The state attorney general is suing a Boston travel company for allegedly failing to pay refunds to more than 100 New Yorkers whose trips, often costing at least $10,000 each, were canceled.
State Attorney General Letitia James’ office sued Vantage Travel Services Inc., doing business as Vantage Deluxe World Travel, and its founder and owner, Henry R. Lewis, alleging that the company “engaged in deceptive business practices by failing to honor the company’s policy to promptly refund consumers who had their trips canceled or had to cancel for health reasons.”
Founded in 1983, Vantage organized cruises worldwide and land tours in Africa, Asia and South America.
When the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June, it said in court filings that its unsecured indebtedness included about $80.3 million paid by customers in advance of trips not yet commenced and about $23 million in refunds owed to customers for cancelled trips.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The state attorney general is suing Boston-based Vantage Travel Services for allegedly failing to promptly refund New York consumers who had their trips canceled or had to cancel for health reasons.
- Vantage, in a bankruptcy filing, said its debts included $23 million in refunds owed to customers for canceled trips.
- Pacific Travel Partners, which purchased Vantage’s business and assets in a bankruptcy auction, is offering some customers travel credits.
In August, Pacific Travel Partners Inc., a subsidiary of an Australian company, Aurora Expeditions, was the winning bidder in a bankruptcy auction for the assets and business of Vantage, paying $2 million.
Aurora could not immediately be reached for comment.
Vantage’s bankruptcy attorney, Michael J. Goldberg of Boston law firm Casner & Edwards LLP, did not reply to a request for comment.
For at least the last three years, Vantage allegedly repeatedly cancelled trips, but called them “postponements,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan on Sept. 12.
The attorney general’s office received 122 complaints about Vantage, the lawsuit said.
“The majority of these complaints state that consumers were waiting months, and in some cases over a year or more, to receive refunds from Vantage Travel, often for amounts in excess of $10,000, for trips that either they had to cancel for health reasons or were cancelled or ‘postponed’ by Vantage Travel,” the lawsuit says. Consumers complained that they were unable to reach anyone at Vantage or that the company promised refunds it never provided, the lawsuit alleges.
The attorney general is asking the court to prohibit Vantage and Lewis from engaging in deceptive acts; to order the defendants to conduct an accounting of revenues from and refunds, if any, to New York customers; and to order them to pay restitution and damages to New York customers whose trips were delayed or cancelled.
Dix Hills customer’s story
A Dix Hills customer of Vantage welcomed the news of the lawsuit.
Bonnie Pine and her partner, Bill Bernstein, together paid more than $11,000, including $649 each in “cancel-for-any-reason” trip insurance, in November 2022 for a 28-day cruise down the Amazon River in Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil in October, said Pine, 73.
But in April, Vantage told the couple the journey would be shorter and be moved to the Atlantic Ocean because “there were pirates on the Amazon, and one of the ports had collapsed, and they couldn’t bring the ships in there,” Pine said.
“We wanted all our money back at that point. And they wouldn’t give us all our money back,” she said.
So, they decided to go on the modified trip, she said.
Then they found out in June that Vantage had filed for bankruptcy, Pine said.
In its purchase of Vantage, Pacific agreed to give travel credit to the company’s former customers whose trips were bought before June 29, which is the day Vantage filed for bankruptcy, but have not taken place yet.
Former Vantage customers who book trips with Pacific may use travel credits for up to 50% of the cost of the new trips, excluding river and land tours, and up to 20% of the cost of river and land trips taken by Nov. 30, 2028.
If only a portion of a travel credit is applied to a Pacific trip, the remaining credit may be applied to additional trips booked with Pacific.
When a company files for bankruptcy, an automatic stay is applied that prevents lawsuits against the company from going forward to compel it to pay money, said Patrick Collins, a bankruptcy attorney at Uniondale-based law firm Farrell Fritz P.C. who is not involved in the Vantage lawsuit.
But there is an exception in the law that allows a government entity to exercise its police and regulatory power to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, which is what the attorney general’s office is citing in its lawsuit against Vantage, he said.
“In this instance, they believe that Vantage Travel was engaging in illegal activity in terms of the way they handled deposits from consumers. Part of the relief they’re seeking is to prohibit the bankrupt company from continuing to do that,” Collins said.