Case dismissed? Travel insurance won’t cover my canceled tour

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By Christopher Elliott

Catherine Markland was looking forward to her Ecuador trip with Friendly Planet this month. She had a little extra peace of mind because she’d purchased an insurance policy for her flights through Access America.

Maybe she shouldn’t have been so confident. When her plans changed, she discovered a thing or two about her coverage — a thing or two I couldn’t help her undo.

Last week on this site I ran a series about travel insurance. Read the fine print, I said. But what if the fine print doesn’t specifically address a situation you couldn’t even anticipate?

Markland explains,

In February of this year, I received an email from Friendly Planet Travel, my tour operator, saying that the tour had been cancelled due to too few participants. I was given the choice from Friendly Planet to receive a refund or to schedule to another tour later in the year. I subsequently rescheduled on a different date for the trip.

She rebooked her flights from Dallas to Miami that had been insured by Access America. But the airline wanted $150 to change the tickets.

I had spoken to two representatives from Access America explaining what had occurred, both of whom encouraged me to file the claim since it was not my fault that the trip was canceled. The process was time-consuming and detailed.

Access America turned her down.

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Why? Not having enough tour participants isn’t a “covered reason” for a cancellation under her policy.

At this point I ask myself: “Why purchase flight insurance?” I have written a letter to Access America asking for a second review. I think Access America insurance is bogus at best, since the trip was interrupted because it was never started. What is the purpose of insurance if not to cover the unexpected?

I asked Access America to review her case. Here’s its response:

The travel insurance that Ms. Markland purchased covers the specific situations, events and losses as described in her insurance policy.

There are a number of common events, such as illness or injury to an insured, a traveling companion or close family member, as well as a list of other health, transportation/accommodation, political/terrorism and work circumstances, that are “covered reasons” for canceling or interrupting a trip.

Unfortunately, rescheduling a trip because of a lack of participation in a tour would not be one of those covered reasons.

We’re sorry that we were unable to cover Ms. Markland in this case, but we do wish her well in her future travels.

The need for clear policy communication

I’m disappointed by that response.

Access America is saying that unless Markland’s reason for cancellation was explicitly noted in her policy, she won’t get her $150. But when you travel, there are an almost infinite number of circumstances you can encounter. It’s impossible to write them all up in a policy, and even if it were possible, who would have the time to read all that fine print? (Here’s what you need to know about travel insurance.)

I’m most troubled by the representatives who urged Markland to file a detailed claim. Why not just tell her that hers wasn’t a covered reason, and that she had no hope? At the very least, they could have encouraged her to read her policy carefully before making a claim. (Related: Insurance claim denied after bike accident.)

It’s a hard lesson learned for Markland. Unless a travel insurance policy specifically says you’re covered, you probably aren’t.

I understand insurance companies have a business to run and must answer to their underwriters and shareholders. But something tells me that you could deny any claim if you’re strict enough about your definitions — and how can you call that insurance? (Related: Why our loss is your gain.)

What do you think?

Update (May 6): This one has a happy ending. After this story appeared, I heard from Markland. She writes,

I have recently spoken with a representative from Friendly Planet who informed me that the flight change and additional costs associated with the flight change due to the cancellation of the tour to Ecuador on the part of Friendly Planet, would in fact be reimbursed to me.

During the conversation she said she understood that the policy I had purchased from Access America would not cover the costs to change the flight from DFW to MIA, but that her company would reimburse me under the circumstances.

I was elated and wanted to let you know this new information. I did tell her that I had communicated with you, as an expert and travel advocate and she did request that I inform you. I received a check for $274 from her this week so I wanted to let you know and thank you for your diligence on my behalf.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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