Delayed and ConfusedAugust 17th, 2010
It’s not uncommon for me to find, as I catch up daily on the blogs and news feeds of many in the travel industry, that there are people out there who have significant questions about travel insurance. They range in specificity and validity, from the “Isn’t that some newfangled hoax?” variety to the “I’m puzzled, I’m frustrated, and I’m contacting a consumer advocate” category. As with almost any industry or product imaginable, there are those who swear by travel insurance and those who steer clear. I usually try to simply gauge the severity of the buzz around any particular message board or comment section and then move on to other things — often, other helpful consumers are already lighting up the same conversational arenas with very good answers or steering the chat in another direction before I can compose a response, and anyway, the best defense is a good offense.
However, once in a very great while, I read something that is as puzzling to me, on the surface, as it seems to be for the general public. One such example is a recent blog post by infamous ombudsman Christopher Elliott, whose advocacy for slighted travelers is the stuff of legend. The story unraveled in Elliott’s commentary, while not explained in great detail, was…well…the kind of “Thing That Makes You Go Hmmm.” In short, the couple appealing to Elliott’s good graces had purchased an all-inclusive tour package, as well as some sort of travel insurance protection; midway through the tour, a flight that was scheduled to take them to their next destination simply didn’t show up (we don’t know why — it’s not explained in the article). After a few hours of delay (again, unspecified), the tourists were transported by bus to their next destination, but not before they had missed out on essentially a day and a half of activities and meals, for which they had paid in advance.
The major question (though there were many) that sprang from the message boards appeared to be: Why weren’t these people compensated in full by their travel insurance company for the cost of the missed flight, as well as all the other pre-paid expenses they missed out on while en route to that second destination? Isn’t that what Trip Interruption, or Trip Delay, coverage is for?
Weeeellll. Yes and no. While, again, the major details of the Elliott piece leave us guessing as to the exact answers, I think it’s helpful to review the exact definitions of Trip Interruption and Travel Delay, as well as a few of the top “tips and tricks” everyone should be employing before purchasing their own travel insurance policies. Travel Insurance should really work to your advantage, but you can’t make it work for you if you don’t quite understand how it’s supposed to function — and where the insurance company’s responsibilities to you begin and end.
1) Travel Delay means just that — your trip is delayed through no fault of your own. What may be covered? If you incur incidental expenses, like food or lodgings, as a result of being delayed, those should be covered by your travel insurance policy. In addition, if the delay results in you being forced to make alternate travel arrangements for which you are charged, it’s possible that those expenses may be reimbursable as well (though usually, these would be taken care of by the airline or other carrier). What should you know before assuming you’re covered? There are minimum time frames given within every insurance policy — in general, you would have to be delayed for at least five hours before coverage would take effect. It’s imperative that you know what this time requirement is before purchasing your policy. Also, most policies will state a maximum amount payable for trip delay coverage, meaning that while you could probably get a pretty good meal at the airport sports bar, you might want to think twice before ordering the lobster and champagne room service at your hotel and expecting that it will be taken care of by your insurance company. In a nutshell: Be very, very clear on how long the delay needs to be, and how much reimbursement you’re entitled to, before making your purchase.
2) Trip Interruption is designed to cover you if a sudden unforeseen event causes you to end your trip earlier than expected. What may be covered? Typically, the interruption of your trip would mean you’d incur some sort of expense to get yourself home, such as new airline tickets. The cost of those tickets would likely be reimbursable. In addition, any prepaid, nonrefundable expenses for the remainder of your shortened trip — hotel accommodations, event tickets, etc. — would potentially be covered by your travel insurance policy. What should you know before assuming you’re covered? Many policies have listed exclusions to this coverage — for example, the company covering Mr. Elliott’s clients’ travel has a clearly stated exclusion in some of their policies that reads: “Benefits do not cover losses due to:…Travel arrangements cancelled by an airline, cruise line, or tour operator.” While this particular exclusion certainly isn’t present in all travel insurance policies across all companies, it’s an example of the type of thing you may think would be covered, but might not be. Also, Trip Interruption benefits may kick in if you are mid-trip, like Mr. Elliott’s clients, and delayed for a significant enough length of time that finishing your travel plans becomes unrealistic; but again, as with Travel Delay, there will be a clearly defined time limitation spelled out within the policy. In most cases, it’s 24-48 hours of delay. In a nutshell: Make sure that you are one hundred percent aware of which reasons for interrupting your trip are covered — and which are not.
3) Buying travel insurance from a tour operator or agent is a common practice for many travelers, and it appears to have been the way in which Mr. Elliott’s clients got their protection (though, again, the details are fuzzy). What may be covered: it truly depends upon the policy that is offered by the individual agent or tour operator. While the policy will have to be underwritten by an actual insurance company, such as one of those offered on InsureMyTrip.com, it may not be inclusive of all the coverage that you desire. What should you know before assuming you’re covered? Purchasing your coverage through your agent or tour operator may be convenient, but it has a few potential downsides. For example: a) if your tour operator experiences financial default, you may not be protected against that if they are also providing your insurance; b) you will be limited to only one or two plan options, selected by your agent or tour operator, rather than having the opportunity to compare all the available plans in the travel insurance industry that suit your needs and your budget; and c) it’s possible (though certainly not a given) that some tour operators and agents will only offer a limited policy that is written in such a way as to be of more benefit to them than to you, the traveler. In a nutshell: Buyer beware. It’s always better to be able to explore your options and choose the one that’s best for you than it is to have someone sell you a pre-determined plan.
In the end, it appears — without having all the details — that Mr. Elliott’s consumers got exactly the benefit to which they were entitled, given the constraints of the insurance they had purchased. It’s unfortunate that in situations such as theirs, more couldn’t have been done on the part of all parties — tour operator included — to ensure that their experience was a more positive one. It’s also unfortunate that because of these stories, travel insurance may be painted with a proverbially broad brush. I hope you’re encouraged by this post to be diligent in researching and considering your own personal needs so you can compare and choose from the best policies for your next trip. If you have any questions, feel free to call our Customer Care representatives at 800-487-4722.