Most tour operators charge cancellation fees, but travelers should be aware that not all of them define ''cancellation" the same way.
Gloria S. Betz and Peter G. Cohen of Santa Barbara, Calif., ran into an unexpected definition with a trip to Croatia and Slovenia they booked with Grand Circle Travel of Boston.
Last year they planned to fly to Germany this April to visit Cohen's daughter and her family and then join the Grand Circle tour. They booked their own flights, made travel plans with Cohen's daughter, and paid in full for the tour last November.
But in February, their careful planning went for naught when Grand Circle notified them that their tour was being merged with an identical tour leaving the following week because not enough people had signed up for the original departure date.
Grand Circle offered to pay the change fees on the couple's flights, but Cohen said the travel arrangements he had coordinated with his daughter made it impossible to delay the tour a week. He asked for a refund and arranged his own tour to the Dubrovnik region.
Grand Circle issued the refunds, but charged both Cohen and Betz a $300 cancellation fee. Cohen was astounded; he felt Grand Circle was the party that had effectively canceled the trip.
''That's just monumentally unfair. We didn't change anything. They changed the date -- we didn't," Cohen said.
Cohen wrote the head of Grand Circle a letter of protest, calling the imposition of cancellation fees an ''outrageous interpretation of policy."
''Everyone to whom we have told this story is shocked by the unfairness of this penalty that has been imposed on us because Grand Circle changed the dates of our tour and we were unable to conform to these arbitrary dates," Cohen wrote. ''It is obviously unreasonable and unfair."
Grand Circle officials refused to budge, citing language in the company's terms and conditions that specifically addressed such situations. The language said Grand Circle reserves the right to change the departure date or cancel any trip that does not reach a minimum level of participation.
''If Grand Circle changes a departure date to another departure date that departs within 14 days from the original departure, cancellation penalties as described in this document still apply should you subsequently decide to cancel," the language states.
Cohen said he thought he had read all the materials associated with the trip, but couldn't remember this specific cancellation provision. He said he did not recall anyone at Grand Circle pointing it out to him.
Stephanie Nichols, a spokeswoman for Grand Circle, said the company makes every effort to operate all advertised departures, but in some cases that just cannot be done.
All cancellations at Grand Circle trigger a $125 processing fee, which the company says is the cost of administering a reservation. The company charges an additional $175 for land tours canceled 46 to 70 days before departure, which was the case with Cohen and Betz.
The combined fee rises to $500 with a cancellation 30 to 45 days before departure. There is no refund for a trip canceled less than 29 days before departure.
Ann Thomas, owner of the tour operator Western Discovery in Reno, Nev., and chairwoman of the National Tour Association, said every tour operator has its own policies for cancellations. Some handle cancellations the way Grand Circle does, but many don't.She said assessing a cancellation fee on a trip the tour operator has canceled may seem unfair, but it may be necessary if the company itself has paid out nonrefundable fees to hold rooms and transportation.
''I understand this couple's feeling and I empathize, but apparently it was clearly spelled out in the terms and conditions," Thomas said.
Contact Bruce Mohl at email@example.com.