Her trip is cut short by a cancer diagnosis, but what about these sky-high change fees?

Lisa Stewart’s parents abruptly end their trip to Israel after her mother’s stage 4 cancer diagnosis. Can they get a refund on the airline ticket change fees?

Question: I’m hoping you can help me. My parents flew from Miami to Tel Aviv this spring. While they were in Israel, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

In a Jerusalem hospital she was told she needed emergency care, and my parents booked very expensive immediate return home tickets with British Airways, despite having already purchased round-trip tickets. They were also charged several change fees. Sadly, my mother died just 8 weeks later.

I’d like to get a refund for the change fees. Can you help me? — Lisa Stewart, New York

Answer: I’m so very sorry about your mother. Life is short, and when the end comes, you shouldn’t have to worry about change fees. British Airways should have shown some compassion and considered a refund of its $4,551 change fees. No one wants to be seen profiting from someone else’s pain.

But British Airways didn’t have to do anything. Your parents agreed to pay the fees when they flew back home. They knew about your mother’s diagnosis then and should have spoken with British Airways at that time about waiving some or all of their fees. Coming back now, several months after the flight, makes a resolution difficult.

May I interrupt this story to talk about travel insurance? I think it would have helped in your parents’ situation — a lot. A stage 4 cancer diagnosis might have been covered by insurance, which would have paid for the return tickets and any medical expenses in Jerusalem. A good travel agent would have even helped you or your father file the paperwork.

Related story:   Should British Airways follow its own ticket rules? It's not brain surgery -- oh wait, it is brain surgery

British Airways explains its service fees on its website, and although it can’t quite justify them, they are unavoidable.

I contacted British Airways, and the airline refunded the change fees of $600 as a “gesture of goodwill” but would not refund the fare differential.

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 chris@elliott.org.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Most health insurance plans especially Medicare Gap/Supplemental policies do NOT cover you when you are traveling outside of the US; therefore, it is extremely important to have coverage when traveling international. Travel Insurance policies do provide benefits such as 1) for medical expenses that are incurred because of accidents and illnesses; 2) medical evacuation; 3) repatriation; etc. Even if a person traveling domestic, some travel insurance policies do provide a benefit of getting you home for medical service when local medical service isn’t sufficient. Please understand that if you have a pre-existing condition, that condition MAY not be covered by the travel insurance.

    In the article, there was no mention of a travel agent. Did the OP’s parents booked directly with British Airways? An OTA? Or used a brick & mortar travel agent? I believe in using a brick & mortar travel agent when traveling international for the benefit of having an advocate when encountering an issue or problem when abroad. Your travel agent MAY have a relationship with the airline that could get fees and charges waived or etc. Also, your travel agent can advise you on the best options in a stressful situation.

    I am a firm believer of joining frequent flyer programs and gaining elite status in one frequent flyer program because some airlines MAY work with you in these kind of situations. I was on site with a client when I received a phone call from my mother that my father was in the hospital and my father was asking for me because he thought he was dying (my father ended up living for another 11 months). I called US Airways to change my return flight to PHX as well as our tickets to my parents (we had a trip already booked to visit my parents that next day that I was scheduled to back from my business trip). The person that I spoke with to change these two reservations didn’t charge me any fees or fare differences. I didn’t asked for the fees to be waived…my guess for no fees was based upon my patronage with America WestUS Airways.

  • MF

    It’s comforting to know that BA would gouge anyone, even your mother with stage 4 cancer. When will egregious airline fees be reigned in? When congress sees their job as benefitting citizens, and not just their corporate masters.

  • James

    I could not agree more: Corporate avarice is out of control in this country and, as this example shows, elsewhere, too. Shame on British Airways: It certainly was not obligated to refund the fare differential, but does it have any human compassion at all? Why not refund the money in the spirit of helping others? Is that concept now entirely alien to everyone in this world?

  • Todd Brown

    I find that excoriating BA for their position is an unfortunate response to an unfortunate circumstance. Life is not risk free, yet so many people who travel (and post on this website) assume it is. Many of these issues arise because people believe nothing bad will ever happen. But they do. There were several “forks in the road” along the way to book this trip where they could have had recourse. They chose not to do it. If companies like BA created a division that fielded hardship stories, to separate fact from fiction, and refund money based on “compassion”, they’d be out of business and you wouldn’t be flying anywhere, ever.

  • KanExplore

    That last observation is important. The airlines really aren’t equipped to investigate the validity of each hardship claim, nor do they want to hire a team of hundreds of claim investigators for the purpose of checking out whether or not they should be giving refunds to everyone who wants one.

    I do not doubt the credibility of the daughter here, but there would be thousands like her every day if the airlines announced a policy change to let you change your ticket for free to any date at the advance purchase fare if you can come up with a sad story. And in a world where false passports and IDs abound, a fake doctor’s note seems pretty easy to generate.

    I seldom buy trip insurance myself, but I know I am taking a risk, because if something does go wrong, I know the airline won’t be my fallback insurance policy. The policies are reasonably affordable and should be seriously considered, especially if there’s an older person involved (I do not know that to be the case here – just making that as a general observation).

    Before the inevitable accusation that I work for an airline, I don’t. I think genuine customer service is a big problem they have, and squeezing the last dime out of customers, and squeezing the customers themselves, will prove detrimental to them in the long run. I simply see the case for requiring payment of the current fare when booking a flight change.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “…if the airlines announced a policy change to let you change your ticket for free to any date at the advance purchase fare if you can come up with a sad story.”

    Most airlines have eliminated their bereavement fares due to the ‘fraud’ from people claiming that they are traveling to a funeralwakeetc.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    When people discovered that life is not risk free, they expect someone else to pay for their financial loss.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “And in a world where false passports and IDs abound, a fake doctor’s note seems pretty easy to generate.”

    My first job out of college, there was a co-worker that told everyone that she had cancer. She hauled an oxygen tank with her. She turned in doctor’s notes (which turned out to be fake). She even shaved her head. It turned out that she was scamming people…telling people that she had cancer and asking people for money to help her.

  • Annie M

    “considered a refund of its $4,551 change fees. ”

    That isn’t a change fee- that’s the price of last minute walk up tickets.

    Very sorry about the loss of your Mom. It’s too bad they didn’t have travel insurance.

    If they were charged change fees, that means that the airline changed their return tickets. Were they given a credit for the unused portion of the tickets in the new amount for the new tickets? Were these first class tickets?

    If the airline refunded $600, that appears to be the waiver of all the change fees.

  • Annie M

    It appears only $600 was the change fee. The rest was probably the walk up price for one way tickets back home.

  • joycexyz

    The best consequence for this reprehensible behavior would be that she really developed cancer…and no one cared.

  • joycexyz

    As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

  • Annie M

    Very few people opt for that additional coverage.

  • George M

    About 25% of medicare recipients have Medigap (Supplement Insurance). Of those who choose to purchase Medigap insurance, 66% choose Plan F (according to Bankrate.com in 2016). So at least 16.5% of Medicare recipients have plan F. Add that to the number who have other Medigap plans such as Plans C or G that also provide overseas coverage, and you have a lot more than “very few.” Anyway, I just wanted to rebut ArizonaRoadWarrior’s claim that most plans, especially Medigap plans, do not provide coverage.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    From the Medicare website, www_dot_medicare_dot_gov/coverage/travel-need-health-care-outside-us_dot_html, it states: 1) In general, health care you get while traveling outside the U.S. isn’t covered. 2) Medicare may pay for inpatient hospital, doctor, ambulance services, or dialysis you get in a foreign country in these rare cases… and 3) Because Medicare has limited coverage of health care services outside the U.S., you may choose to buy a travel insurance policy to get more coverage.

    From the government website, “foreign travel emergency medical expenses” benefit in the medigap policies 1) covers foreign travel emergency care if it begins during the first 60 days of your trip, and if Medicare DOESN’T otherwise cover the care. 2) Pays 80% of the billed charges for CERTAIN medically necessary emergency care outside the U.S. after you meet a $250 deductible for the year. and 3) Foreign travel emergency coverage with Medigap policies has a lifetime limit of $50,000.

    In other words, if an individual that is on Medicare and has a Medigap policy with foreign travel emergency benefit had an emergency medical event with a cost of $ 100,250…Medicare will likely pay $ 0.00 unless it is one of the three rare cases that the government pays; the individual will pay the $ 250 deductible…the policy will pay 80% of the next $ 62,500 ($ 50,000 divided by 80%) which the individual will pay $ 12,500 and the individual will pay the remaining $ 37,500. The individual end up paying $ 50,250 in this situation.

    My wife used to work for an insurance company as a case manager…part of her duties was to arrange medical transport for members in Alaska to hospitals in the state of Washington…the average cost for a medical transport was between $ 90,000 to $ 120,000. The cost to transport a person from Europe, Africa, Asia, etc. is probably going to cost this much or probably more. With a LIFETIME benefit of $ 50,000, an individual is going to have at least a $ 50,000 bill for medical transport in addition to the hospital bill and doctor(s) bill(s) in the foreign country.

    For me, a $ 50,000 LIFETIME benefit is extremely limited and does NOT provide adequate coverage. You can purchase a travel insurance policy with $ 500,000, $ 1,000,000 or etc. of coverage for a trip (NOT lifetime) that will cover medical treatment, dental treatment medical evacuation and repatriation.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    If they did opt for that additional coverage, the foreign travel emergency medical expenses benefit is inadequate.

    One thing that wasn’t posted by George M…the LIFETIME benefit is $ 50,000 (after you pay a $ 250 deductible and 20% co-payment) for these Medigap policies with “foreign travel emergency medical expenses” coverage.

    If a person needs to fly back from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, etc.,the cost of the medical transport is probably going to be over $ 100,000…a person is going to have a $ 50,000 medical transport bill plus the foreign hospital bill and foreign doctor(s) bill(s).

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Except for three rare cases, Medicare DOES NOT cover a person when traveling outside of the United States and its territories (Source: US Government Medicare website).

    Several health plans for individuals under the age of 65, do NOT cover a person when traveling outside of the United States. There are health plans that restricts hospitals while traveling and living in the US. Personally, our health plan cuts our benefits by 50% if we go to a hospital outside of the Phoenix metro area.

    The foreign travel emergency medical expenses benefit in Medigap policies cover only CERTAIN medical events and is financially inadequate given the $ 50,000 LIFETIME benefit especially if a person has a serious medical event (i.e. heart attack, stroke, etc.).

    If a person had a broken leg, ankle or etc. while traveling internationally and a broken leg, ankle or etc. was one of the CERTAIN medical events that is covered in the Medigap Foreign travel medical benefits, it will probably be sufficient in these minor medical events.

    When a person has a serious medical event like a heart attack, stroke, etc…$ 50,000 isn’t enough.

    In this specific situation, the foreign travel emergency medical expenses benefit won’t have help the OP’s parents in regards to the increased in airfares, etc. since these items are non-medical; whereas, a travel insurance policy would have probably help them (I said probably because some travel insurance policies and plans have a ‘reasonable care’ clause…if a person had a stomach ache for sixty days and didn’t went to the doctor and later filed a claim due to stomach cancer…it will probably be declined as a pre-existing condition {if it falls outside of the pre-existing condition window} because a ‘reasonable’ person would have went to a doctor after a week of stomach pains).

    If a person had a serious medical event and used up the $ 50,000 benefit…a few years later, the person is well enough to travel…the person has NO foreign medical coverage since the $ 50,000 LIFETIME benefit has been used.

    It is my guess that repatriation isn’t covered in the foreign medical coverage benefit since it is not a medical event.

    Given the the foreign travel emergency medical expense benefit in Medigap policies are 1) limited to certain medical events; 2) have a measly LIFETIME benefit of $ 50,000 and 3) this benefit is NOT available in all of the Medigap policies, I think that it is irresponsible to say that Medigap policies will provide coverage because most individuals will think that they have FULL coverage NOT limited coverage.

  • George M

    Your analysis is correct, of course, and I’d never travel abroad without travel insurance that covers me for any conceivable situation, including emergency evacuation.

    However, my irresponsibility in saying that certain Medigap policies will provide coverage is no worse than saying the opposite, that “Most health insurance plans especially Medicare Gap/Supplemental
    policies do NOT cover you when you are traveling outside of the US.”

    It’s a matter of how much coverage there is. $50,000 is more than none as you implied, but less than full as some may have inferred from my post. To anyone whom I’ve misled, I apologize.

  • Annie M

    That leaves 75% without this insurance. So a majority of seniors do not have it. And as Arizona Road Warrior pointed out, the lifetime benefit is inadequate. The average cost of a cruise ship medivac is $70,000. So you’d not have enough coverage id something happened with the limits pointed out.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.