CANCELLED: Travel Insurance Lessons Learned

2019 has been a no-good, horrible year.  The kind of year that involves a sudden, traumatic death of one family member and a diagnosis of a serious illness for another immediate relative.  My calendar had been filled with plans for fun travel.  As the saying goes, “Life is what happens when you are making other plans.”

One unexpected outcome of 2019 is that I learned valuable lessons from a variety of trip cancellation insurance scenarios.

Scenario #1: No Travel Insurance.

One Week in Rome, Cancelled.  Total Sunk Costs: Private Apartment=$1185, Flight=$765.  

I am unreliable when it comes to acquiring trip insurance, or at least I was before 2019.  My flights to Rome were super cheap ($368 per person round trip from Los Angeles), and I was permitted to cancel my rental apartment with no penalty until three days before arrival. I truly did not believe I would need trip insurance.  However, a death in my family occurred two days before my vacation was scheduled to commence.

Lessons Learned:

  • You roll the dice without trip insurance. I happily skipped this expense many times over the years.  Just know that your good fortune may run out at some point.
  • It is cheaper to cancel a hotel than an apartment.  For a hotel, you often are charged only a one-night cancellation fee.  I was responsible for the entire week of the apartment rental.
  • Attempting to pay for a private apartment rental in Italy from the United States is complicated.  In the midst of dealing with a sudden family death, I spent a week trying to pay my host.  Although Booking.com, my booking agent, confirmed that the host accepted credit cards, I had to work directly with the host to make the payment.  The host said she would not accept my credit card nor PayPal.  She wanted a wire transfer.  Umm, no.  She eventually enrolled in PayPal to complete the transaction.
  • Even refundable flights can become non-refundable. My flight was completely non-refundable.  My sister had a much more expensive fare that could be refunded in case of death.  The catch—she needed a death certificate within seven days.  The bureaucracy of death does not work quickly, and seven days was not possible.  My sister did not get a refund.

Scenario #2: “Free” Travel Insurance Through the Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card.  

One Week in Vienna, Cancelled.  Total Non-Refundable Cost: Flight to Vienna=$1679

Lessons Learned:

  • It is much easier to cancel a hotel room than an apartment. I cancelled my room with little notice and did not owe any money to the hotel.
  • The travel insurance provided by my credit card was not customer friendly.  I acquired the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card in February 2019 for the travel benefits.  The card comes with a hefty $450 annual fee, but includes comprehensive insurance on travel booked with the credit card.  My flight was reserved on this credit card, and it was an expensive, restricted fare with no cancellations, refunds, or changes allowed.

Let me take a moment to explain the circumstance of my Vienna flight cancellation.  A close family member was scheduled for surgery during the week of my trip to remove a major organ due to cancer.  In other words, this was not a frivolous claim.  I submitted the required supporting documentation, including the cancellation confirmation from the airline detailing the non-refundable fare and a copy of the airline policy showing the fare restrictions.

I went back and forth with the Chase insurance service multiple times.  The company wanted proof that the airline hadn’t reimbursed me for the clearly non-reimbursable fare.  The insurance service first said that written poof of the fare restriction policy would suffice.  I later was told to ask the airline for a note on letterhead confirming that I had not been reimbursed. The airline directed me to submit the request via e-mail, but the auto-reply provided little hope that I would receive a response in time to meet the insurance company’s deadline.  

Ironically, I had booked this flight through the Chase Sapphire Ultimate Rewards travel service.  When cancelling the flight, it was the Chase travel representative who cautioned me several times that my fare was absolutely non-refundable.   I contacted the Chase travel staff to see if they could help with my insurance claim, and they were also confused and helpless in the face of this demand for additional, non-existent proof. 

My final discussion with the insurance company involved me breaking down in sobs.  Was it the crying or coincidental timing that led to my claim being approved the next day without the note from the airline?  I’ll never know.

Scenario #3: Policy From Travel Insured

Two Week Viking Cruise to Vietnam/Cambodia.  Total Non-Refundable Cost: Cruise Cancellation Penalty=$1,544 

Lessons Learned:

  • Viking is a great company. Based on travel insurance rules, I had to cancel the cruise before filing a claim with my travel insurance company.  According to my contract with Viking, I was required to pay a 15% cancellation penalty.  Viking promptly deposited the remaining 85% of my fare and 100% of all other optional pre-paid expenses (such as gratuities) into my bank account.  I spoke personally with a Viking representative who was compassionate and efficient.  I did not purchase my travel insurance through Viking, but I would never hesitate to do business with them.
  • Travel Insured also is a fantastic company.  You get what you pay for in travel insurance.  Approximately one year earlier, I had invested in a $238 per person travel policy from Travel Insured.  I called to submit a claim for the non-reimbursable portion of my cruise due to my family member’s cancer diagnosis and treatment.   A kind and empathetic representative walked me through the requirements.  She also told me I had 15 months to submit the supporting documentation after the claim was filed.

I filed an online claim as directed, but did not submit the supporting paperwork for another two months.  Instead, I spent that time focusing on the real priority – my family.   I completed my submission on September 18.  On September 23, I received notification that I would receive a full refund with no further questions asked.

General Lessons Learned about Trip Insurance

Step 1: Cancelling the Trip
In the case of a medical situation, DO NOT cancel a trip before receiving a formal medical opinion from your doctors.  Also, you must cancel your trip within a certain number of days after your physician states that travel is not medically advisable—48 hours and 72 hours in my scenarios.  This is a no-brainer for a severed limb or a death that occurs right before a trip.  Those incidents clearly happen on a particular day and are catastrophic for travel.

Cancer and other illnesses can be tricky—there usually isn’t one day when everything falls apart.  For instance, do you cancel the day the doctors find a mass?  The day they confirm it is malignant?  The day you are notified that a surgery is required?  There is much flailing about with diagnosing cancer and other illnesses.  It is hard for you and your doctors to know what future days and months will bring.  Don’t be afraid to make trip cancellation part of the overall health discussions with your doctors.

Step 2: Filing the Claim
There are very strict timelines for filing a claim after you cancel your trip. Check with your policy.  In each of my scenarios, I had to submit a claim within 20 days after my trip cancellations.

Step 3: Submitting the Supporting Documentation
Chase Sapphire travel insurance gave me 90 days to submit documentation, and then, inexplicably, shortened the timeframe to 30 days for the additional letter requested from the airline.  (Later, while I was crying, Chase told me they didn’t really mean 30 days.  I don’t know what to say about that.  Perhaps they thought I needed the extra excitement of an impossible, fake deadline?)

Travel Insured provided a 15-month deadline.  I was able to file the paperwork on my own timeline, when I was better able to cope with the smaller details of life.

Understand Your Travel Insurance Policy:
I had known about the existence of cancellation/claim deadlines, which helped me navigate the insurance process.  Be sure to understand the rules of your travel insurance BEFORE disaster strikes, or you may find yourself disqualified from claiming a benefit.

Don’t Forget About Refundable Expenses:
Insurance should cover non-reimbursable expenses, but you may have expenses that vendors will refund if you cancel with advance notice.  In my case, I received not only $3,200 from insurance, but also a total of more than $10,000 in refundable fees from Viking and other tours/activities planned for my Rome and Vienna trips.

Ask For Help:
If you are too upset by your circumstances to deal with these administrative details, then ask for assistance from a close friend or family member.  Put someone trustworthy to work.  Money seems meaningless when dealing with life and death issues, but you will appreciate it later to pay medical bills or plan another trip during a happier time.

For additional posts about travel, life, and loss, please see:

Will You Still Go On Your Trip?

Travel After Loss: Beauty in the Shadow of Grief

Note: As always, I received no compensation from any companies listed in this post.  I am, however, grateful to both Viking and Travel Insured for their excellent customer service during a difficult time.