This traveler says that he doesn’t understand trip insurance so he didn’t buy it. Now he needs it.

When Solomon Gizaw purchases his air tickets for a trip to Africa, he doesn’t buy travel insurance. Now he has to cancel his trip for medical reasons, but he doesn’t want to pay a change fee. Can our advocates help him get it waived?

Question: I bought two tickets for a trip to Africa through CheapOair. My outgoing flight was on Lufthansa; the return flight was on United two months later.

Then I learned that I have cancer and need chemotherapy. My doctor says that I will not be able to travel away from home for the entire two months I had planned to be in Africa. I will have to return home after one month.

I called CheapOair and United several times to change or cancel the return flight, but I was told that there is a $300 fee to change the flight. Can you help me get this fee waived? — Solomon Gizaw, Alexandria, Va.

Answer: I’m sorry about your medical situation and inability to travel as planned. Your situation is a sad reminder that using online travel agencies such as CheapOair (a brand of Fareportal) carries risks, especially when booking international or complex trips. Before confirming your purchase, remember to pay close attention to the details, because many such agencies place disclaimers in their terms and conditions that relieve them of liability and allow them to refuse to issue refunds or otherwise decline to assist travelers when things go wrong on their trips. (Disclosure: CheapOair is an underwriter of our website.)

For example, CheapOair’s terms and conditions indicate that:

Most of our airline tickets, hotels, pre-paid car rentals, vacation packages and service fees are non-refundable after 24 hours of booking. … We can accept refund requests only if the following conditions have been met:

    • you have applied for a cancellation and refund with us and if the fare rules provide for cancellation and refunds;
    • you are not a “no show” (most “no show” bookings are ineligible for any waiver from suppliers for refund processing); and
    • we are able to secure waivers from suppliers to process this requested cancellation and refund.

We are unable to provide a specific timeline for how long it may take for this requested refund to be processed. All refund requests are processed in a sequential format. Once you have provided our customer service agent with your cancellation request, we will then send you an email notification that your request has been received. This notification does not automatically qualify you for a refund. This only provides you with an acknowledgement of your request and provides you with a tracking number.

CheapOair will charge a post-ticketing services fee, as applicable. All refund fees are charged on per-passenger, per-ticket basis. These fees will only be assessed if a refund has been authorized by the supplier or a waiver has been received and when the airline/supplier rules permit such refunds. If such refund is not processed by the supplier, we will refund you our post-ticketing service fees applicable to your agent-assisted refund request, but not our booking fees for the original travel reservation or booking.

As you can see, CheapOair exempts itself from legal responsibility for refunds to canceling customers and discloses that it will charge fees to issue refunds — and that’s after the airline or other travel company agrees that the customers should receive them. If you purchase nonrefundable tickets, then neither CheapOair nor the airline will refund your airfares.

Your case is a situation where a travel insurance policy that provided trip cancellation or “cancel for any reason” coverage could have helped you. The latter is travel insurance coverage that, as the name suggests, reimburses you for costs incurred for travel, regardless of the reason for cancellation. This type of coverage allows for cancellations for medical reasons, as in your situation. It also reimburses expenses, like airfares, that are forfeited, as well as meals, hotel rooms and other incidental expenses that arise unexpectedly when a trip cancellation is necessary.

You might have obtained such a policy through CheapOair when you booked your flights. CheapOair offers a Travel Protection Basic Air Plan that provides coverage through TripMate. The plan provides trip interruption and cancellation insurance coverage up to a maximum of $100,000. Alternatively, you could also have purchased travel insurance coverage through one or both airlines or an insurance company. For example, United offers travel insurance on its website. Major credit cards also offer it to premier cardholders.

CheapOair also has a “Compassion Exception Policy,” which allows certain customers to receive discounts off cancellation, refund or ticket change service fees assessed by CheapOair. (The Compassion Exception Policy doesn’t apply to fees assessed directly by travel companies.)

The Compassion Exception Policy covers

  • U.S. military service members and family members
  • Customers directly affected by severe weather, natural disaster or other uncontrollable event
  • Bereavement (affecting traveler and Immediate family)
  • Customers with visual impairments

Although severe illness is not specifically listed as a condition covered by the Compassion Exception Policy, CheapOair might have been willing to consider it as an “other uncontrollable event” in your case.

You might have availed yourself of the executive contact information for CheapOair and United on our website to request help, but you contacted our advocates for assistance in getting a waiver for the change fee.

Our advocates reached out to United to request a waiver of the change fee for your return flight. You have notified us that United agreed to waive the fee and allow you to rebook your flight. We wish you improved health so that you can take your extended trip to Africa.

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

  • Jeff W.

    One can debate the value of travel insurance — and there are many pros and cons to it — but it seems that if you are taking an extended trip, insurance is probably a good choice.

    In the span of two months, a lot can happen between when you leave and when you need to come back, that may require a change of plans. Doesn’t really matter that you are in Africa, but that certainly stresses the point of how valuable insurance can be.

    His two month trip is now a one month trip, in this case. With the discovery of his illness, he should still take insurance just in case for his new itinerary if he can get it. But at least he was able to get the change fee waived.

  • Mel65

    Sigh. Stories like this make me feel like a bad person, because while a part of me is happy for the OP, a larger part is irritated and disgruntled because I *always* purchase insurance for any trip for which I’d be out of pocket more than I’m willing to walk away from.

  • Alan Gore

    I think of trip insurance as being my Time Rewind Fee. For a specified cost, I can magically go back to the days of flexible travel planning.

  • Noah Kimmel

    ….the days when tickets were more expensive.

    Don’t want to buy trip insurance? Buy a refundable Y or F ticket

  • MF

    Mel, even if there is a travel insurance policy in force, it might not apply if there was a ‘pre-existing condition’ clause. One could argue that cancer might be a pre-existing condition, as usually ppl have it for months before the symptoms appear or a trip is made to the doc to diagnose the problem.

  • MF

    Alan, Nice way of viewing travel insurance. It sounds better than the other rationalizations I’ve been using…

  • Mel65

    I dont think preexisting clauses prohibit coverage if there have been no medicsl visits/issues etc or diagnosis within a certain amount of time if i remember correctly. If not the case, arguably any condition could be labeled as pre-xisting since technically you may have had it for months or years. So unless he’d been sick recently, he could very well have been ok.

  • Charles

    NEVER NEVER NEVER buy travel insurance that does not include a preexisting condition waiver. Most major policies offer that waiver if purchased within a reasonable time of the first deposit and then this issue becomes a non-issue! You should never have to worry about preexisting conditions, which insurance companies love to game.

  • Charles

    Travel insurance is much cheaper than what the airlines charge for refundable tickets.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Two benefits of travel insurance are medical evacuation and repatriation benefits.

    If you are in Africa, Asia, Europe, etc. and became severely ill and need a medical evacuation back to the USA. The cost for a medical evacuation between Alaska and Seattle is between $ 50,000 to $ 150,000 (dependent upon the level of care…the average was around $ 90,000)…my wife used to arrange these transports.

    In case of the death, there is the repatriation benefit.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    You are correct…

    Insurance companies typically uses two definitions for pre-existing conditions:

    1) Under the “objective standard” definition, a pre-existing condition is any condition for which the patient has already received medical advice or treatment prior to enrollment in a new medical insurance plan or a purchase of a policy. No treatment then no pre-existing condition.

    It’s possible to get travel insurance even if you or a loved one have a pre-existing condition. In some policies, a pre-existing conditions waiver is actually included as one of the benefits as long as you purchase the policy within a specified time frame – usually anywhere from 10-30 days of making your initial trip payment. In such cases, there is usually no additional paperwork required to obtain your travel insurance policy, and no additional fee for the benefit.

    2) Under the broader, “prudent person” definition, a pre-existing condition is anything for which symptoms were present and a prudent person would have sought treatment. If a person had a stomach ache every day, threw up every day and had to miss work every day…a prudent person would have sought treatment from a doctor. If a person had a stomach ache only one time in the less year then a prudent person won’t have went to a doctor.

  • cscasi

    Besides, many travel insurance companies allow one to purchase a pre-existing waiver to cover things like that; albeit at a higher cost.

  • Blamona

    So insurance would have cost him $300, so shouldn’t he just pay?

  • joycexyz

    And, may I add that insurance is for the unexpected. Nobody plans to get cancer (at least I hope not!) or have an accident or suddenly lose a loved one, etc. I really don’t understand how people can spend many thousands on a planned vacation, then stint on a few hundred to protect that investment.

  • Bob Davis

    The benefits we got from a policy for a trip Disney World 9 years ago are still in the green even after buying insurance for 4 other trips. They paid hospital deductibles, extra airfare, and additional hotel costs.

  • jim6555

    Some travel insurance companies will waive their pre-existing condition clause if the travel insurance is purchased within 14 days of air ticketing (or the deposit date for cruises). I recently purchased a policy with a 14 day waiver of pre-existing conditions at

  • Annie M

    An extended trip has nothing to do with buying insurance or not. If you can’t afford to lose everything you have paid for your trip, you should consider insurance.
    For some that could be a $300 change fee. For some it might be a
    $10,000 trip.

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