Taken for a Ride
Tom and Lela Woods looked at the pictures of gorgeous views and fancy resorts on a travel agency’s web site and started dreaming about lying on sandy beaches and splashing in turquoise waters.
In two decades of marriage, they’d taken few trips, but a first-time Caribbean cruise in 2006 had left them both bitten by the travel bug. That cruise had been wonderful, the travel agent they’d met on board had seemed so nice, and the savings offered by a travel club membership sounded so wonderful that they thought this, perhaps, was a way to do another cruise, a bargain way to travel around the country to see family members they hadn’t visited in years. As it turned out, the web site pictures would have been more accurate if they’d shown sad-faced suckers holding empty wallets. “It’s painful to remember how stupid we were,” Tom said.
The Fort Worth couple, who describe themselves as “hippie-progressives,” never expected to find that they had put their trust — and their money — in an agency that had already been banned from doing business in Indiana, had 71 complaints filed against it with the Texas attorney general’s office, and racked up 209 complaints with the Better Business Bureau of Arlington. The AG’s office had already won a $64 million judgment against the agency’s owner. The lesson turned out to be painful and expensive. Following a sales seminar at Horizon offices in Arlington, the Woodses paid Horizon Travel $7,573 for a year’s membership. After many months of broken promises, undelivered benefits, messed-up reservations, frustrating phone calls, and complaints, they found they’d gotten zero benefit from it. And, they eventually learned, others in North Texas were experiencing the same problems. “If we had spent 10 minutes on the internet” researching the company’s background, “we would have never driven to Arlington,” Tom said. “I’m going to have egg on my face.”
Horizon Travel sells travel packages — airfare, hotels, etc. — on behalf of Travel Club International, Inc. On its web site, Horizon says it is based in Arlington, while TCI gives its home as Tempe, Ariz. TCI, a vacation wholesaler, buys blocks of hotel rooms, airline seats, and other travel amenities at discounts and packages them for other travel agencies, theoretically passing along part of the savings to travel club members. TCI officials say it has thousands of members nationwide, but the company also has a long list of unhappy customers. Their complaints have led to an “unsatisfactory record” for both TCI and Horizon Travel with the Better Business Bureaus in Arizona and Fort Worth. The label means the BBB has found that a business has failed to respond and resolve customer complaints, engaged in false advertising, and illegally used the BBB name and logo.
The Woodses say they can attest to the false advertising and failure to resolve customer complaints. Their experience with Horizon and TCI, they said, has cast a cloud over the great memories they had of that 2006 cruise — on which they also heard of Horizon for the first time. “We had such a good time,” Lela said. “It was like having a glass of champagne and having that buzz the whole trip.” On board the cruise ship, which sailed out of New York, a Horizon Travel representative approached the Woodses and told them they could receive a free cruise. After they got back to Texas a few days later, a Horizon Travel solicitor called and again promised them a cruise of their choice “anytime within one year” — if they came to a 90-minute sales presentation. They went, and at the presentation, the couple found that they had to purchase a travel club membership in order to get the “free” trip. Many folks might have started getting skeptical at that point, but Tom and Lela were still blinded by the idea of that free cruise and other benefits the travel club membership described — discounts on hotel rooms and airfares, two $500 travel vouchers, another $50 voucher for gas. Horizon Travel representative Yaqut Abdullah, charming and persuasive, convinced them they would receive benefits far beyond that whopping $7,500-plus initial cost of the membership. After the first year, the membership was supposed to cost only $179 in renewal fees.
The Woodses said Abdullah convinced them to sign the membership contract immediately — even though he explained that they would not have the three-day period for reviewing (and backing out of) the contract that is standard in most consumer transactions. Horizon representative were not available for comment. “We had no reason to distrust them at this point.” Lela said. That didn’t last long. Seconds after signing the membership contract, the couple was handed a piece of paper listing restrictions on the cruise and other supposed benefits. It took him an hour and a half just to read the document, Tom said. He couldn’t believe what they had signed. Tom immediately called the company and then sent off a letter to Horizon, saying that he and his wife wanted to cancel the membership. But company representatives, the couple said, told them their money would not be refunded if they canceled.
Since they could not get out of the contract, the Woodses decided to use it. Twice they tried to book airline flights through Horizon. They ended up paying Horizon another $252 per person for a flight that was booked wrong, and another $200 for another trip that they believed should have been covered by their membership. They never received promised rebates on the tickets and were never allowed to use the supposed vouchers. Trying to get help from Horizon’s corporate offices, the couple said they were given the run-around repeatedly. They found that Horizon Travel was part of a confusing network of companies that had never been mentioned before. For example, the membership contract included coupons for a complimentary getaway through a company called Holiday Travel of America, while the gas voucher was issued through a company called VIP Travel Incentives. And it was hard to pinpoint which agency was responsible for their basic membership, because the contract document displays both TCI and Horizon Travel logos interchangeably.
TCI director Sal Martinez said Horizon Travel and TCI were “never the same company.” He said Horizon Travel was only a distributor for TCI and that TCI is no longer doing business with Horizon. However, when Fort Worth Weekly called Horizon Travel for comment, the phone calls were transferred to TCI representatives. Teary-eyed, her cheeks flushed with emotion, Lela recalled how traumatized she and her husband felt after they figured out what was happening. The family reunions they’d been hoping for had to be put on hold because of Horizon’s restrictions. Cruises, for instance, could be booked during a total of 93 days over a five-month period, and only a small number were available. The Woodses were also concerned about Horizon Travel having access to their Social Security and bank account numbers. After almost a year of trying to get satisfaction, the Woodses finally decided in January to file a complaint with the Texas attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission. Tom said he waited so long in order “to give Horizon every chance to give me my money.”
Tom Kelly, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, declined to say whether the office is currently investigating Horizon or TCI. Last year, the AG’s office won a $64 million judgment against David Vavro of Fort Worth — the owner of Horizon Travel — for deceptive business practices by Sun Country, another of his travel companies. (According to Texas Secretary of State documents, Vavro also owns yet another company, National Reservations. Neither Sun nor National were directly involved in the Woods case.) Kelly said it may be correct that the conditions under which the Woodses signed their contract mean they were not entitled to a three-day review period. With this kind of business, he said, when a contract is signed at the physical address of the company, rather than at some remote location, then the customer generally does not get a review period.
An exception is made, he said, if the attorney general has already determined that the business has engaged in deceptive practices. In past lawsuits, Kelly said, “it was decided that similar contracts were already null and void because of the way that they were presented. “You can’t have a contract that misleads the public like that,” he said. Jamie Hunter of Mesquite said he too was a victim of Horizon Travel. Hunter paid more than $4,000 for his membership, which he bought after a long and tiring sales presentation. “They wear you down so that you can miss the critical things that are buried in the contract,” he said. Hunter has filed suit to recover his money. “I got zero benefit from Horizon Travel,” he said. Hunter said he has exchanged e-mails with a former sales representative of Horizon Travel/TCI New Hampshire who accused the agency of withholding her final paycheck for many weeks. When she decided to go pick it up, she found that the office had been locked up with a sign on the door reading “TCI AKA [also known as] Horizon Travel has closed, call corporate.”
The Woodses said their experience with Horizon Travel has created “a healthy dose of skepticism.” They want what they see as the company’s questionable practices stopped. “It’s not Enron,” Lela said, meaning that the dollars involved may be small by some standards. But for her and her husband and others like them, what happened is important and harmful. “That money is gone,” she said. “It’s like having a car that you can’t drive or a house that you can’t live in, but you are still paying taxes on, and making repairs on it.”