October 22, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“Your articles on travel insurance and interview with travel attorney Alexander Anolik prompted me to write,” retired naval commander “Bill” emailed from Lemoore.
“During the Vietnam war, I was attached to the United States Embassy in Bangkok. There, I fell in love with Thailand, its kind people and especially spicy Thai food, which can be a little too hot for some people,” he added.
“Retired now, I wanted to share these terrific food experiences with my wife and our adult children. I found a California-based tour operator specializing in Thai food tours. Their website assured taking you only to restaurants which are not ‘dumbed down’ in terms of spiciness. When the tour operator assured me it would be the real thing, I booked a 10-day trip for the six of us.
Gerber’s would have been better
“While the flight was fine and hotels very nice, the food looked like Thai food, but had little taste, as if most of the spices had been forgotten. It was this way wherever we were taken. We expected sensational dining and were terribly disappointed. Gerber’s would have been better. We complained to the tour guide constantly, but nothing improved.
“Is this just a unique experience, or is it common? What explains this? Do we have any legal rights? Is there anything we should have done before going or when we were in Thailand?
Obvious lack of truthful advertising
We ran these facts by attorney Anolik, who is familiar with food tour complaints.
“Food tours are very popular and can be expensive. If they tell you that for 10 days, you are going to have an authentic Thai food experience, legally they are required to uphold that promise. That’s the legal standard. Unfortunately, your reader’s disappointing food tour isn’t all that rare as some tour operators assume that you don’t really know the authentic and correctly prepared food of a particular country or region and wind up getting shortchanged. When that happens, it’s deceptive advertising.”
“Your reader’s case is a good example of how restaurants in many countries adapt to customers who often do not like or cannot tolerate the usual level of spice or heat in their typical dish. Management does not wish to offend, and the restaurant staff isn’t trying to deny guests the pleasure of their excellent cuisine, but from experience, often dishes are sent back or customers leave unhappy. So, the response of some chefs is to dial back the heat,” Anolik observes.
“But that’s not what Commander Bill wanted. The whole purpose of their trip was to have an authentic culinary experience, and that’s what they were promised.
“Once they started getting aggravated, it ruined their trip and they are entitled to a partial refund, at least the ground portion of the trip. I would recommend sending a polite letter, explaining their position and asking for that refund. If he billed this to a credit card, there may be some recourse with the issuing company as well. If unsuccessful, they could use a small claims court. Their argument is simple: You didn’t provide what you both advertised and told me on the phone.”
“Especially with something like a food tour — a gourmet tour — you must define your terms.
Before signing up, in writing tell the tour operator what you are looking for, what you expect. Ask if this is what the tour will deliver and state that you need a reply with answers to your questions. Are we going to visit restaurants which cater to timid eaters? If so, I’ll go down the street and save myself $3,000.
“If things turn out to be far different than advertised, you need to think of how to prove it in court, should it ever wind up there. Therefore, take pictures of everything and start documenting, taking good notes, day by day of what the tour did not deliver that was promised. If there are other members of the group who also feel as you do, interview them and always obtain their contact information. There is strength in numbers,” Anolik stressed.
Advice from a travel professional
There is an approach to planning a trip which few people think of, but which makes a great deal of sense, as 31-year veteran travel agent Peggy Goldman, owner of Friendly Planet Travel in Jenkintown, Pa. told us.
“To avoid the possible bias of Trip Advisor or Frommer’s reviews, objective, trustworthy information can easily be obtained from government tourist offices. Phone, tell them what you are looking for — for example, a food tour — and they will send you to the right place, with non-biased, good information.” Her website is: friendlyplanet.com.
Both Alex Anolik and Peggy Goldman asked that we thank Commander Bill for his service to our country. That mission was accomplished.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.