Full of Hot Air

Full of Hot Air

Groupon, TravelZoo, Living Social and many other places offer some great opportunities for experiences at an excellent price.  Apparently they also can offer crooks an opportunity to scam hundreds of thousands of dollars.  So, let us tell you about the scam.

In November 2010, TravelZoo was selling $89 balloon rides (“Regularly $180”) through So Cal Hot Air Balloon Tours in Temecula.  TravelZoo sold more than 4,400 of them.  We bought two for us and two as a Christmas gift. When John tried to book our flight, the company told him they could not schedule the tours until their Web site was updated for accepting online reservations.  Finally, on March 12 the Web site was working and immediately filling up.  We scheduled a flight for June.  We drive down before dawn only to have the flight canceled due to low clouds. We are worried because our vouchers expire Aug. 2011, but the company’s paperwork and the representatives explain that the expiration date is automatically extended to the next flight when they are the ones who cancel the flight.

With very few openings we have to reschedule for November.  That one gets canceled due to “high winds.”  John receives the news with a call from a woman at the balloon company who asks him to call the next day so they can find an opening.  He checks online and there are zero spots in the next six months, so he assumes they have some openings not shown.  He calls in and gets Thomas Brundage, the owner.  John tells him why he is calling and Thomas tells him to book it online.  John asks how we can get a refund and the guy goes nuts.  He is cursing, complaining about “the lowlifes” who don’t pay full price, and goes on like this for about 15 minutes.  It was impressive.  However, John gets the sense that he is eventually going to calm down and book us and sure enough he finds an opening in February.  John calls TravelZoo and asks about a refund because he gets a very strong feeling that something is very wrong.  Clearly the company oversold the vouchers and can’t fit everyone in.  John also figured they sold so many because they were desperate for cash and grew afraid that the cash is now gone and the company will disappear.  TravelZoo says they cannot help because the coupons are expired and the company is still willing to take us.

On Jan. 31, we get the dreaded news – the company is out of business.  They actually shut down in mid-December and January and were to start flying again on Feb. 2.  The company’s calendar showed every day, seven days a week from Feb. 2 to Aug. 31 was fully booked.

John calls TravelZoo for help and is again told they will not help.  We don’t like getting ripped off and recognize that this is something that likely affects a large number of people.  John sends an e-mail to a friend at the newspaper he used to be an editor for, and doesn’t hear back.  He then tries the Temecula area paper and nada.  So, he posts on Facebook hoping one of his reporter friends knows a good story when they see it.  Armando Barragan, who works for ABC Channel 7 news, is da man.  He gives the information to a reporter and she does a solid job turning the story around.  Within a couple hours of ABC contacting TravelZoo, John gets a phone call telling him they will gladly refund his money.  Better yet, they send a message to ABC saying they will refund every customer ripped off by So Cal Hot Air Balloons.  They were slow, but TravelZoo did the right thing.  As one large entity they will have a much better chance of going after the crooks and will ensure their reputation for protecting customers.

A couple days after that, we see an article that explains that this company may have ripped off more than 15,000 people – about a million dollars worth – by selling discounted flights through many Web sites.

The bottom line is that if you have any companies making it difficult to use your vouchers, make sure to get your refund before the expiration date on the voucher regardless of proposed arrangements the company makes.

This one bad experience will not stop us from taking advantage of some great opportunities, but it does serve as a warning to be more cautious.

TV story and newscast: http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news%2Flocal%2Finland_empire&id=8533635

Follow-up story: http://www.dailydealmedia.com/127blowing-hot-air-%E2%80%93-balloon-ride-fraud-in-california/

The original TravelZoo page: http://www.travelzoo.com/local-deals/Los-Angeles-Area/Restaurant/174

Peace out,

The Franci