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July 2001 Vol. 27, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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When Your Ship Leaves Without You

Will travel insurance bail you out?

from the July, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Ed Franks was looking forward to his second dive trip on the Tiata in Papua New Guinea (PNG), but delays on Continental Airlines left him stranded in Los Angeles with no way to get to PNG until two days after the boat was to leave Milne Bay. Ed contacted Kevin Baldwin, owner of the Tiata, who offered to come back and pick him up. As an option, Ed also received what he interpreted as an assurance that he could apply his prepaid fare toward another trip at his convenience. Given that understanding (an exception to Tiataís policy of no refunds if a trip is canceled less than 60 days in advance), Ed decided to return home to Albany, NY and t ry to resolve the situation with the airline and the Tiata. That sounded better than waiting for the next plane, missing a couple of days of diving, and causing the divers on the Tiata to miss precious diving time while the boat returned to port.

Remarkably, Continental did refund Edís airfare for every leg of his trip, as well as additional lodging costs he had incurred due to their delays. But, in dealing with theTiata, differences in interpretation arose. First, Ed requested a trip on a date when a private charterer had booked the entire boat. Kevin secured space for Ed and his dive buddy, but the trip was longer and more expensive than Edís original package, and he declined to pay the additional cost. The best Kevin could offer at that point was a make-good for an equivalent Tiata cruise, on a space available basis.

It Was Not Our Fault

For Ed to take advantage of the make-good, he would have to schedule his trip on less than 60 days notice, the customary deadline for resellers and bookings to confirm tentative reserv ations . Because of Edís profession, he couldnít plan a far-flung liveaboard trip on such short notice, so he asked for a credit instead. Kevin has continued to extend the space-available make-good offe , but no credit. In his words, ď We cannot be expected to incur further losses (for) something that was not our fault.Ē

Was Kevin within his rights? Absolutely. Consumer Reports Travel Letter points out that even major cruise lines ďmay work to assist their passengers, even if it involves additional expenses. But in the end they say their responsibility doesnít extend beyond the ship.Ē The newsletter quotes from a brochure issued by one of the biggest: ďCarnival denies any responsibility or liability for late arrivals ... or for any illness, injury, damage, loss of cruise time or other irregularities resulting there from.Ē

Could Kevin have gone a little further to be a good guy and accommodate a repeat customer? Sure. But even when we asked whether heíd like to reconsider his make-good offer, Kevin stuck to his guns, replying, ďWe feel that we have been more than fair and generous in our attempt to help Ed.Ē

Ed didnít have travel protection insurance, but would it have covered him in this situation? Depends on the policy.

Travel insurers offer different coverage for trip cancellation, interruption, delay or inconvenience. In their lingo, cancellations (before departure) and interruptions (once the trip is underway) are generally initiated by the traveler, usually due to specific personal reasons such as injury, illness or death. If a trip is canceled en route, either by the traveler or by a carrier, itís considered a travel delay - even if the trip is never completed. Most policies provide limited reimbursement of costs incurred to catch up to the next leg of your trip (additional lodging or meals, for instance).

Oral understandings, in the words of Samuel Goldwyn,
“ aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”

Under the individual policy from one insurer, Tripguard Plus, Edís scenario falls under the designation of a travel delay, and they cap this coverage at $500, despite the total cost of the trip or the amount of the premium paid. Tripguard Plus premiums rise on a sliding scale, depending on the total value of the trip. For example, covering a $3,000 vacation costs $188, while $4,000 worth of coverage goes for $250. But trip delay coverage stays at no more than 500 bucks even as the premium goes up. Thereís no way to increase it.

Claudia Fullerton, corporate secretary of CSA Travel Protection, offered a more liberal interpretation for their policy. According to Fullerton, Edís case could fall under both travel delay and trip interruption coverage. CSAís trip interruption benefit pays up to 150 percent of the trip cost ($20,000 maximum), and travel delay coverage maxes out at $750. CSAís premiums vary with age as well as total cost of the trip, but for comparisonís sake, someone 55 or younger could insure a $3,000-$4,000 trip for $155.

Clearly, it pays to read the small print before deciding which trip insurance to buy. The trouble is, such fine interpretations donít even appear in the schedule of coverages put out by travel insurers. In each case, we had to talk to administrative people to get a specific interpretation of Edís case. Customer service reps at the firmsí toll-free numbers couldnít handle this hot potato.

What else can you do to avoid getting into a jam like Edís? First, read and understand the cancellation policy of any resort or liveaboard before you send money. If you have questions or concerns, demand answers in writing, by email or fax, and be sure to keep copies for future reference. Oral understandings, in the words of Samuel Goldwyn, ďarenít worth the paper theyíre printed on.Ē

Most live-aboard operators also recommend that you give yourself an extra day or two at the port of embarkation both before and after the boat trip. With airline delays and rescheduling becoming almost epidemic, more travelers are building in this kind of cushion. Given an extra 24 hours or so, you can also adjust to time and climate changes before putting out to sea. And in case your luggage gets lost, you increase your chances of retrieving it before departure, since about 98 percent of lost bags are returned within a few hours, according to Consumer Reports. You might also determine in advance whether the liveaboard has contingency plans to pick up stragglers, or if it calls at any ports where you could catch up via local puddle jumper.

An opposite strategy is just not to book so far in advance. When youíre ready to go, phone around or check the Internet to see whatís available, and make your plans accordingly. Two weeks notice should be sufficient to book reasonable airfare, and thereís less time for something to go wrong before your departure date. You might even save some money. If a resort or live-aboard has cancellations within their norefund period, they often offer those accommodations at reduced rates, just to fill the empty slots.

But perhaps the most important lesson, one that repeats itself over and over in travel disputes, is this: Get every promise in writing, clearly and unequivocally. In Edís case as well as most others we hear about, the root cause of disputes is a misunderstanding between the resort, or carrier, and the client. Sometimes intentional, sometimes not, but either way the results are the same: a major waste of time, effort and often money spent trying to resolve the dispute after the fact.

Ordering Trip Insurance

Coverage and premiums vary significantly by carrier, so itís wise to comparison shop.

Major carriers include:

Access America, 800-284-8300,

Travel Guard, 800-826-1300,

CSA Plan, 800-348-9505,

Travelex, 888-457-4602,

Travel Insured, 800-243-3174,

You can get premium quotes over the phone or online, and be sure to compare the terms and conditions, but donít be shy about calling or e-mailing with additional questions. And get all replies in writing.

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