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.

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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.

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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 Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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