‘Secret' Fund Has Millions of Dollars for Frustrated Travelers

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If you’ve been fighting with an unresponsive travel agent over money, a little-known California fund has millions of dollars that could be paid to you. 

Many people have been doing battle with travel agents. We’ve heard from dozens of upset people. Flora Teng is one of them. 

“I just felt like I had nowhere to go,” she said, after asking NBC Bay Area Responds for help.

Prior to the pandemic, Teng had booked a luxury trip with Emirates Airline. Then COVID-19 hit. Emirates cancelled Teng’s flight and authorized a full, $10,000 refund. But Teng’s travel agent arrived at a different conclusion. 

“They wanted to charge me $250 per person to get my refund,” she said.

Ultimately, NBC Bay Area Responds convinced the agent to process the refund with no fees. But Teng might have been able to turn somewhere else for help: TCRC. 

Private Corporation; Public Complaints

“There are [sometimes] a couple bad apples that spoil the cart,” said Steve Orens of Plaza Travel.  

“That’s why we have things like TCRC.”

TCRC stands for the Travel Consumer Restitution Corporation. If you’ve never heard of it, you are not alone. Neither had we.

“You’re right, it’s a secret,” said Diane Embree of Michael’s Travel Centre.

Embree said she helped put the TCRC in place in 1995. “There are a lot of people out there that just don’t know about it.”

The state legislature created the TCRC as a private corporation to take consumer complaints from the public when travel agents fail to deliver services or go belly up. California travel agents are required to register as a “Seller of Travel” and pay into a TCRC fund. That fund, in turn, pays unfulfilled California residents like Teng.

Who Knew? (Almost No One)

But there’s a very big gap. We asked Teng what she knew about the TCRC.

“Nothing,” she said. “I’ve never even heard of it.” 

You can’t really blame her.  

A TCRC representative told us it does not advertise. We couldn’t find a Facebook page, YouTube channel, or Twitter feed. Embree said the TCRC tried to produce Public Service Announcements in the 1990’s, but wasn’t successful.  

The legislature created a board of six people, four of whom are travel agents, to oversee the TCRC. We requested an interview, but a spokesman declined.

Jerry Desmond, with the California Coalition of Travel Organizations, said he worked with Embree to help enact the TCRC in the 1990’s. “It was a while ago,” he quipped. “There were some fears that the claims into the fund would exhaust the fund often, but that didn’t actually occur,” he said.

The situation is quite the contrary, in fact. TCRC’s money has piled up and very few people apply each year.

Millions in Stockpile

The cash in the TCRC’s bank account has grown every year since 2013 -- as far back as we can see the financial reports posted on its website. As of the TCRC’s latest annual report, its fund had almost $3.5 million dollars on hand.

However, in a state of almost 40 million people; where more than 3,000 people complained to The Federal Trade Commission about travel in 2020 alone; the TCRC only hears from 57 people per year, on average. In 2016, it received just 13 claims.  

Here’s good news: the few people who know to apply to this nearly “secret” board often win. The TCRC has approved -- and paid -- an average of 73% of claims since 2013, according to our analysis. It pays people a good chunk of money, too: an average of $3,002 per claim, according to our calculations.

“We honored the claims and we reimbursed them,” said Embree, who told us she previously sat on the board — in addition to helping set up the TCRC.   

How to File a Claim

Here’s how the claim process works, as we understand it from the TCRC website, a spokesman, and former board members.

  • STEP ONE: Look up your agency on Only California agents and California residents are eligible. 
  • STEP TWO: If your travel agent is listed there, you can fill out a claim form, tell your story, and provide documentation. The TCRC does not hold hearings. You must make your case in writing. And, your losses must be greater than $50. 
  • STEP THREE: Pay a $35 filing fee. It’s non-refundable. 
  • STEP FOUR: Wait. The board has 45 days to weigh the evidence from both sides, then either request extra information or issue a decision.
  • STEP FIVE: If you lose, you may request reconsideration. The law that created the TCRC says the board may charge a $50 fee to do so. 

Now, some caveats. You must file within one year of the scheduled end of your trip. So, if you’re arguing with a travel agent right now over a trip that was set for the start of the pandemic in 2020, your deadline to apply is likely approaching fast. Also, claims are capped at $15,000 per person, according to TCRC.

Embree recommended looking up a travel agent before doing any business with them.  

“What your viewers need to know is that they should be making sure that the agency is located in California, has a ‘Seller of Travel’ registration number, and is a participant in the TCRC. If they have all that, they’re going to get more protection that they are going to get anywhere else in the country,” Embree said. 

Flora Teng is recommending the TCRC do some outreach or advertising. 

She asked: “How do people even know they exist?”

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