Amid a Sea of Vouchers, Road Scholar Offers Cash

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Travel and travel planning are being disrupted by the worldwide spread of the coronavirus. This column looks at the companies and organizations that have stood out during this time.

Too often in the pandemic, travelers seeking refunds for vacations they’ve been forced to cancel are instead offered credit for a future trip, whether they want it or not. When The New York Times travel section asked readers to submit their travel cancellation stories, hundreds of email screeds poured in from frustrated customers who were trying to get their money back but have been unable to do so. One reader even did the research to cite which law she believed her travel provider had broken.

A bright light in the sea of frustrated missives is Road Scholar, a Boston-based nonprofit travel organization that offers educational trips for travelers 50 and older. Road Scholar began 45 years ago as Elderhostel, offering not-for-credit classes at a handful of universities where the attendees stayed in student dorms. Road Scholar now has 420 employees and organizes 5,500 trips annually for more than 100,000 participants worldwide. Two readers, one scheduled to go to South Korea and another to Greece, wrote in to say how proactively, quickly and generously Road Scholar had acted to offer them a complete refund.

Here’s how the company did it.

Carol Christensen of San Jose, Calif., who is “closer to eighty than seventy,” had planned to accompany five friends on a Road Scholar program in the Greek Islands beginning April 6. With news of the pandemic spreading, the group discussed canceling. Ms. Christensen, who had been on three previous Road Scholar trips, decided to wait and see what the organization would do.

In early March, Ms. Christensen received an email saying the Greece trip was off, and she was welcomed to a future trip credit or a full refund. “I didn’t have to do anything on my end besides answer a few questions,” she said, noting her credit card was refunded for her final payment, and a check arrived for the deposit she had paid earlier. “They even refunded the cost of the trip insurance.”

James Moses, Road Scholar’s president, said in an email message that the first responsibility for the nonprofit is to its travelers. While the situation is extremely challenging financially, Mr. Moses believes the community “will stand by us if we stand by them.”

Mr. Moses said that during his 40 years with the company, Road Scholar programs have been disrupted by economic upheavals, natural disasters and disease outbreaks. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Road Scholar created an emergency response plan and activated it again this year, with teams assigned to communicate with travelers, focus on logistics, monitor the situation on the ground, and keep track of information from government agencies and other sources. Besides communicating with future trip participants, the company helped 670 travelers in 25 countries come home sooner than expected.

Even waiting for a cancellation decision can produce anxiety. Gayle Mindes paid a $250 deposit in June of 2019 for a trip to China for this August. The Chicago resident has asked for a refund, but Road Scholar has only canceled trips through July, and is still considering its August trips. The company said Ms. Mindes can transfer her deposit to another trip, or if the trip is canceled, a decision likely to be made in mid-June, Ms. Mindes will receive her deposit back.

“They say they are following C.D.C. guidelines, but I think there is enough evidence a high-risk group shouldn’t travel,” she said.

With its status as a nonprofit organization, Road Scholar has a cushion that commercial travel operators don’t have. It has received tax-deductible donations over the years that help offset trip planning, help low-income travelers and provide grants for family caregivers. Road Scholar is now launching a crowdfunding campaign to ask its community to help the organization during the pandemic.

“We exist to inspire and empower older people,” said Mr. Moses, not to deliver profits to a shareholder. When the travel disruption began, Mr. Moses said he sent a set of “guiding principles” to his employees. The first instruction was “to be kind to people who are calling, recognize their fear and anxiety, and do everything you can to help them,” he said.

The organization is paying group leaders whose trips were canceled, and working with other providers to get refunds or credit for unused trip activities.

Two-thirds of Road Scholar’s current customers are return travelers, according to the company, including some that have been on more than 25 trips. “The participants build intense relationships because they are on these holistic learning experiences together,” and come back with a feeling of ownership, said Mr. Moses.

Ken Gallagher, a retiree from Bartlesville, Okla., has been on 10 Road Scholar trips in the United States, Europe and Asia. He’s a repeat customer, he said, thanks to the programs’ experiences, local lecturers and the company of other curious travelers. He also said that when things go wrong, like mismatched airline schedules, the organization makes it right.

From watching the news, he was expecting his April trip to South Korea to be canceled, but when he received a personal call from Road Scholar just one day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned against nonessential travel there, he was impressed with the organization’s efficiency.

“They really take responsibility for everything they do,” Mr. Gallagher said.

Mr. Gallagher was offered a full refund, including the plane fare he had booked though Road Scholar. He opted instead to put the money toward an August trip to Europe he had signed up for with his wife, which he hopes won’t be canceled, plus a future trip.

About half of the nearly 22,000 trip participants that were affected by the March through May cancellations, have opted to “apply their tuition to a future program” in the next three years, according to the company.

Some participants are eschewing the refund as a gesture of good will, Mr. Moses said. For others, “There’s a feeling of anticipation when you know you are going on a trip” — something that people want to hold onto now.

While the organization offered a $200 sweetener for Ms. Christensen to take credit for a future trip, the global health situation has put her travel on pause for the time being.

“Until there is a vaccine, or this thing is really knocked back or treatable, I don’t plan to travel overseas,” she said, “I’m in the high-risk category so I think it will be at least a year until I go abroad again.”

Still, she feels grateful for the situation she finds herself. She has friends who received credits from canceled trips organized through other companies, while Road Scholar, for her needs, was “exemplary.”