Chicago families demand refunds from touring company after COVID-19 trip cancellations

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Countless study abroad trips have been canceled due to COVID-19, leaving many families out thousands of dollars.

Five families who are very angry with EF Educational Tours have contacted ABC7. They said in the midst of a crisis, they figured the company would give their money back. But one mother said that isn't happening.

"This would be the first time my daughter ever traveled to Europe," said Jackie Thompson.

Ava Thompson, 16, and her mother Jackie spend a lot of time together, but this year, Ava would be taking a huge step, traveling abroad without mom and with EF Educational Tours.

"I was absolutely nervous with all the regular types of mom nervous things," Jackie said. "Then obviously as this started ramping up, it took on a whole new dimension."

The Jones College Prep student's spring break trip was eventually canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ava's mom was relieved to say the least.

"When I heard it was canceled, I was thrilled because CPS did what I would have had to do anyway," she said.

They say they paid about $4,600 for Ava's 13 day trip.

"They had stressed numerous times in all of their materials they sent about their 'peace of mind' clause, which was essentially what they were saying was travel insurance," Jackie said.

But last week, Ava and her mom say they were informed that the touring company was only offering credits for all grade levels, even graduating seniors.

"And I was, I was horrified."

"What I ended up doing is looking up the company and seeing people all over the country were horrified in the same way," Jackie said.

The Chicago Teachers Union even called out the company on Twitter, saying in part, "We got a call from Simeon today. 13 students planned to go to Greece for Spring Break. They all paid $4,000 to @EFtours, a CPS-approved tour company. CPS is wisely grounding the trip due to #coronavirus. BUT THE COMPANY WILL NOT REFUND THE MONEY."

In a statement to the ABC7 I-Team, EF Tours said,"The health and safety of our travelers and staff has been our top priority for more than 55 years. We are closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation, are in constant communication with our offices around the world, and are actively following the guidance of all relevant authorities.

"We are working with all of our groups who are currently traveling, as well as with their families and local school administrators in some cases to facilitate their trips home as quickly as possible. We are postponing all student travel programs through April 30, and will provide a transferable travel voucher for the full amount of the program cost good through September 30, 2022. The vouchers may be used for any tours in the EF family of programs or at EF's International Language Campuses.

"We are also working with our groups, their schools, and individual families to provide flexible options for tours that are booked for May and beyond. We have extended our Peace of Mind program to all tours scheduled for 2020, to ensure that everyone feels safe as they embark on, modify, or postpone their educational experience. Our Peace of Mind program allows groups to change their itinerary, destination, or departure date, or take a transferable voucher. Typically, the Peace of Mind program is only offered to tours modified at least 45 days prior to departure, but given the current situation, we are allowing flexible rebooking without penalty for any 2020 tour right up to the day of departure. We have extended the deadline for exercising one of these flexible options for the coming weeks.

"For additional information, please read our FAQs for parents and teachers here."

But Ava and her mom, along with other Chicago parents, say this is completely unacceptable.

"You need to make these students whole," Jackie said. "Most of these students spent an enormous amount of time earning money. They are disappointed. Their lives have been upended as all of ours have. For the love of God, in the name of all that is good and reasonable and fair, refund their money."

ABC7 has also reached out to CPS, since ABC7 heard that this was a CPS approved tour company, according to the Chicago Teachers Union.

CPS said, "The district is currently working with travel vendors to work out refunds for families who paid for international district-sponsored trips. We will reimburse families for out-of-pocket costs not recovered by travel insurance."

So, if you're still trying to get your money back from EF Tours, it may be best to work with CPS moving forward. ABC7 asked CPS if they would use the company moving forward and have not gotten a response to that question.
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