Q: Our place of worship planned a trip to, among other countries, Poland and Slovakia, which borders Ukraine. We were asked to make a sizable downpayment. This was before the war between Russia and Ukraine. Many now do not want to go. We were told our money is not going to be refunded. Instead, the trip may still go but if we choose not to go, then our deposit will be converted to a charitable contribution, or we may make claim under any applicable travel insurance policy. Can you provide guidance?
A: Often, when a travel excursion is booked, there are terms and conditions. This can include bases upon which the travel may be canceled, and indications of what is refundable and when. There is also a well-known statute in California (Civil Code Section 1689) that covers the reasons why a contract may be rescinded. A contract may be rescinded, for example, if consent was given by mistake, or if there is a lack of consideration. Was your deposit non-refundable? If so, is that in writing? The law does not favor a forfeiture or a penalty.
Given the uncertainties of the ongoing conflict, it would not seem unreasonable to postpone the trip or to cancel it with refunds. If postponed, then perhaps the funds can be kept on hand for now. Should the religious institution remain firm in refusing to refund the money, you may want to “team up” with others to try to persuade the decision-makers and, failing that, consider collectively hiring counsel. I do not know how much you each deposited, but Small Claims Court may be an avenue of recourse, as another option. If you do have travel insurance, a claim can be made, but indications are that not all travel insurance includes war as a basis to cancel.
Q: Is travel insurance worth it?
A: Travel insurance is often referred to as “trip cancellation insurance.” It can cover unforeseen trip emergencies such as losing luggage, suffering an injury or becoming ill such that you have to cancel the vacation. Your question is best explored with others readily familiar with such insurance. A cost versus benefit analysis is in order, which means you assess what is covered and how much you can recover, if an incident or circumstance arises that causes a loss, injury or interruption.
The California State Attorney General’s Office has useful information online about travel agencies, oag.ca.gov/consumers/general/travel-agencies. You can also type “California, which regulates travel agencies” in your web browser.
Ron Sokol has been a practicing attorney for over 35 years, and has also served many times as a judge pro tem, mediator, and arbitrator. It is important to keep in mind that this column presents a summary of the law, and is not to be treated or considered legal advice, let alone a substitute for actual consultation with a qualified professional.