Travel solutions: My train turned into a bus — can this Thello problem be fixed?
Travel solutions

Travel solutions: My train turned into a bus — can this Thello problem be fixed?

We reserved a two-person compartment on the Thello night train from Paris to Venice last summer. A mudslide on the tracks led to the cancellation of our train. Thello substituted bus service from Paris to Milan, and then Trenitalia train service from Milan to Venice. Thello was disorganized and didn’t always communicate with us.

We paid for an entire two-person compartment but got the same bus seats as everyone else. Thello employees told us we’d get a refund for the fare difference and gave us instructions on how to apply. The train from Milan to Venice was full, so we had no assigned seats and ended up sitting on stools in the restaurant car. We arrived in Venice almost five hours later than the originally scheduled trip.

I submitted the request for compensation on the Thello website. It said they’d reply within 30 days as required by EU law. They never did. I submitted a second request and sent an email — still, no response. The escalation procedures are meant for EU citizens, so I’m unsure how to pursue this.

I believe I am entitled to a refund of the difference between the cost of the entire two-person compartment ($392) and two regular tickets ($176). The train arrived in Venice almost five hours late. Under EU law, I believe we are also due a 50% refund on the regular ticket price, which is an additional $88. Can you help me resolve this Thello problem? — David Papay, Sunnyvale, California

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A: I’m sorry your sleeper train turned into a bus ride. It looks as if Thello tried its best to get you to your destination on time, but it fell a little short in the amenities department.

You’re absolutely correct, you’re entitled to a partial refund for this Thello problem. The Rail Passenger Rights Regulation 2007 (EC) No 1371/200 requires refunds and minimum service levels. For example, the operator must pay 50% of the ticket price if the delay is more than two hours.

My advocacy team and I run into this problem almost every day. Although the law requires a rail operator or an airline to compensate its passengers, it’s a little fuzzy on the timeline. That allows a company like Thello to take its sweet time. And that’s exactly what it did.

Why do companies stall? They may not have the staff necessary to issue a prompt refund. But the foot-dragging might also be intentional. If the company makes you wait long enough, you might give up. That’s especially true if you’re overseas.

Tracking down a contact at Thello wasn’t easy. My nonprofit consumer advocacy site, Elliott.org, has a team of volunteer researchers who jumped on this Thello problem. They discovered that Thello, a relatively new rail operator in Europe, is owned by Trenitalia, which is part of the FS Group. I reached out to FS Group on your behalf. It sent a full refund, as promised.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler.” You can email him at chris@elliott.org.

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