When A Dream Vacation Turns Into A Nightmare

Samuel and Renee Marcus had done lots of traveling, but their first trip to the Orient two years ago was unforgettable. The Long Island couple had plunked down about $15,000 for a whirlwind, all-expense-paid tour ending in Hong Kong. But when they arrived in Tokyo, their first destination, they got word that the trip had been canceled. The tour operator, Hemphill Harris Travel, was having money problems and hadn't paid any expenses. Left stranded, they hopped on a plane home three days later.

As the Marcuses discovered, what sounds like a dream vacation when you're at the travel agency can sometimes turn into a disaster in real life. When Hemphill collapsed, it allegedly left hundreds of vacationers with worthless travel deals. But tour operators aren't the only source of potential snags. Agents can book vacationers on flights that get canceled, and airlines can go bust.

ADVANCE TIP-OFF. Disappointed travelers are not without recourse. You can always head for court--but as a last resort. Last year, the Marcuses won the right to sue their agent, Zenith Travel, for negligence. Their suit, which Zenith is fighting, is among a growing number of cases making it easier to hold agents accountable for plans gone awry.

Ideally you want to uncover possible problems before they mushroom. Often, all it takes is a few phone calls. Before plans are set, travelers would be wise to check with the local Better Business Bureau and the consumer-affairs division of the state attorney general. Both offices could tip you off if an airline or a tour operator is the target of frequent grumbling. For help in locating these and other information sources, the U. S. Office of Consumer Affairs publishes a free Consumer's Resource Handbook (Handbook, Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo. 81009).

Travelers considering inexpensive charter flights and tour packages should stick to federally registered public charters. These carriers and operators must set up separate accounts in which customers' money is held in escrow until travel is completed. The tour operators must also post a bond. The reason to go this route is simple. Says Thomas Dickerson, a traveler's lawyer in Manhattan: "Your money is protected."

Travel insurance may buy you some peace of mind. But be careful about trip-protection plans or cancellation insurance policies that are offered by tour operators. Costing from $50 to $100 per person, they entitle you to a refund if you cancel--if the company is still around when you come to collect.

Travel insurance from established insurance companies, however, usually goes a step further. The Travelers, for example, offers four types of protection in its Travel Insurance Pak. Ranging from $25 to $100 and up, they cover many things, from lost luggage to accidents and unforeseen emergencies. The latter is especially good for folks who get stuck in traffic and miss their flights.

If you book through American Express travel agents, AmEx will reimburse you for lost deposits or for full payments if the airline or cruise company goes bust. The U. S. Tour Operators Assn. (USTOA), a trade group, will also issue refunds if any of its 41 members stops operating or goes bankrupt. For information about members or advice on picking tours, write to USTOA, 211 E. 51st St., Suite 12B, New York, N. Y. 10022.

BE REASONABLE. If problems arise en route, try to solve them on the spot. "If the air conditioner doesn't work or if the room is dirty, don't stay there five days," says Robert E. Whitley, USTOA president. He urges travelers to complain to the hotel, the tour operator, or even the travel agent back home. But be reasonable: Don't buy budget and then expect deluxe.

If gripes are legitimate, chances are they'll get resolved quickly. If not, theUSTOA and other trade groups will intervene on your behalf. The American Society of Travel Agents in Washington (703 739-2782) will even help mediate complaints.

Litigation can be costly, time-consuming, and frustrating. And it can be tough to collect from bankrupt tour operators or airlines and overseas hotels. Partly for these reasons, the travel agent is becoming a popular target. But agents aren't guarantors, says Rodney Gould, Zenith's lawyer. Other experts say travelers have a right to expect accurate information about prices and traveling requirements. But don't blame the agents if events beyond their control ruin your trip.

With a little care, you can avoid vacation problems. And with a little luck, the weather will hold up.