How a consumer advocate secured a refund — by calling a 1-800 number

Back in March, Christopher Bart booked six tickets to Geneva on Turkish Airlines with a stopover in Istanbul, but suddenly felt the need to change his plans when terrorists bombed the Istanbul Airport on June 28, killing 45.

At the time he booked his nonrefundable tickets with, he also purchased a travel insurance policy with Allianz.

Understandably, after the bombing Bart didn’t have a good feeling about flying to Istanbul. But he felt protected when he called to cancel his itinerary, even though the $6,000 in airfare was nonrefundable, and even though imposes a $150 per passenger cancellation fee.

Bart’s case, however, highlights the importance of carefully checking the conditions of your travel insurance policy before canceling nonrefundable tickets, especially when doing so will incur more costs. It also leaves us wondering what more we can do to help.

Bart’s Allianz policy specifically includes terrorism as a covered reason for cancellation. The policy says cancellation is covered if “a terrorist event happens at your foreign destination within 30 days of the day you’re scheduled to arrive.” Bart was planning to travel on July 21, and the Istanbul airport attack took place on June 28.

Bart soon learned that his claim was nevertheless denied. The reason: the terrorism did not occur at his destination, Geneva.

Per the Allianz Global Assistance policy, destination is defined as “a place more than 100 miles from your primary residence where you spend more than 24 hours of your trip.” Where Bart’s itinerary only had him at the airport in Istanbul long enough to clear customs and change planes, Istanbul could not qualify as his “destination” as defined by Allianz.

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Bart tried to remain calm in the face of the denial. “I’m pretty sure we would have canceled the Turkish Airlines tickets anyway,” Bart explained. “My family was freaking out about traveling through Turkey. But getting reimbursed would make a big difference in our finances.”

Bart asked us for help, as his problems were getting worse. After he canceled his flights on Turkish Airlines, he purchased new tickets on Lufthansa.

To make matters worse, on top of the $6,000 he lost on airfare, and the $350 he spent on the now useless insurance policy, imposed a $150 per passenger cancellation fee, which when multiplied by the six passengers in his party, totaled a whopping $900.

Convinced I would not get very far with, I did something I don’t normally do as a consumer advocate — I called the company’s toll-free customer service line. I figured they would refer me to their cancellation policy, which I simply had to question.

How can a company charge $150 per passenger to press the cancel button, when they’re not issuing a refund?

At first, the representative told me she couldn’t discuss Bart’s account because I am not Mrs. Bart. I agreed, but when I continued to challenge the cancellation fee, pointing out that the company didn’t perform a service to earn the $900, she put me on hold to review the file.

When the representative came back on the line, she revealed that the company warned Bart that canceling would result in a fee, but Bart accepted, insisting that he needed the cancellation in order to process his insurance claim.

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When I told the representative that his claim failed, and that due to the unrest in Istanbul he has no recourse for his lost airfare, his insurance or their junk fee, I could tell something clicked. She got it.

She said that before she could consider my request, Bart would have to give the company authority to discuss his account with me. Within minutes of receiving Bart’s email, an unknown Los Angeles number appeared on my cell phone.

It was, agreeing to refund the $900 fee as a one-time courtesy.

I’m going to try to help Bart recover his money from Turkish Airlines, which might take some time given the current state of affairs in the country.

In the meantime, here are a few lessons we can learn from Bart’s experience:

  • Avoid destinations — and interim destinations — that have experienced terrorism or political instability.
  • Buy travel using companies you know. Buying direct with the airline has many advantages, including removing the online travel agency middleman.
  • Read your travel insurance coverage carefully. Knowing if something is covered before canceling travel can be critical, as Bart’s case illustrates.
  • Book nonstop flights whenever possible. The Chicago to Geneva route is served nonstop by several airlines, including United.

Technically speaking, Bart canceled nonrefundable tickets. But he did that believing he’d be protected by his insurance policy. Now, he’s paying the price.

Who should reimburse Bart?

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Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

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