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Sunday, August 03, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: BY THE BEAUTIFUL, BUDGET-BREAKING SEA

Given all the planning involved in orchestrating a family vacation, it's surprising that there aren't businesses specializing solely in vacation planning for weary parents. Add another family to your planned vacation, and the logistics become even more entangled.

Vacations can be costly, no doubt about that: The American Automobile Association's annual vacation-costs survey has pegged the 2008 average cost for two adults traveling together in North America at $244 a day for lodging and meals. That's a far cry from the $13 it averaged in 1950, when AAA first started tracking vacation costs. Even adjusting for inflation, that $13 would equal only $118 in today's dollars. And that's skipping travel costs, which fuel-price hikes have made higher than ever for drivers and air travelers alike.

In other words, when something goes wrong with your vacation planning, it can be expensive.

Back in January a family of three from Ohio agreed to rent a beach house for a week with a family of six with whom they were friends. They planned well ahead of their targeted June rental date. The first family's share -- for two of the house's six bedrooms, one for the husband and wife and the other for their son -- was going to be $1,648.

In April, however, the second family called to let them know that their son would be sharing a bedroom with the son of the first family.

"We expected to receive a $413 refund for half of our second bedroom," the mother of the family of three writes.

Less than two weeks before the vacation, to further complicate matters, the first family unexpectedly lost a parent, the son's grandparent. A week later another grandparent was suddenly hospitalized. That evening the first family called the second family to let them know that they wouldn't be making the trip. They asked if the second family might be able to find another couple to help recoup the cost. The family of six said, "no," and told their friends that they were sorry that they wouldn't be able to come along on the trip.

"End of story," the mother writes.

As you may guess, she's wondering whether her family ought to be refunded any money, given that the other family ended up having the whole beach house to itself.

My short answer: no.

However unfortunate the turn of events was for the first family, the second family is under no ethical obligation to refund any money unless either party could find a last-minute substitute who would take the first family's place and pay its share of the bill for the beach house.

If the agreement was that the $1,648 would cover the cost of two bedrooms, the first family was indeed entitled to be reimbursed when it lost half of one bedroom to the other family's son, and indeed the $413 has been refunded. In that case, the first family's loss was the second family's gain -- and the change was at the instigation of the second family.

If the second family had decided that it needed the whole house and, on that basis, had told the first family that it couldn't be accommodated, obviously a full refund would have been due the first family.

As it is, however, the first family was unable to enjoy the time it had paid for due to what are generally called "acts of God." They aren't the second family's fault, and there's no reason that the second family's finances should bear the brunt of the first family's bad luck. It's understandable that the first family chose not to come, of course, but it was their choice and not the second family's.

It would be the right thing -- not to mention generous and compassionate -- if the second family made every effort to find a replacement family who could offset some or all of the first family's costs. There is no ethical obligation to provide such a replacement, though, especially with less than two weeks to do it in.

Bottom line: Even if they had the whole house to themselves, it wasn't through their doing and they shouldn't be expected to cover the additional costs.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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