Without trip insurance, even a tragedy may not lead to a refund

Ethelynne Bates-Huffman had to cancel her trip to Norway, booked through Vantage Travel, for one of the most terrible of reasons: the sudden death of her husband. But her desperate plea to Vantage Travel for a refund of their trip fares did not result in compassionate treatment.

Bates-Huffman and her husband chose not to purchase travel insurance “since we were very firm on the travel and he was also only 66 years old and without any medical condition.” Had they done so, Bates-Huffman could have filed a claim on the policy to recover the cost of her trip.

But without it, she’s bereft of not only a spouse but also $8,200 in travel costs.

The Norway trip was a surprise birthday gift from Bates-Huffman to her husband, whose lifelong dream had been to see the aurora borealis. But 53 days before they were scheduled to depart on the trip, her husband drowned while snorkeling in Kauai, Hawaii.

Bates-Huffman wrote to Henry Lewis, CEO of Vantage Travel, asking for a refund of the trip fares. Here are excerpts from her letter:

Dear Mr. Henry Lewis,

Please help me. You are the only person who can as the leader/CEO of your organization.

Way back in September 2016, I booked a Norwegian trip for me and my spouse, Lindsay Huffman. The trip was fully paid for.

Sadly, my husband died by drowning in the island of Hawaii [sic].

I called to cancel the trip and was shocked to find out that only 35 percent of the fee will be refunded, because he died within 53 days from the departure. I was expecting to receive a full refund given the extenuating circumstances of his death, which had resulted in the cancellation of our trip. The cancellation was not a flimsy excuse to back out from our commitment, but just to give us the time needed to grieve, attend to funeral arrangements, coroner’s legal issues, flying back and forth to Hawaii to take care of Lindsay’s death/legal paperwork with my son…hence the cancellation of the trip. I don’t have any doubt that these spots will be filled given the popularity of the aurora borealis of Norway.

Please know that I have always had high regards to your commitment to your customers and I am appealing to your sympathy and kindness and look at this with your heart and do the right thing.

I plan to continue traveling with your company going forward if I am treated fairly in this matter.

My sincerest gratitude for your favorable response.

Ethelynne Bates-Huffman

The letter also included a list of Vantage trips previously taken by Bates-Huffman and her husband and a newspaper clipping about his drowning.

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Unfortunately for Bates-Huffman, the letter did not elicit what she considered a “compassionate” response. Bates-Huffman’s request for a refund was denied because she had canceled her trip only 53 days prior to its scheduled start date.

It’s possible that had Bates-Huffman made her initial request for a refund to a lower-ranking executive of Vantage Travel and allowed him or her sufficient time to respond before escalating her request through the hierarchy, and also kept her letter concise and refrained from suggesting that Vantage Travel could easily resell her travel package, she might have received a more favorable response.

Bates-Huffman then turned to our advocacy team for assistance. (Executive contact information for Vantage Travel appears in our website.)

However, Vantage Travel’s terms and conditions provide with regard to cancellations that

Vantage realizes that most people who cancel their reservations do so out of necessity. Nevertheless, cancellations are costly to administer and involve dedicated staff time and communications costs. Therefore, all cancellations made later than 24 hours after booking are subject to a nonrefundable administrative fee of $300 per person. Cancellations made within 24 hours of booking will be subject to the same fee, unless your reason for canceling given at the time of cancellation is your rejection of these terms and conditions. This fee does not include airline cancellation fees or the cost of nonrefundable travel protection plans. There may be additional cancellation fees associated with certain excursions or extensions. Please note, however, that reservations made after the final payment date are immediately subject to cancellation charges.

Vantage’s site also encourages the purchase of its Travel Protection Plan, which includes “cancel for any reason” and trip cancellation coverage, or other travel insurance.

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Before contacting Vantage Travel, our advocate asked Bates-Huffman if she had travel insurance coverage. But she responded aggressively to our inquiry. Here are excerpts:

Does this have to involve insurance to receive a full refund?
I find this absurd and inhumane on the part of Vantage or the carrier considering the circumstances around the demise of my husband that ultimately resulted in the cancellation of the Norway trip.

Please let me know if you are able to help me resolve this given the fact that you seem to be leaning towards travel insurance that I think is irrelevant. I don’t see why they have to be so greedy considering the situation. Is this what you call “Corporations do not have a heart?”

Please advise and be frank if you are able to help me resolve this matter since I don’t want to waste your time nor do I want my time wasted when I can pursue other recourse. Thank you.

P.S. If you read my email to the CEO in its entirety, you will realize that my husband and I have given them them tons of business and as a gesture of compassion, they should be able to set aside their profit mindset and consider using their human side instead.

Bates-Huffman also asked if she should take legal action against Vantage Travel. And that’s the last we heard from her. Although our response team advocates contacted Vantage Travel several times on her behalf, nobody at Vantage Travel ever responded to our inquiries, either.

We would have liked to help Bates-Huffman, but unfortunately, her lack of insurance coverage, aggressive tone, playing the victim card and contacting the wrong executive at Vantage Travel have apparently sunk her quest for a refund.

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org.

  • Annie M

    Dud she call her credit card company to see if they had any kind of coverage?

    Unfortunately, too many people think they are healthy and don’t need insurance- and learn the hard way that they assumed wrong. Vantage took the hard line that they had insurance and she admittedly didn’t buy it and then gets mad at Elliott because you told her why you couldn’t help
    any further than contacting them on her behalf.

    If you can’t afford to lose every penny you have paid for a trip- you need to consider buying insurance. I am sad she has to go through this after a devastating loss.

  • Alan Gore

    Having insurance would certainly have helped in LW’s case, but Vantage went out of its way to abuse a customer who had come back time and time again. Most companies go to great lengths to cultivate that degree of loyalty. Now Vantage Travel not only has a customer who will never use them again, but more importantly will tell her friends and trumpet her case on social media. Her anger is totally justified – and I’m hoping she writes her Congressman.

  • finance_tony

    How did Vantage go out of its way to abuse the OP?

  • Alan Gore

    Because death is generally accepted as an exception in cases like this.

  • SierraRose 49

    In most instances, I think I would side with a person who suddenly and tragically lost their husband tragically 53 days before departure on another trip. Yes, perhaps as a longtime customer of Vantage Travel, the OP possibly should have been offered a refund or a voucher for future travel. But when I read her snarky comments toward the Elliott advocates who volunteered their time and made several efforts to get her $8200 refunded from Vantage, I became very unsympathetic.

  • Noah Kimmel

    do we actually know Vantage’s costs? I get an exception to not make a profit on such difficult circumstances, but just as it isn’t the OP’s fault, it isn’t Vantage’s fault either – why should they hold the bag especially when they offer an insurance product?

    I do hope the OP got resolution, as it is easy in these circumstances to seek any victory, no matter how small. Compassion is sadly lacking in society these days.

  • Kristiana Lee

    They seem to specialize in small group tours, 18-24 people per tour. To have to refund 1/9 to 1/12 of total revenue would be a huge hit. Assuming a healthy 10% profit margin, refunding them would come close to, if not completely, wipe out their profit for the tour.

  • C Schwartz

    What a tragic loss. I once got caught in a cross current swimming off of Maui and it was frightening; I was in my 20s at the time and I still remember it 20 years later. I do not buy travel insurance but I am starting to consider it; in the past I “self insure”, ie do not book non refundable hotels, and I am willing to lose the cancellation fees on airfare. But now that I am over 40 I am aware that statistics are not on my side, even though I have no health problems (and good results on blood tests and physical). Also I have never booked an expensive package such as a tour or cruise so less of a need for insurance.

    I do think that when asking for an exception to a policy one should state that they are asking for an exception and not say “I was expecting to receive a full refund” and telling the company to “look at this with your heart and do the right thing.” and end the letter “My sincerest gratitude for your favorable response”. It is also is not helpful to tell the CEO that one is certain that the company can resell the tour spots 53 days before departure; I am not sure how long the trip was for but most people plan for an expensive trip further in advance; the company may have experience that proves otherwise. I do think one has a better chance with not assuming a refund, being humble, and acknowledging that one is asking for special treatment.

    There is a reason that insurance exists and that is for extreme circumstances. And there was no reason to respond to the Elliott advocate who is a volunteer in an impatient manner.

    I know little about this company or how it is run; perhaps the company should have extended a credit to a good client; perhaps they cater to an older travel group where the company has the similar circumstances happen more often and that is why there are no exceptions made.

  • Michael__K

    If you can’t afford to lose every penny you have paid for a trip- you need to consider buying insurance

    If you can’t afford to lose every penny you have paid for a trip, then you can’t afford the trip with or without travel insurance. Travel insurance only protects for a limited set of circumstances, and you can still lose everything under uncovered circumstances. Even “Cancel for Any Reason” doesn’t protect you from losing everything (e.g. if something unexpected happens inside 48 hours from departure).

  • Michael__K

    I don’t believe the travel protection plan Vantage sells would have covered more than 50% of this. Each passenger would get a nontransferable voucher for another trip. So according to the rules, the deceased husband’s voucher would be worthless.

  • C Schwartz

    It looks like cancel for any reason coverage gets a voucher to be used within a certain time but cancellation due to death of traveler gets a cash refund on the Vantage trip protection plan that is advertised now — assuming that it is the same plan available and that I am looking at the right company.

    I have looked into cancel for any reason independent polices for one of my trips and the ones I saw reimbursed 70 percent — did not get it as I chose to self insure, that is take the loss of the change/credit fees.

    I do think it is wise for a person to look at insurance that is not sold by the travel company for a comparison.

  • Lloyd Johnston

    Call me cold hearted but no insurance, no refund. Vantage had its own expenses to the suppliers and may not get refunded themselves either. Insurance exists and it is for the unexpected.

    I don’t expect to get hurt or sick when I go to the US, but I still get travel medical insurance because the downside is not something I could afford; US health care bills scare me. I don’t expect my wife to die either, but it is a risk.

    If companies give the benefit of insurance without the purchase of insurance, why is that fair to those of us who plan ahead and make the decision that the insurance premium is worth the added expense.

  • joycexyz

    Totally agree. We buy insurance for every trip we take–even relatively short ones. Ya never know!

  • Blamona

    I’m sad her husband died–but sounds like he died vacationing in Hawaii (having to buy more air tickets back and forth with son and funeral stuff). I’m sorry but if Insurance was offered why should the company cover it? She gambled and lost but someone else pays for it? I believe in compassion, but a business is in business because it stays business like and has employees outside Tours, taxes and other expenses to cover. If she was going to use them again (if favorable) then give her a credit. Which is still generous

  • Lindabator

    actually – no, it is not. Most tour operators have already paid out the costs to various vendors, and cannot recoup those losses – that is why they offer insurance

  • Lindabator

    and unlike Alan thought, she was the rude one, chiding a company for attempting to make money on their product (that is what a business is IN business for, after all), and implying she would not travel again unless they acquiested.

  • cscasi

    But it certainly does cover : ‘Your family member’s, Your traveling companion’s, Your traveling companion’s family member, Your business partner’s or business partner’s family member’s death which occurs before departure on your trip” at 100%. Also, if you add cancel for any reason waiver, it will pay 75% if you cancel at least 48 hours before departure.
    So, with 53 days to go before the trip, she would have been able to get the insurance company to cover 100% of the trip cost; provided she stated the trip cost was $8200 when she purchased the policy.

  • Michael__K

    Not necessarily even so. For example, if the death occurred during scuba diving or other “risky” excluded activities, or if it occurred from a “pre-existing” condition and the policy doesn’t have a waiver or the traveler doesn’t qualify for the waiver.
    The general point is that you can’t predict with any certainty that if you need to cancel it will be for a Covered Reason, and therefore one needs to be prepared to lose every penny with or without insurance.

  • Alan Gore

    Oh yes you can get a refund for death of the actual passenger, on almost all airlines and many cruises. If Vantage had just charged LW their irrecoverable expenses and given back any air and sea refunds they may have gotten, this case wouldn’t have landed in our lap. But no, they grabbed the entire amount.

    What all of us are afraid of when this happens is that just like all the other times, Vantage is just the first travel company to pioneer this new low in sticking-it-to-people technology. In another month or so, this will become a new industry standard “policy” that nothing can be done about.

    Interestingly, the insurance in question was the policy that Vantage itself offered, rather than third party. Which means that their premium is nothing more than a fee for the missing customer service.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I’m not sure I would call a person upset at the drowning death of her husband as someone “playing the victim card.” I think we should judge her a little more favorably in this instance, and recognize her displaced anger at events as understandable. I also agree with the comment that in this sort of situation, the travel company should refund those amounts not actually lost by the company (ie. pass on any refunds received).

  • Lloyd Johnston

    Why don’t they refund what they get back? Because can lead down rabbit holes they don’t want to go down, including adjudicating who has a good enough reason for a refund. Your spouse dies? What about your mother? Your Aunt? Your Third cousin twice removed? Where do you draw the line. If the Aunt dies, but she was the one who raised you? If you accept one sob story, but not another, you could be open for lawsuits.

    Is that what you really want your staff dealing with all day? Or you can sell the insurance policy, and let another company’s specialists sort it all out.

    Much easier, and opens much less legal liability, to say “To bad, so sad. Buy the insurance next time” to everyone.

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