The control center was on fire, but Travel Guard still won’t pay

Chuck Chiarello’s bucket list vacation to Alaska got off to a false start when his flight was canceled. It ended on a wrong note when his travel insurance company refused to cover some of his expenses associated with the cancellation.

I’ll cut to the chase: Since this story appears under the Case Dismissed! header, you already know how it ends. But it’s yet another cautionary tale about travel insurance, which should come in handy if you’re planning to insure your spring break vacation.

At first glance, I thought Chiarello had a pretty good chance of getting some money back. Boy, was I wrong.

Last May, he, his wife and another couple flew from Philadelphia to Anchorage to catch a tour. Total cost: $6,895 per couple, not including $156 per person for the Travel Guard insurance.

The first leg of their flight on May 13, from Philadelphia to Chicago on United Airlines, didn’t happen as scheduled. Theirs was one of more than 1,000 flights canceled after a fire in an air traffic control center.

“We waited at the Philadelphia airport all day, boarding and unboarding the plane until we were told our flight was finally canceled about 5 p.m.,” he says. “Our trip package in Alaska began on Thursday, May 15th. We thought it fortunate that we had planned on arriving in Anchorage a day early to sightsee.”

United tried to reroute both couples to Anchorage in time for their tour, to no avail. Their travel agent, Liberty Travel, couldn’t help either. So they took matters into their own hands.

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“We called Alaska Airlines and found a flight with four seats leaving from Newark on Wednesday night at $800 per person,” says Chiarello. “With the time changes the flight would get us to Anchorage with about 5 hours to spare till the start of our tour package at 7 a.m. on Thursday morning.”

United Airlines arranged to transport them to Newark. They paid for accommodations at the DoubleTree in Newark, but they also lost the prepaid hotel rate at the Westmark Hotel in Anchorage because of its cancellation policy.

Chiarello assumed Travel Guard would have his back, refunding him for his lost hotel stay and the sizable difference in airfare. But that’s not what happened.

Travel Guard agreed to refund his hotel room in Newark, but nothing else.

Like Chiarello, I assumed his airfare might be covered. But no — he received only a refund on his stay at the DoubleTree.

I asked Travel Guard about his case. Here’s the somewhat defensive response.

As a general rule, we do not discuss details of our customers’ claims with third parties or the press. However, we will note generally that, while we have a range of Travel Guard insurance plans that can cover a wide variety of contingencies while traveling, not every reason for a delay or interruption is covered under every plan.

In this particular case we paid all losses that were covered under the plan purchased. Unfortunately, not every loss the customers suffered was covered under their plan.

We encourage our customers to review available plans and make the choice best suitable for their trip, their concerns and their budgets before they buy. Our staff of licensed professionals is always available to answer questions and explain coverage options.

I reviewed the denial letter and it all hinges on the ambiguous wording in the contract:

Trip Interruption Benefits: The Insurer will reimburse the Insured up to the Maximum Limit shown on the Schedule for Trips that are interrupted due to the Unforeseen events shown above:

(a) forfeited, insured Trip Cost, and

(b) additional transportation expenses incurred by the Insured,

(i) to the Return Destination; or
(ii) from the place that the Insured left the Trip to the place that the Insured may rejoin the Trip; or

(c) additional transportation expenses incurred by the Insured to
reach the original Trip Destination if the Insured is delayed,
and leaves after the Departure Date.

However, the benefit payable under (b) and (c) above will not exceed the cost of economy airfare or the same class as the Insured’s original ticket less any refunds paid or payable by the most direct route.

I’ve read — and re-read — that paragraph, and I honestly couldn’t tell you what it says or how it should be interpreted. I can, however, tell you what the right thing would have been: Travel Guard should have covered Chiarello’s trip. Full stop.

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Had Chiarello called Travel Guard before buying those Alaska Airlines tickets to Anchorage, he might have been able to get Travel Guard to cover the additional expenses. At the very least, he would have known if he was covered or not under his policy.

Remember, it’s always worth considering travel insurance. But just because you have insurance doesn’t mean you’re covered.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Bill___A

    Insurers often have their own deals, so the time to call them is when you have trouble, not after you’ve made your own arrangements. Regrettable that it turned out this way but at the same time, why not call them before you spend so much per person?

  • Flywisely

    I think your analysis failed to identify the qualified unforseen event that Travelguard would cover for Trip Interruption.
    Seems to me it is this: Inclement Weather causing delay or cancellation of travel for at least 24 consecutive hours.
    I’m not sure he qualified for trip interruption reimbursement but he did for trip delay that’s why they reimbursed his hotel expenses. Why?
    The Company will reimburse the Insured up to the Maximum Limit shown in the Schedule or Declarations Page for Reasonable Additional Expenses until travel becomes possible to the originally scheduled Destination, if the Insured’s Trip is delayed 12 or more consecutive hours and prevents the Insured from reaching the intended Destination as a result of a cancellation or delay of his/her Trip.

  • Matt

    Seriously, why does anyone buy trip insurance?

  • Good question. So often on this site you see comments about how a person should have bought travel insurance, that everything would have been OK if they had travel insurance. That instead of helping the person here on the site, they should have bought travel insurance, and therefore they aren’t deserving of this site’s efforts.

    But then you see cases where travel insurance has been bought, but still doesn’t seem to matter. Same situations, but the travel insurance doesn’t work. Or they get caught by some of the fine print and legalese interpretations that exclude the circumstances at hand. What was thought covered, really wasn’t.

    I can see why the value of trip insurance could be called into question….

  • KanExplore

    We also frequently see the advice here, “should have used a travel agent,” but that didn’t work out either. It seems several people dropped the ball here – United, Liberty Travel and Travel Guard. I’d be mad too if I were Chiarello, though I’m wondering why they didn’t call Travel Guard at some point during that long day in Philly before taking “matters into their own hands.” Making your own arrangements and then hoping someone will cover the costs retroactively is always risky, even if sometimes in desperation it seems the only thing to do.

  • mdy2k1

    So does this mean, if they didn’t get their own airline flight, flew to Alaska on the next available United flight, if it was more than 24 hours after the original flight and they missed their tour, they would have been reimbursed for the tour?

    I’m impressed with the level of institutional failure here, we have the airline, travel agent, hotel and travel insurance all screwing over a consumer who did the right thing, gave themselves plenty of time for travel, got insurance, went through a travel agent. I’m one of the first people on this site to criticize irresponsible travelers BUT THESE GUYS DID EVERYTHING RIGHT!!!

  • Alan Gore

    It was a complex booking, but these passengers did all the right things: a travel agent, a padding day, insurance on the whole trip from a major company. And they still got screwed. Did the TA have a lot of experience with Travel Guard policies, enough to be aware of all the weasel clauses?

  • Lindabator

    NO, they didn’t. Should have called the insurance company BEFORE buying new tickets – then would have known what was and was not covered.

  • Lindabator

    I am an agent, and have insured almost ALL of my travellers. But they get the RIGHT insurance coverage, and know to call either me or the insurer when there is a problem. Have had many claims over the years, and NO problems like this.

  • sirwired

    So what DID the denial letter say was the reason for the denial? It’s kind of hard to come to a conclusion without that.

  • Lindabator

    United di the best they could under the circumstances, as did Liberty Travel (which still has to follow airline ticketing rules, you know). The problem here was the client NOT calling TravelGuard BEFORE buying those tickets. He did not bother to find out what was covered, if the insurer could have bought those new tickets, etc

  • Rebecca

    To be fair, they probably would have ended up doing the same thing anyways. Assuming the insurance tells them they won’t cover the price difference for the new flights, and instead tells them to take a much later flight and miss part of the tour or to completely miss the tour, he most likely would have still done what he did. I would have. Much better to spend a few hundred dollars to get on the different flight than miss the vacation entirely.

  • Flywisely

    When you buy insurance you better read what the policy covers.

    Your assumptions could be wrong.

    There is no institutional failure here. Travel insurance does not cover everything.

  • Lindabator

    Liberty Travel is not an agency, but a tour operator. As to booking alternative flights, they STILL need to go through United to get them moved at no cost. They cannot just arbitrarily put them on any flight – and frankly, last minute to Alaska during the season is NOT always easy to work with. Since Alaska is not a United partner, United would have to have signed over the ticket – Liberty has no authorization to do so.

  • Rebecca

    And they did call the agent. Who “couldn’t help”. I’ll concede that’s b.s. and the agent should have figured it out. But certainly this guy did everything right, and still got screwed.

  • Rebecca

    Agree 100%

    I think it’s because he isn’t going after UA to pay for the more expensive flight. He’s going after the insurance company. Take this same story with no travel insurance. And the OP wants UA to refund the difference in cost for the new flight. I’m going to side with UA. But this guy bought insurance. I’m going to side with him.

    What really gets me is he used an agent. That agent obviously is selling subpar travel insurance. And couldn’t help him when his trip was interrupted. The agent is the MOST at fault here, imo.

  • Rebecca

    Surely you can concede that they should have at least offered the option to the OP. We don’t think it will be covered, but if you spend a few hundred dollars, we can get you on this flight so you don’t miss your trip. Again, even if I knew it would be out of pocket, I would have still spent the money. Better than missing most or all of the vacation. They should have at least offered this option. Researched the policy, explained what would/would not most likely be covered, and offered the option.

  • Rebecca

    I read that paragraph several times. And what a gotcha clause:

    “However, the benefit payable under (b) and (c) above will not exceed the cost of economy airfare or the same class as the Insured’s original ticket less any refunds paid or payable by the most direct route.”

    This states that you won’t receive reimbursement greater than your original airfare, minus any refund for that airfare, for trip interruptions. Which means that unless the airline you’re originally flying rebooks you, oh well. They’re never going to cover you booking a new flight. Ever. Because if you just take the refund for a cancelled flight and rebook, this amount is always zero.

    This is a ridiculous clause. I’d be pissed someone sold me this policy. A good TA wouldn’t recommend this policy, I would hope. There should be a policy that doesn’t have this ridiculous clause.

  • JenniferFinger

    It doesn’t sound like calling TravelGuard before buying those new tickets would have helped, because it does sound like TravelGuard would have refused to cover the new tickets in any case.

  • Flywisely

    These folks did NOT do everything right.
    In fact they doomed their trip by picking United.

    They are being portrayed as smart travelers but they are far from that.
    They picked UA’s PHL-ORD-ANC route that arrives ANC at 930PM on a single daily flight from Chicago.
    The only other option is to fly through DEN and that arrives at 319PM (the next day).

    In other words picking United was a very poor decision.

    Had they picked Alaska and codeshared American, then had more options to get from Philly to Anchorage.
    Redundancy reduces risk and increases reliability. No travel insurance will tip the scale in favor of United for this route. Next time pick your airline and routes wisely.

  • Jeff W.

    An important fact that is missing…

    The fire that occurred at the ATC facility in Elgin (outside Chicago) that caused massive delays and cancellations throughout the region was not an accident. It was set by an FAA contractor who was attempting suicide. Not sure if the person was upset personally or professionally, but it was an act of sabotage.

    So United had nothing to do with it. Unlike weather, where you can anticipate and plan for possible delays, I am sure the sudden operational loss of their main hub complicated contingency plans.

  • Nathan Witt

    I have no way of knowing how the insurance option was presented to these customers, or what may have led them to choose Travel Guard, but if they had a choice of several insurance providers, a quick Google of Travel Guard shows that this sort of thing is pretty standard for them, and they try very hard to deny claims. It’s unfortunate that consumers have to protect themselves so carefully, but I think this story is one more example of why we need to research the products we buy.

  • Flywisely

    Travel insurance covers more than trip interuption. You might not like or need this specific coverage but how about the others?
    Also trip interuption also includes post departure interuptions. This one is really pre departure since he got stuck in his home base.
    You need to look at travel insurance in its totality and not just this seamingly weak one.

  • cscasi

    I am surprised you did not say that they should have called their travel agent first so he/she could have worked things through for them to get them to their destination on time and salvage their trip. After all, isn’t that is a part of what travel agents do as a part of their service for a fee?

  • cscasi

    Why did he not call his travel agent and let him/her work through things for them? Remember, you said travel agents are good at helping and many times, fixing things.

  • Rebecca

    I was just saying that this particular policy shouldn’t have been purchased for a trip like this. Because if your original flight gets cancelled, and the airline can’t get you there before your trip starts, you’re not covered if you take a different airline to make the trip. The travel agent should be finding another policy that would cover that type of contingency.

    I completely get what you’re saying. I’m normally one to say that rules are rules. I side against OPs all the time. But in this case, this guy did everything right. Normally, I’d be saying he should have used an agent, he should have purchased insurance, and he should have flown out a day before departure. He did all those things. All I’m saying is that the agent should have been more on top of things. They didn’t help when this happened at all. At an absolute minimum, they should have told him the flights probably wouldn’t be covered, but they’d help him find new ones to get there on time. Or do the research and find out what would and wouldn’t be covered if he waited for the next available flight on UA.

  • Rebecca

    Actually, that was a different incident. The crazy guy, who’s now in prison, did that at a facility in Aurora. This incident occured in Elgin when a malfunctioning bathroom fan motor started smoking and the facility was evacuated. There had been significant cancellations and delays for weather the day before, which only compounded the problem.

  • Michael__K

    A fire in an air traffic control center is NOT “Inclement Weather,” which Travel Guard defines as:

    “Inclement Weather” means any severe weather condition which delays the scheduled arrival or departure of a Common Carrier or prevents the Insured from reaching his/her Destination when traveling by a rented or owned vehicle.

    There simply isn’t any Covered Reason that addresses an air traffic control center fire.

    Under a very loose, customer-friendly reading of Travel Guard’s policy, you might argue this qualifies as a “mechanical/equipment failure of a Common Carrier–

    (n) mechanical/equipment failure of a Common Carrier that occurs on a scheduled Trip and causes complete cessation of the Insured’s travel and results in a Loss of 50% of the Insured’s Trip length;

    Even if you successfully make that argument, you would need to arrive 7+ days early for a 7 day cruise to have a chance of reimbursement for the Trip Interruption under this Covered Reason.

  • Michael__K

    We’ve seen other cases where passengers called the insurance company and were assured of coverage before purchasing additional transportation, only to see their claims denied.

    And if they knew the new tickets were not covered, what then?

    Those who tout travel insurance as a cure-all often like to say that if one can’t afford to lose their non-refundable flights and vacation then they need to buy travel insurance.

    This case is a perfect illustration of why if one can’t afford to lose their non-refundable flights and vacation, they can’t afford to purchase the vacation with or without insurance.

  • Michael__K

    The problem is that many contributors to this site repeatedly tout travel insurance as a cure all.

    Even the FAQ about travel insurance on this website reflects this. Unless “you don’t mind losing the value of what you’ve prepaid for your trip should something happen before or during your vacation”“, the prevailing orthodoxy generally promoted here is that if one buys travel insurance with a pre-existing condition exclusion waiver their vacation and prepaid deposits are safe.

    Another frequently promoted orthodoxy in these comments is to use a travel agency.

    These passengers did at all that, and this case illustrates why these prevailing orthodoxies are inadequate.

  • Michael__K

    1) These folks used a travel agency.

    2) This occurred in May *2014* when United had more flights to ANC than they do these days.

    3) AA and US Airways were not quite even integrated at that point. If they chose AS/AA/US and had problems, I have no doubt the second-guessers here would still blame these passengers for a poor choice of airlines.

    4) The problem was an air traffic control fire for crying out loud. If the fire was in SEA instead of ORD, then UA would seem like a much wiser choice than AA/AS.

  • Michael__K

    My reading of that clause is simply that they will only cover economy airfare (even if your original ticket was upgraded or purchased in a higher class) and that they will deduct any refunds you get from the airline.

    In other words, my reading is that you COULD be reimbursed for purchasing a higher (economy) airfare than you originally bought.

    However, there is another ‘gotcha’ — in the Maximum Limits on the Schedule of Benefits. TravelGuard caps Trip Interruption benefits at 150% of the insured Trip Cost. [And this is on the generous side. Some insurers have lower caps. I am not aware of any insurer that has a higher cap.]

    So depending on how good your original airfare was and how much higher than that the walk-up (economy) fare is, and how much of your Trip Cost includes other (non-airfare) prepaid costs, you MAY still not get fully reimbursed for the new plane ticket, even under my reading of the policy.

  • Alan Gore

    Liberty was operating the tour? So far as I’m concerned, that makes it even worse. Liberty should definitely have done more to help passengers who had made an effort to do everything right.

    In any case, now I know which insurance company to cross off my travel provider list.

  • mbods2002

    All the article says is “Their travel agent, Liberty Travel, couldn’t help either”. Isn’t that strange?

  • mbods2002

    It’s almost like you need an attorney to decipher the doublespeak in travelers insurance policies. So you call them and ask the questions you think are relevant to your trip (after all, you’re only a simple layperson without access to inside tricks of the trade), you’re assured you’re covered then…you’re not. Where does a person turn then? Hard to prove the “But that’s what I was told when I called and I only called because I couldn’t understand what the policy covered because of obscure language!” Sounds like we’re in need of a new business, like “Refund Me”, only called, oh, “Insurance WoesBeGone” all for a fee, of course. Sigh…sounds like another industry who thinks their customers are “marks”.

  • LonnieC

    Clearly, this incident suggests that in the future all travelers must retain an attorney, who specializes in travel law, in order to interpret the provisions of insurance policies, contracts of carriage, and tour operators’ terms and conditions. Otherwise, the traveler will be blamed for not doing “everything”.

  • Ward Chartier

    Is there a job description for some insurance companies for a Weasel Word Writer?

  • Michael__K

    Which travel insurance provider sells a policy with a Covered Reason which encompasses air traffic control fires?

  • bpepy

    The only time we’ve bought travel insurance was when we were traveling to Spain in 2010 when the volcano was exploding in Iceland. Fortunately we were not affected–who knows if our insurance would have paid us anything if our flights had been cancelled!

  • Extramail

    And, so if they called the insurance company and were told that the flight would not be covered then what would have been the next step? Don’t go and, thus, the insurance company would have re-imbursed them for the entire lost trip? If so, seems a bit shortsighted on the part of the insurance company. I agree with others why buy trip insurance if you’re still going to get denied reimbursement?

  • Flywisely

    I was loosely interpreting on where the position of the word “OR” is.
    Maybe this can stand alone: or cancellation of travel for at least 24 consecutive hours

  • Flywisely

    Or they have the option NOT to buy travel insurance and simply self insure (a great option I use most of the time).

  • Flywisely

    Re: 2) This occurred in May *2014* when United had more flights to ANC than they do these days.
    Ah, not so fast dude. You’re wrong. UA had only one flight from ORD to ANC and DEN to ANC.

  • Michael__K

    That would be nice but I don’t think so. The Covered Reason is

    “(c) Inclement Weather causing delay or cancellation of travel[…]”

    The OR is for a delay OR cancellation. In the Platinum policy they don’t even have the “at least 24 consecutive hours” restriction. But if the delay or cancellation is not caused by Inclement Weather then this Covered Reason doesn’t qualify.

  • Michael__K

    And if you search not just from ORD, they also offered 2 flights per day in those days from SEA to ANC. Neither of those flights operate anymore.

  • Nathan Witt

    Yeah, I don’t write the policies, and neither does any travel insurance customer. If the insurance company took the customer’s money and then declined to provide coverage for a trip interruption that was impossible to predict for either the airline or the customer and which was beyond the customer’s control, it’s a crappy insurance product. If the reason they denied coverage was because the policy didn’t explicitly list control tower fires, it’s still a slimy move designed to deny the customer of needed benefits while Travel Guard keeps his money. If they denied coverage because he took matters into his own hands and got himself to the tour, that’s also crappy, because if he hadn’t, they’d be on the hook for up to 150% of the cost of the $6k+ trip, depending on the plan he bought. The whole point of this blog is that adhesion contracts and technically-legal behavior that enriches companies to the detriment of customers is wrong on an ethical level, and this falls under that umbrella.

  • Michael__K

    If the insurance company took the customer’s money and then declined to provide coverage for a trip interruption that was impossible to predict for either the airline or the customer and which was beyond the customer’s control, it’s a crappy insurance product.

    By that standard, I don’t believe there exists any insurance product that isn’t “crappy.”

    I don’t know of any policy that would be on the hook for his costs in this scenario even if he completely cancelled and abandoned his trip either.

    All policies are Named Perils(*) policies and it’s a fiction that they cover all situations that are impossible for the airline or the customer to predict or control. Unfortunately this fiction is out there because it’s frequently perpetuated by those eager to justify the strict enforcement of adhesive contracts by travel providers in the name of ‘personal responsibility.’

    (*) Cancel for Any Reason is often touted as the “Open Perils” option, but even that doesn’t work here because every CFAR policy has a deadline of at least 48 hours before departure after which point it reverts to coverage for Named Perils only.

  • Daddydo

    Travel Guard had many policies and many distributors. I expect that Liberty is big enough to sell the cheapest brand of insurance. I was shocked at how cheap their policy was! Had they purchased the Travel Guard Gold plan, I would bet that all would have been covered. The cost of the insurance for a 35-59 year old is generally 180.00 per person (depending upon state) nearly 2 x’s their price. There would have be an actual policy with an emergency concierge telephone number that my clients would have called at the first sign of trouble. We little agencies anticipate problems and have them solved quickly. I cannot put out a fire; I could advise a conversation with Travel Guard, a quick train to BWI or NYC and trip a little confused, but trip accomplished. I like your conclusion of knowing why you are buying the insurance and

  • Michael__K

    Had they purchased the Travel Guard Gold plan, I would bet that all would have been covered.

    Try again. Even the Platinum plan has the same applicable language. Please read the terms before misleading others to believe otherwise.

    Show me ANY travel insurance policy that has a Covered Reason that would apply in this scenario.

  • Michael__K

    That agent obviously is selling subpar travel insurance. And couldn’t help him when his trip was interrupted. The agent is the MOST at fault here, imo.

    Show me ANY travel insurance product from ANY insurer that has a Covered Reason which would apply here.

  • Joe Farrell

    What the maximum trip cost insured? Was that the limit? Or did they pay nothing?

  • Éamon deValera

    It seems from the excerpt, and that is quite difficult to evaluate without having the full policy, that the loss would be covered.

    I would suggest a complaint to the insurance regulator in the state in which Mr. Chiarello resides, Pennsylvania I believe. The PA Department of Insurance complaint form is here

    They will assist in deciphering the policy and requiring that the insurance company provide what is called for in the contract.

  • Éamon deValera

    I can’t think of any travel insurance that covers trip interruption that would not cover flight cancellation because of a fire at an ATC facility.

  • Éamon deValera

    Actually email them, you can rely on their written response just as you rely on the policy documents.

  • Éamon deValera

    All of them.

  • Michael__K

    Then why not do a service for Mr. Chiarello and cite the applicable Covered Reason on Travel Guard policies? Or a public service for all the readers here and cite any applicable Covered Reason from any other policy?

  • Michael__K

    Why don’t you cite one Covered Reason from one policy which would apply here?

  • Éamon deValera

    If you’ll look at my first comment you’ll see that we can’t determine coverage with only an excerpt from the policy. Looking at several from Travel Guard on Square Mouth I see that it would indeed be covered.

  • Michael__K

    Why not cite the Covered Reason from ANY of those ‘several’ policies that you believe would have covered this scenario?

    Here are links to the full policies Travel Guard sells: Silver, Gold, and Platinum.

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