Thousands Of Students Left Scrambling After Travel Agency Folds
BOSTON (AP) _ What was supposed to be a learning experience in foreign cultures turned into an education in consumer affairs for thousands of high school students when their travel agency went out of business.
″I feel totally cheated,″ 16-year-old Kelly Van Alstine said Monday. She was one of 20 students from three high schools in suburban Sacramento, Calif., who paid $2,400 each for 15-day trips to France, Switzerland and Italy to begin June 23.
About 5,000 travelers, mostly high school students, from across the country had sent money to the Cambridge-based travel agency Milestone Educational Institute Inc., which went out of business Thursday, citing financial problems. Milestone also operated as American Leadership Study Groups.
The Boston Globe reported that the company president, Christopher Duy Mello Kenyon, had returned to his native England. The whereabouts of an estimated $10 million in advance payments were unknown.
Kenyon’s attorney, Richard L. Blumenthal, didn’t return phone calls Monday and a call to the Milestone office yielded a recorded message saying the agency had closed.
Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger said his office was investigating. But that may offer little comfort to travelers who had paid $1,300 to $3,000 for their trips to Europe.
″They’re devastated,″ said Marilyn Ribo, a French teacher from Claymont High School in Urichsville, Ohio. ″This is a small community. We have very little industry. They all worked, they all saved their money.″
Twenty-two current and former students had paid $1,500 each for a 15-day trip to Paris. They had been preparing for the trip by learning about French money and the Paris subway system, Ribo said.
″I looked at all my French things here and I was ready to throw it through a window,″ she said.
″We had no reason not to trust this company, none whatsoever,″ Ribo said.
But Dawn DiMartino, spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau in Boston, said the agency received 44 complaints in the 18 months before Milestone closed. It received another 47 calls Friday.
With no tickets and no refunds, students, teachers and travel agents around the country were scrambing to salvage trips.
The E.F. Institute for Cultural Exchange, the American Council for International Studies, both in the Boston area, and Cultural Heritage Alliance in Philadelphia were offering cut-rate trips to Milestone customers, officals said.
″We feel that we are part of this industry,″ said Olle Olsson, president of the E.F. Institute. ″We have no blame whatsoever for what has happened, but we feel we should help out as much as we can.″
It’s also good for business, he added. ″Once they travel with us, they will want to travel with us again.″
Ninteen students at Scotlandville Magnet High School, near Baton Rouge, La., had planned to leave for France last Friday. Instead, they spent the weekend working out ways to raise $6,000 for a scaled-back trip, said their French teacher, Louise Stowell-Ruzicka.
Two companies offered parking lots for car washes. Others donated a $50 gift certificate and a vacation trip to the Bahamas as raffle prizes.
The students already had their plane tickets and Continental Airlines agreed to let them change their departure date to July 6.
But the students each lost more than $1,000 that they had paid for meals, hotels, ground transportation, tours, entry fees, theater tickets and health insurance, Stowell-Ruzicka said.
Some hotels in France offered reduced rates and the families with whom the group had originally planned to spend four days in Nantes said they could stay as long as they needed. They are now planning on 11 days.
″This is a hard way to learn a lesson about humanity,″ Stowell-Ruzicka said.