
A disgruntled customer holding a sign outside a local travel agency after a miserable trip has plenty of company.
Dale Ashton, a Canadian retiree who’s lived in Port Orchard since 2005, began his vigil last week in front of Adventure Travel & Cruise. He booked an all-inclusive trip to take his family — including his 3- and 6-year-old grandsons — to Disneyland over Christmas, but the day they arrived at the famed park they were told the passes in their package had only been ordered that morning and were not paid for in full.
Not only did Ashton have to buy 3-day Disneyland passes — for which he was later reimbursed by Adventure Travel — for each family member the next day, he said he also had to pay for three return flight tickets that were not booked with the package he bought for seven travelers.
Publicity about his daily protests has prompted others to come forward with accounts of hassles they encountered with bookings through Adventure Travel owner Launa Blahm.
E.J. Martin, a detective with the Port Orchard Police Department, said he’s received at least a dozen complaints about the travel agency, several from people who read media coverage about Ashton in the past week.
“So far they all tell me a very similar story; same thing as Mr. Ashton’s case,” Martin said Tuesday.
One of the most egregious instances involves two former South Kitsap High School teachers, Mary and Jack Forsee, who booked a cruise for themselves and two teenage grandkids. The night before they flew to Puerto Rico in late June, they found out there was no reservation for them with Royal Carib-
bean cruise line.
Actually, the couple had sensed something might be amiss when they called Blahm earlier that month, Mary Forsee said Monday in a phone interview from Sulphur Springs, Texas, where she and her husband live part of the year.
“I asked about getting some paperwork that tells us where to go, and she said we should have gotten a packet from (Royal Caribbean),” she said.
But nothing came from the cruise line.
“The day before we were supposed to leave, my husband said ‘I’m gonna call the boat,’” Forsee recalled. “He called Royal Caribbean and they said they’d never heard of us.
“I thought that was a mistake right there, so we called (Blahm) and she said she sent the money in.”
But she said Blahm also told them they had no reservation because the cruise had been overbooked, and offered them a week’s stay at a San Juan hotel as a last-minute alternative. Forsee said they called their grandchildren, who were very disappointed about not going on a cruise but still wanted to take a trip, and so they flew to Puerto Rico the next day.
The couple had paid $4,156 in cash for the cruise, plus $2,200 for plane tickets was charged to their credit card, Forsee said.
Terry Schull with Anderson Travel in Gig Harbor said she recommends that customers use a credit card to pay for all their bookings.
“We discourage paying in cash,” Schull said. “If something were to happen, your chances of getting your money back are pretty nil. If you put it on a credit card, you have a chance of getting money back.”
Forsee said during the week they had planned to spend on a cruise ship, “we spent a lot of unnecessary money; we probably spent close to $1,000 just on food.”
Blahm, contacted at her travel agency Tuesday, gave a different version of events.
“That’s so not accurate,” she said. “We were getting the paperwork to them.”
She said the couple was frustrated with delays in getting their cabin assignment from Royal Caribbean, and two days before their departure date they opted for a week’s stay at the hotel in Puerto Rico instead of going on the cruise. She said the couple got a refund of $1,800, which was the price difference between the hotel stay and the cruise.
When the couple got back to Port Orchard, where their grandchildren live, they were in regular contact with Blahm, who blamed the cruise line for what happened, according to Mary Forsee.
She said the travel agent eventually gave them a partial refund of $1,800, and Blahm told them Royal Caribbean would give them a replacement cruise in December.
However, that required paying $1,500 for flights from Seattle to Houston, which the couple did in August.
But wary of a repeat of their Puerto Rico disappointment, they checked with the cruise line, only to be told again that there was no reservation for them.
“A man from Royal Caribbean told us this is some kind of a scam,” Forsee said.
So the couple, who retired from teaching in 2009, are left with four plane tickets. The ones booked for their grandkids probably will go unused, she said, although she and her husband may pay an airline change fee to use their tickets for another trip sometime.
Forsee said after she got calls from friends in Port Orchard last week telling her about media reports on Ashton, she decided to contact Martin, the detective investigating the complaints.
Like Ashton, Forsee and her husband bought trip insurance through Blahm when booking their cruise. She said she’s waiting to hear from the insurance provider, Access America, about a claim she recently filed over not getting to go on the cruise.
Part of Ashton’s beef with Blahm is that she never provided documentation he requested of the travel insurance he purchased for $145. Blahm said what he purchased was a cancellation waiver, not insurance, and that Ashton got a receipt for it.
Train trip derailed
Another complaint about Adventure Travel involves an in-state destination. A Port Orchard woman bought two tickets for a Dec. 10 Snow Train trip to Leavenworth as an anniversary present for her parents.
But the woman, who asked not to be identified, said when her mother went to Adventure Travel to pick up the tickets a couple days before the trip, Blahm said she didn’t have them because the office printer was not working. When the woman’s father stopped by on his way home from work Dec. 9 to get the tickets, Blahm apologized and said the trip had been oversold and there were no tickets for them.
The woman who had paid for the tickets said when she called Blahm later, the travel agent admitted she knew earlier in the week that she had no tickets for the Snow Train. The woman also said Blahm did not follow through on mailing a refund check as promised, but did provide one when the woman went to the travel agency.
The Snow Train trips are offered by Alki Tours, a Seattle travel agency. Diana Phelps, a reservations specialist there, said when customers buy Snow Train tickets through other agencies, the travel agent who sells the tickets is responsible for sending payment to Alki to reserve seats.
That did not happen in two recent instances involving customers who bought tickets from Adventure Travel and showed up in Seattle to board the train, Phelps said. In one case, the customers were turned away because the train was sold out; in the other case, she said, there were still some available seats and the people were allowed to go.
“We’ve been dealing with (Adventure Travel) for years and never had any incidents,” Phelps said. “This must’ve just slipped through the cracks.”
Blahm admitted selling more train tickets than were available and said she refunded the money for the anniversary gift purchase, but said she didn’t recall selling tickets to any customers who were turned away at the Seattle train station.
Ashton, a former negotiator for an electrical workers union in Canada, is convinced that slipping through the cracks doesn’t explain the problems on his family’s trip. For one thing, when he was able to contact Blahm on Christmas weekend about being unable to get their Disneyland passes, she used a family member’s credit card to provide repayment for the passes Ashton bought through the hotel where his family stayed.
Ashton said Adventure Travel & Cruise did reimburse him for his out-of-pocket expenses for park passes and the three return flight tickets, but claimed his family’s lost time and his hassles dealing with the travel agency were not accounted for. He said Blahm was negligent and dishonest, and he contends she did not book all the flight and hotel reservations and purchase the Disneyland passes when he paid for the package well in advance. He said he plans to picket outside the business until proper restitution is delivered.
“I call my experience the ‘travel agency who stole Christmas,’” he said.
Blahm, who has owned and operated Adventure Travel & Cruise for 25 years, insisted that “With Mr. Ashton, I did nothing wrong.”
However, in a previous interview last week, Blahm acknowledged that the Disneyland snafu was her travel agency’s error due to purchasing the passes Dec. 23 with a credit card. But she said all seven return flight tickets for Ashton’s group had been booked. She said the airline might have been unable to find the other reservations when Ashton called, and then they were canceled when he bought three additional tickets.
Blahm said she felt bad that so many things went wrong on the family’s vacation, and that she would like to reach an agreement with Ashton on some compensation for the troubled trip.
Schull, the Gig Harbor travel agent, said it would be unusual for customers not to receive all necessary travel materials well in advance of their trip.
“The latest (our customers) will see documentation is two weeks before the departure,” she said.
Blahm said that’s the case with the vast majority of her customers as well.
She said the numerous complaints reported recently may have involved “some bookkeeping errors,” but that “for years and years nothing like this has happened” in her business.
“It’s just unusual, and strange, and unfortunate,” she said.
But to Mary Forsee, it’s something else.
When she and her husband were recontacted Tuesday by the Port Orchard Independent, her reaction to Blahm’s version of what happened with their Puerto Rico trip was: “That is absolutely a lie.”
“The grandkids were so disappointed,” she added. “We’re retired teachers, and that was a big deal to us, getting to go on a cruise and take the grandchildren.”