NBC 5 Investigates looks into the history of a party bus company after a group says they were abandoned and overcharged by their driver.
Mix a group of friends, loud music, flashing lights, a pole and a large bus. The result is one of the most popular ways to explore Chicagoland for a night out.
But what happens if your party bus takes a wrong turn? Or worse, leaves you stranded?
It's a sore subject for Christy Vazquez.
"It was supposed to be a fun night for me and it wound up being a very aggravating night where I'm having to find rides home for 22 other people," Vazquez said.
Vazquez and her friends pooled their money to hire XTC Chicago Party Bus for a ride in January.
"One of my friends had done a party bus and it was a really good time," Vazquez said.
Twenty-three passengers, including Vazquez and her husband, Jesus, would celebrate Vazquez's birthday on board the bus, with stops at a popular Chicago tourist attraction and a country-western-themed bar in Rosemont. They brought with them adult beverages, coolers and party favors.
However, she said the experience was botched from the moment the driver picked them up. Vazquez said the driver demanded more money than was originally agreed upon. She said she paid a $300 deposit and was expecting to pay the driver the remaining $400.
"He said, 'no, you owe me $540'," Vazquez recalled.
A phone call to the company resolved the payment dispute at the time, Vazquez said. But the evening was just getting started.
A planned photo op at "The Bean" didn't go as planned, according to Vazquez.
"He took us to a stop that wasn't the stop we were supposed to be at," Vazquez said.
She said the driver then drove the group to the bar in Rosemont earlier than they agreed upon. And when it was time for pick-up from the bar a few hours later, the driver never answered his phone. Vazquez said she also tried contacting the company with no luck.
"Call. Text. Call. Text. Left multiple messages and no response at all," Vazquez said.
Vazquez and her husband said they had no choice but to find other means of transportation for their large group.
NBC 5 Investigates contacted XTC Chicago Party Bus to hear their side of the story. The company said the birthday group had been drinking heavily to start the night, threatened the driver and demanded multiple stops.
Vazquez denies those allegations.
XTC Chicago Party Bus boasts of "top-notch service" on its website. However, the company has an "F" rating with the Better Business Bureau based on 23 complaints.
"We're just reporting what their consumers tell us," said Tom Joyce of the BBB. "It seems by looking at some of those complaints that they have a group of dis-satisfied customers.
A spokesperson for the City of Chicago's Business Affairs and Consumer Protection said XTC Party Bus Co. was fined for deceptive practices based on a prior complaint. The spokesperson also said XTC Chicago Party Bus does not have an active business license with the city.
Vazquez filed complaints against the company with the Better Business Bureau, the City of Chicago and the Attorney General.
"It was a decent amount of money that we paid into this to not even really enjoy it," Vazquez said.
Both the City of Chicago and BBB urge consumers to check out a company's complaint history before signing a contract or handing over money. The BBB also encourage consumers to pay by credit card, which could help if there any charges to dispute.
NBC 5 Investigates received a tour aboard a themed party bus owned by Elite Chicago Limo, a company with an "A" rating with the Better Business Bureau.
"We really focus on delivering consistently good service and really, really cool buses," said co-owner Gabriel Stonys.
It's easy to see why the party bus experience is winning over wedding parties, prom-goers and birthday party groups. Music blasted from the speakers while videos played on television monitors aboard the converted shuttle bus.
"People love them. It's comfortable. It's a nice way of just driving around Chicago having a good time," Stonys said.
Stonys said customers who are interested in hiring a party bus should expect to sign a contract and pay a deposit. He also said it's important to stay in contact with the company.
His drivers also lay out the rules right away.
"This is about having fun. It's not about things that go wrong," Stonys said.