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TRAVEL INSIDER

Probing Companies That Earn Frequent-Ire Points

Complaints * The Southland Better Business Bureau tracks three travel firms that rack up consumer grievances.

October 15, 2000|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

If you're in business and you deal with customers, you're bound to make a few clients unhappy, perhaps even provoking a formal complaint to a third party. And if those complaints start to add up, consumer advocates begin to take notice.

One of those advocates is Gary Almond, the general manager of the Southland Better Business Bureau, based in Colton, telephone (909) 835-6077. When I called recently to ask whether any travel companies were showing up frequently in his complaint tallies, he came back with three names.

Each remains in business, and each has a different specialty: One sells student-oriented school vacation packages, one sells travel club memberships, and one sells travel certificates to companies that, in turn, offer them to consumers as sales incentives. Together they have been named in 90 complaints to the BBB since 1996.

But what exactly does that mean? The BBB's Web site (http://www.bbbsouthland.org) includes a disclaimer saying it "does not endorse, recommend or disapprove of any product, service or company."

So how much weight do these assessments deserve? That depends on whom you ask.

"People should always call the Better Business Bureau," said Jerry Smilowitz, a Los Angeles-based deputy California attorney general who routinely checks BBB files for prospective prosecutions. "It's an excellent resource for flagging the really bad companies out there."

But Stan Bosco, assistant director for consumer affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents, said, "I wouldn't base an entire decision on either one Better Business Bureau or one consumer agency's reports."

ASTA, based in Alexandria, Va., tel. (703) 739-2782, also keeps tallies on complaints against its members and drops those that are unresponsive.

A quick look at the three companies in question:

* Class Travel International. This Redondo Beach company, in business there since 1991, arranges trips for high school and college students.

Marc Radow, the company president, labels the BBB's actions a "personal vendetta," which the BBB denies.

The BBB, which has given Class Travel International an "unsatisfactory" business performance rating, says the company has been named in 52 BBB complaints in last three years. Of those complaints, Almond said, 31 have gone unanswered by the company.

The BBB's "reliability report" on the company says complaints involve "general dissatisfaction with services and difficulties with cancellation and refund policies."

But Radow said that given its client numbers--100,000 in the last three years--and the many challenges of transporting college students and high schoolers abroad, the customer satisfaction record is "absolutely outstanding."

Meanwhile, at the federal level, "we're reviewing complaints that we've received" about Class Travel, said Dayton Lehman, deputy assistant general counsel for the Department of Transportation's aviation enforcement office in Washington, D.C.

Radow noted that because many of his customers are minors, their trips require parents' consent and other paperwork. When families change plans or the clients fail to meet deadlines and lose deposit money, he said, some blame his company instead of themselves.

Class Travel is registered as a California Seller of Travel (a legal requirement for most travel companies that sell to Californians) and has belonged to the American Society of Travel Agents for nine years. ASTA officials say their complaint files show nothing unusual, either in number of complaints or in company responsiveness.

* Infinity Privileges: This Los Angeles company operates as a travel club. A sales pitch on the company's phone line says Infinity Privileges offers 20% savings on more than 7,000 restaurants, up to half off on 8,000 hotels worldwide and up to 40% off car rentals.

Infinity Privileges has been named in 18 complaints to the BBB since December, including several cases in which consumers say their credit cards were charged for items they never agreed to. The BBB rates the company's performance as "unsatisfactory."

The BBB's report notes that the company has not answered most of the customer complaints. Neither ASTA nor the state Seller of Travel program shows Infinity Privileges on its rolls.

Infinity did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

When I called as a consumer to ask about the company's products, an operator explained that for $69.99 yearly, I could receive member discounts on rental cars, vacation packages, cruises and hotels. He said that the program included more than 50,000 hotels worldwide--but that the company wouldn't identify any participating hotels until I'd sent in my payment. Smilowitz said the attorney general's office has just started looking at the complaints.

* QBI Inc. Operating from Torrance, QBI offers certificates for travel packages and services.

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