Some loyalty! Here’s how Marriott’s best customers got stuck with a $45,000 bill

After a trip to Paris gone bad, Virginia Sinclair-Brooks is facing some serious bills. On her third day in Paris, her back “went out,” and she was in sudden, severe pain. Her daughter took her to the hospital, where doctors confirmed she had a herniated disc, touching her sciatic nerve.

But what happened next may touch a nerve with our readers. Sinclair-Brooks called her travel insurance company, Travelex, which told her the policy she bought through Marriott Vacation Clubs does not cover her trip.

Why not? Because she had booked the trip with Marriott Rewards points.

Sinclair-Brooks’ incredible story raises questions about what responsibility companies like Marriott Vacation Clubs have to disclose exclusions when they sell insurance policies to their customers, why trips purchased with points would be viewed differently, and what customers can do to ensure they’re never in a similar situation.

And that situation was dire. On her fifth day in the hospital, Sinclair-Brooks received the bad news: Because her trip to Paris was paid for with Marriott Rewards points earned on her Marriott Visa card, the policy would not cover her medical care. During the course of her hospital stay, which lasted 13 days, she also developed pneumonia, complicating matters. Given her fragile condition, doctors recommended she fly home to be treated by surgeons in the United States.

The cost of the medical flight and coordination: $45,000.

Her daughter helped coordinate their return to the U.S., using Travelex’s contracted company, On Call International. Despite the denial of coverage, Sinclair-Brooks continued using the company, in the hopes that she could figure out the mixup and have the claim paid once she was home.

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And “mixup” is a euphemism, to be sure. Sinclair-Brooks is one of Marriott’s best customers. She is a “premier member” in its timeshare program, Marriott Vacation Club, and she takes trips through her membership a few times a year. She also has a Marriott Rewards credit card, which earns her points that she can apply to reward travel.

Because she travels so frequently, Sinclair-Brooks has an annual travel insurance policy purchased through Marriott Vacation Club. Back in October, when she booked her trip to Paris, she called her Marriott Vacation Club travel advisor to handle the booking, as she always does. In January, she called them back to make sure her insurance was all set for her upcoming April trip to Paris.

The Marriott Vacation Club travel advisor told her something crucial: her insurance policy expired on Dec. 31, and Marriott Vacation Clubs had switched insurance providers. The agent told her that her new policy would be with Travelex, and Sinclair-Brooks paid for the insurance over the phone. The Marriott Vacation Club agent didn’t tell her anything about exclusions, and didn’t send her a copy of the policy.

Although Sinclair-Brooks’ claim was denied, she proceeded with medical evacuation, as her problems were compounded. What would have been a simple laparoscopic procedure to remove a portion of her herniated disc had become complicated by pneumonia, an infection of the lungs that makes surgery much riskier.

On Call International, the medical evacuation company, arranged for a nurse to fly from New York to Paris to accompany Sinclair-Brooks on the transatlantic flight. She needed oxygen and was in excruciating pain, so the company arranged for a few rows of seats to be removed from a Lufthansa jumbo jet, and replaced with a gurney.

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After a few days of recovering from pneumonia, Sinclair-Brooks had successful spinal surgery with a doctor near her home in Washington State. Since then, she has been unable to get a straight answer from Travelex about the so-called exclusions for having paid for her trip with Rewards Points.

Travelex even refunded the premium she paid for the policy, as if to disavow any responsibility or participation in this mess.

We contacted Marriott Vacation Club, which punted, claiming that it had nothing to do with the purchase of insurance.

A Marriott Vacation Club executive responded to my email:

The travel insurance is not sold by Marriott Vacation Club. Travel insurance products underwritten by Travelex, the insurer, are offered to Marriott Vacation Club owners and guests as an elective option for them to use. Any questions or concerns she has about the conditions and requirements of her coverage should be directed to Travelex as we were not involved directly with this transaction.

Well, that’s funny. Sinclair-Brooks bought the policy over the phone with Marriott Vacation Club. And if the company doesn’t sell insurance, how could they possibly “offer” the insurance to owners and guests? Is this a question of semantics?

I continue to assist Sinclair-Brooks in the handling of this insurance disaster, which is far from over. Travelex has yet to produce a copy of its policy, as required under the law. In the Description of Coverage documents available online, there is no exclusion related to payment of a trip with points.

I asked Sinclair-Brooks if she was being pestered by collections agents over the $45,000 debt. Painfully, she told me that she dipped into retirement savings to pay the debt, which she charged to her credit card.

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Not just any credit card. Her Marriott Visa.

Any idea what she can do with all those points?

Update: Sinclair-Brooks wrote with good news: “TransAmerica (the policy underwriter) gave in and paid the medivac bill. The company made a “one time exception” because I “might not have known” of the exclusion used to deny the claim initially. Lots of work went into filling out claims and making phone calls. But I strongly suspect an intervention by a consumer advocate like you turned the tables.”

Should trips purchased with points be any different than trips purchased with cash?

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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.

  • Tom McShane

    Point of discussion–hope it is not off topic: I’ve heard financial advisors urge that one never (or hardly ever) dip into retirement savings to pay medical expenses.

  • sirwired

    This is WTF?!?!?! on so many levels:

    1) Why does it matter how the trip was paid for? That should totally make a difference for a cancellation claim, but not a medical/medevac one.
    2) Why wasn’t she sent a new policy?
    3) Why was she sold the policy if it didn’t apply to the stay she was simultaneously booking.
    4) No, Marriott, you don’t get to sell somebody a policy yourselves (vs. just sending them a brochure and having them call the insurance company directly) and then disclaim any and all responsibility for the sales practices.
    5) TransAmerica, did you really think refunding the premium was going to take the sting out of the useless policy? Why did you even bother?

    I hope she’s also complaining to her state insurance regulator about this. Not being sent a copy of the policy, and then claiming she’s held to undisclosed conditions in it is a big no-no. And Marriott selling the policy and then pretending they had nothing to do with it is probably also naughty.

    At least OnCall kept working with her… sounds like they did a good job here.

  • MarkKelling

    This is a prime example of why you don’t buy your insurance coverage directly from the same place you buy your travel arrangements. The policy might be structured as this one claims to be to exclude certain travel options.

    If you pay with cash, credit, points, miles, or pudding cups, it should not matter as long as the travel provider accepted the payment. Insurance shouldn’t care how you paid either except to maybe not cover reimbursement of non cash payments (how would an insurance company get miles to provide to you anyway?). I guess this is now another thing to look for when purchasing travel insurance in general.

  • Don Spilky

    I have a fairly high threshold for disgusting corporate behavior (pessimist by nature) but this one triggered my gag reflex!

  • Jeff W.

    This is wrong on so many levels. I would only be repeating on what others have already said.

    I am just curious if the insurance company she had when she booked the policy covered purchases made with points. And would that make a difference? Because she had policy X when she purchased the trip and policy Y was in effect when she took it. Don’t know how that would work.

  • Mel65

    Reading through this, I was SO angry on her behalf! We constantly sing the Insurance Song here and she did ALL the right things and was (initially) treated so wrongly. I’m beyond glad this worked out and she eventually got reimbursed, but shame on the company for having to be shamed into doing this!

  • Lindabator

    but we really do NOT know what Marriott Vacation Club sold her, and very well may not have had the coverage she wanted – she should have asked for a policy if she never received one

  • Rebecca

    That’s because even if they sue you, they can’t touch your retirement. I was the person at the bank that froze accounts when someone had a judgement against them. And, without an express order from a judge to do so, under no circumstances may a judgement be satisfied with funds in a retirement account.

  • mbods2002

    The insurance company got off easy. They probably knew this would end up in court (I mean that’s a lot of money) and they would have paid out much more. As for Marriott, wow, thanks for the heads up on yet another company who doesn’t really like their customers and see them as “marks”.

  • Alan Gore

    I think she has a legal case against Marriott for misrepresentation of the switched insurance policy.

    If something like this were to happen to me I would file a medical bankruptcy, letting the medical provides sue Marriott with their advanced thermonuclear legal teams.

  • Ben

    My initial thought was “of course it should be covered!” and I upvoted many other commenters. But upon further reflection, I think the insurance company was technically right.

    I looked at the policy document linked to in the story and it specifically says that coverage is for Marriott Vacation Club bookings, thus it does not apply to trips booked with other payment methods (i.e. dollars or Marriott Rewards points) even if a MVC rep completes the booking.

    That being said, the reps should know the difference and inform the consumer prior to booking any trip which wouldn’t be covered. MVC should take a look at how these policies are marketed and consider updating their training and practices to better inform consumers.

    Also, Marriott says “The travel insurance is not sold by Marriott Vacation Club” is a joke. They should stand by anything they offer to consumers, whether fulfilled by them or not, because the customer has put their trust in Marriott to do so.

  • Joe Blasi

    sounds like the PRE ACA system when you get very sick they look for any pice of fine print to get out of it.

  • sirwired

    It’s not unreasonable to guess that just switching underwriters should not change the underlying policy if one does not receive disclosures to the contrary.

  • sirwired

    I’d say “of course it should be covered” because she was sold the policy during the booking call. It doesn’t really matter what the (undisclosed) policy does or doesn’t say in the text; selling it in the same phone call as the booking is a pretty clear implication that you are buying a policy that covers the trip you literally just booked.

    I will say that given that context, the exclusion does, in fact, make sense; it’s essentially meant to cover your timeshare vacations, not any other vacations you might take. There are annual medevac/medical policies that cover all the travel you take in a year, and apparently this isn’t one of them.

  • EvilEmpryss

    On the one hand I can see why the insurance company wouldn’t want to cover *travel* paid with points: the travel companies like to claim there is no cash value to points, so how can the insurance company determine the value of unused tickets on an interrupted flight? It could possibly be abused, too, by people looking to “cash out” their rewards points by booking travel, getting a no exclusions policy, and then filing a claim for cash.

    None of that applies in this case, tho. The insurance should have covered the medical bills and the evac flight. She paid cash for the insurance policy, so they got their money. If the company lost the gamble on her, that’s all part of the insurance game.

  • EvilEmpryss

    Thank you for that information, Tom and Rebecca! That’s good to know.

  • AJPeabody

    In at least my state, you have to be licensed to sell insurance. Is there a loophole for travel insurance? If not, whoever is licensed so that Marriott can sell insurance could lose that license for a fiasco like this.

  • MarkKelling

    True, but in this case that would be an incorrect guess.

    Since each travel insurance policy I have ever looked at has differences from all the others, I would not have purchased the insurance without looking at the actual policy. But then that’s just me.

  • Michael__K

    Is there a loophole for travel insurance?

    Excellent question, and yes there is. The efforts of the industry’s lobby groups have paid off in at least 31 states as of this 2014 article:

  • sirwired

    Yes, each travel insurance policy is different, but I view “Change in underwriters” (if that’s all that was said) as just signifying who is administering the policy; a paperwork change.

    The underwriter for my homeowner’s coverage changes every few years (from one Traveler’s subsidiary to another), it never effects that policy. After all, from my perspective, it’s a “Traveler’s” policy, not one from XYZ Property and Casualty, or ABC Standard Insurance Company. I never call those guys… Traveler’s is always my contact.

  • sirwired

    I suspect it’s a similar loophole that allows Best Buy to sell you extended warranties (which are also insurance.)

  • MarkKelling

    United sells insurance for its flights you can buy when you book. (Yes, I know, never buy insurance from the travel provider.) They have two different types of policies — one for tickets purchased with cash and another for tickets purchased with miles. The pricing is astronomically different, yet what is covered is exactly the same with the exception that any miles lost are not covered by the policy. You get exactly the same trip interruption payments and flight replacement assistance, the exact same medical coverage and evacuation assistance, and the exact same reasons you can cancel for. And since the miles are normally refunded by United when you cancel a flight, you do get those back too so no loss (you might have a fee to get the miles redeposited to your account).


    I use Travel ex exclusively and buy a medical coverage only policy when traveling using points. But I always purchase directly from Travelex. The exclusions in the policy offered by Marriott make it worthless.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes. But every time my policy changes underwriters, I get a new copy of the policy to review usually far in advance of when it takes effect. Most of the time there is nothing different in the coverage.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes. Most policies offered by the company selling you the travel arrangements along with the insurance are totally useless to the traveler but very profitable to the travel company.

  • MarkKelling

    And, depending on the retirement account, there can be severe tax implications to taking out money. If you are still working and have a 401(k) retirement account at work, taking money out of that account means you not only pay income tax on it, you also pay a 10% penalty unless the withdrawal is treated as a loan.

  • Rebecca

    Ahhh….. The thought of insurance company attorneys going after each other makes me happy in this case. Although not the OP having to do that. So outrageous.

  • Michael__K

    The policy doesn’t define what a “Marriott Vacation Club booking” is, but I would read that to mean a trip booked through “Marriott Vacation Club”, which this was.

    The policy also covers the redeposit of points, including for land reservations. So clearly paying with points is not generally excluded.

  • Ben

    It’s not obvious to anyone not familiar with timeshare programs, but it means a vacation booked using Marriott Vacation Club points. Those are timeshare points which are distinct from Marriott Rewards loyalty program points.

  • Tom McShane

    Yes, I recently listened to a podcast on medical debt. It seems that folks will draw from their 401(K) or IRA accts. to pay large medical bills. In many cases, it appears that it would be better to take bankruptcy, because those accounts are sheltered in bankruptcy.

  • Michael__K

    That may be the intent, but if so the policy terms ought to be much more specific and precise.

    If “Marriott Vacation Club” will accept bookings using either type of points (and/or with cash) then I think it’s reasonable to construe all of these as “Marriott Vacation Club bookings.”

  • Rebecca

    The only thing I would add to your comment: let this be yet another reason to stay away from timeshares.

  • Rebecca

    And they sold it to her on the same call, when she specifically asked about med evacuation coverage! We both know I’m a big rules person. And this one really irks me. I feel awful for the OP, and I’m the first one to agree she should have been covered without a hassle and the behavior of Marriott is outrageous. The rep didn’t tell her it was excluded. I very strongly suspect (knowing a good amount about call centers) that this was because the rep has a quota that includes commissions for sales of these policies. If you sell x amount, you get $x bonus, top 5ish sellers get $100-200 gift card type of thing.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “Is this a question of semantics?”

    One thing that I have constantly seen on this blog over several years is the interchanging of “travel insurance policy” and “travel protection plan” in the articles like if they are the same. As I have commented there are big differences between a travel insurance policy and travel protection plan and it is more than semantics.

    A travel insurance policy is an approved insurance policy from an insurance company licensed in that state that is sold by a licensed insurance agent…all governed by the state’s Department of Insurance. The Department of Insurance must approve the policy, must license the agents and companies, regulates and governs the insurance companies and insurance agents.

    In the 10+ years of reading this blog, I have not seen one article (I could have missed one or two if I was traveling) where the OP contacted the Department of Insurance in hisher state. If the OP told the Dept of Insurance that they never received their policy, the company isn’t licensed; the agent isn’t licensed; etc…trust me the Dept of Insurance will investigate. In a previous life, I was a senior compliance officer for a holding company that had sister companies in investments, banking, insurance and employee benefits. The Department of Insurance can shut down a company, fine a company, stop the sale of products, etc.

    If you look at the “travel insurance” that are sold by the airlines, tour operators, cruise lines, etc…all of them are called ‘Travel Protection Plan’. The word of “insurance” is not in the name of the product…if it was, the Department of Insurance would be involved since they will be selling insurance without a license. However, most if not all of them will have “Underwritten by Behemoth Insurance Company” to give the appearance that it is insurance; too large to fail; safety; etc.

    On the other hand, travel protection plans have no governmental oversight, regulations, etc. Travel protection plans are just that plan…they are self-funded plans. When I started to learn about self-funded health plans…I used to call them self-funded health insurance and I was quickly corrected by other compliance officers of the proper term of self-funded health plans.

    In my opinion, travel protection plans are written to benefit the travel provider. If you go to the websites of companies that put together these Travel Protection Plan…it states you determine the benefits, what will be paid; etc. It is common that refunds are paid with ‘company scrips’ like credit for a future tour, cruise, etc. instead of cash.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    In regards to contacting the state insurance commissioner, my question: Is this a travel protection plan or an actual travel insurance policy? If it is an actual travel insurance policy then she will have recourse.

    However, it is my guess that it is a travel protection plan where there is no governmental oversight, regulations, licensing, etc. therefore, the airlines, cruise lines, tour operators, hotels, etc. can sell them without being licensed as an insurance company and having their employees licensed as insurance agents.

    I agree with you that too many companies sell stuff (i.e. credit cards, travel protection plans, etc.) through ‘third parties’affiliated companies without taking responsibilities….they like the money but don’t spend time in supporting the product, learning the products, etc.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    The overall problem here is that you probably have an unlicensed and unregulated product being sold by non-licensed and under-trained call center employees…it is a recipe for disaster.

  • sirwired

    I am 100% positive that the medical and medevac parts of the policy were actual insurance. It IS common for the cancellation provisions of 1st party policies to be a fee waiver, but the rest is insurance. I’ve never seen one that wasn’t.

    Even dinky stuff like extended warranties at Best Buy are regulated as insurance, so obviously licensure is not necessary to sell all types.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    There are no loopholes.

    To sell a travel insurance policy, the policy must be registered, licensed and approved by the state. Since there is no nationwide agency (i.e. FINRA for the investment), an insurance company must file for all 50 states. In addition, the insurance company needs to be licensed in the states that the product is available for sell. Finally, agents must be licensed in every states where the agents wants to sell the policy (an agent that works for an online site or call center will need to be licensed in 50 states if they take call from all 50 states).

    As I have posted over the years and today, travel protection plans that are sold by airlines, tour operators, cruise lines, etc. are NOT an insurance policy; therefore, they are unregulated, unlicensed, etc. The airline is not licensed as an insurance company or have a insurance license to sell; their agents are not licensed as insurance agent; etc.

    In Arizona, I can go to the state insurance website and see if the policy is licensed, people, companies, etc.

  • Benjamin Barnett

    That’s quite the win!

  • Ben

    I understand your point, but this vacation wasn’t at an MVC property (they don’t have one in Paris) or using MVC points, it was just booked by an MVC rep as a courtesy to their customer (which the customer certainly understood, she just didn’t know that the policy didn’t cover that type of trip).

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Marriott let this customer down entirely. But my point is that this story isn’t as egregious as it seems on the surface and it isn’t the insurance company’s fault.

  • pauletteb

    One can still be working and withdraw funds from a 401(k) without penalty if you’re over a certain age.

  • Michael__K

    I’m confused how you determined this wasn’t an MVC property. They list two Paris properties here:

  • Michael__K

    This wasn’t a travel protection plan, it was Travelex travel insurance (check the Description of Coverage linked in the article).

    Arizona is one of the many states where the industry lobby has succeeded to change the law so that travel agencies can sell travel insurance without a license to sell insurance.

  • Michael__K

    This customer did purchase travel insurance, not travel protection. Sellers of travel in Florida (where MVC is headquartered) do not need to register with the state’s insurance regulators to sell travel insurance.

    BTW, when it comes to MedEvac coverage, some of the most reputable offerings are neither travel insurance nor travel protection plans.

    One of our advocates had an excellent experience with her claim, with such a company which is also an underwriter of this site:

  • joycexyz

    What a horrible story! There are so many points to comment on. I particularly “love” Marriott’s claim that they didn’t sell the policy, they merely offered it. What the h*ll is the difference??? And she never received a copy of the policy. Maybe I’m naïve, but isn’t the insurer required to furnish one? I hope she is persistent enough to take up the case with her AG.

  • Ben

    You’re right, I had looked that up on my phone last night and the mobile version of the site only showed a limited number of resorts. I’ll edit my previous post.

  • marathon man

    She should have used a Starwood amex card to pay for everything and earned what could have amounted to 3-5 nights at most good properties. 45000 marriott points might get her one to one and a half (and you cant do halves) nights at one of their comparable properties. Soon spg will be part of marriott but until it is, thats a far better bet.

    Another option would have been to put the high charges on a 2% cash back capital one card.

  • AAGK

    I agree. I also considered her on a Marriott vacation Club trip.

  • AAGK

    I didn’t know that. I guess it makes sense but the name caused confusion. This lady would probably know that these products are different though. I didn’t pick up on it at all.

  • AAGK

    I think there is a percentage, @7% of income. If unreimbursed > then that extra can be used without penalty.

  • LonnieC

    In answer to your question (“Should trips purchased with points be any different than trips purchased with cash?”), an emphatic NO. Unless the differences are very clearly spelled out, put in writing, and sent to the consumer with a requirement that the consumer confirm receipt of the information, and an opportunity to cancel. This is too huge a potential problem – as in this instance – to let an exception like this slip by without serious written notice.

  • LonnieC

    How many pudding cups does travel insurance cost? (I’m going to start saving them right away.) ?

  • BMG4ME

    That was a pretty nice gesture – $45K is no small change.

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