Agency’s bust drags on American travelers
Stars and Stripes May 1, 2008
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Customers of a bankrupt travel agency might find out by mid-May if they’ll be able to try to recoup some of the money they have paid to the off-base company.
On April 2, Top Touristik — a German-run travel agency catering to Americans — filed for insolvency with the Kaiserslautern District Court.
At that time, dozens of customers who had paid Top Touristik for spring break cruises but hadn’t received their tickets gathered outside the travel agency’s office in Einsiedlerhof. An 11th-hour fix from the cruise line allowed the affected customers to take the cruise, but an untold number of customers who booked other trips and tickets through the once-popular agency could be out thousands of dollars.
German Attorney Michael Wellstein has been appointed as the preliminary insolvency administrator in the case and is examining Top Touristik’s finances, according to Matthias Völker, German legal adviser with Ramstein Air Base’s 435th Air Base Wing.
If Wellstein determines that Top Touristik has sufficient funds available, a German court could open formal insolvency proceedings. Customers who lost money as a result of the travel agency’s bankruptcy would then be able to file claims.
But opening formal proceedings depends on Top Touristik having sufficient assets to pay for the proceedings, Völker said.
“There’s of course then still no guarantee that anybody will get any money back because there’s the cost of the proceedings first,” he said.
When contacted Monday, Top Touristik declined to comment.
The Top Touristik situation stands as a cautionary tale for Americans dealing with off-base travel agencies. Prior to insolvency, Top Touristik had changed locations and would only accept cash payments from customers. The German legal office at Ramstein has dealt with roughly 15 people who have been affected by the agency’s financial woes, Völker said.
In the days after Top Touristik’s problems emerged, dozens of customers who nearly lost out on their trips warned potential customers who were unaware of the situation to use on-base travel agencies.
Birgit Freyler, manager at Ramstein Ticket and Tours on Ramstein Air Base, said business has been steady.
“Customers booking with us can be assured of top quality service and satisfaction from beginning to end wherever their travels should take them,” she said.
Keep insolvency insurance in mind when booking abroad
When customers book a trip — with “trip” defined as two different services such as travel and hotel — it is mandatory under German law that tour operators provide insolvency insurance.
“Without having that insurance certificate in hand, you can deny payment to the tour operator, respectively, the tour office,” said Matthias Völker, German legal adviser with Ramstein Air Base’s 435th Air Base Wing.
“You do not have to pay a dime unless you have that insurance coverage in hand. It’s specifically insolvency insurance.”
Such insurance would protect customers from what happened in the case of Top Touristik — being stranded if a tour operator goes bankrupt while customers are on vacation.
While the travel agencies customers book through may not be the tour operator for that trip, travel agencies would give customers the insurance certificate — known in German as Sicherungsschein — along with their trip documents, Völker said.
Because it is a European Union law, the same protection is offered in EU member countries, he said.
“It’s really important that you look at this insurance certificate, and if you do not see it, demand it before you pay anything because you’ve got every right to do so,” he said.
“Then, you’re protected.”
— Steve Mraz