Want a refund? Read the policy

It looked like a lost cause.

Betty van Iersel had prepaid $3,900 for an all-inclusive seven-day French canal tour on the barge Luciole. But two weeks after she’d wired the money to the cruise line, a financial emergency forced her to cancel.

The Luciole’s owners refused to return her money, citing their refund policy. Her travel agency, Annapolis-based Special Places Travel, which specializes in European barge tours, told her that she could only get her money back if her cabin was resold. And that seemed like a remote possibility.

“I can’t afford to lose this money,” van Iersel wrote to me. “Do I have any options?”

An increasing number of cases that cross my desk look like van Iersel’s: Because of a policy or rule — not always clearly disclosed — a favorable resolution looks improbable. Though each case is different, they all tend to have one thing in common: They could have been completely avoided with a few simple preventive steps.

Take the case of Veda Robinson and Jackie Smartt, who contacted me recently after missing their Carnival cruise. The reason? Smartt hadn’t brought the right form of ID for her international trip. Then, because of a misunderstanding, both women were denied boarding, even though Robinson had the correct paperwork and wanted to take the cruise.

“Carnival will not reimburse me for being denied boarding, even though I had documentation, because they recently advised me that the personnel at the pier asked me, ‘Do you want to board?’ and documented on my incident report, that I said ‘no,’ ” she says. She denies that she declined to board the ship.

Carnival offered her, but not Smartt, a do-over cruise. After I blogged about the case, Robinson’s travel agency secured her a full refund.

But there’s a valuable takeaway for the rest of us here. Don’t wait until you’re home to ask a travel company to make something right. Had Robinson made her case more forcefully at the port, she might have been able to get on the ship. Unfortunately, Smartt would have been allowed on board only if she had remembered her passport or passport card. Double-checking for your passport before you leave? That’s always good advice, of course.

Or consider the case of Ana de Pascht, who recently had a flat tire on her way to the Albany airport. Her US Airways ticket, like most tickets today, was nonrefundable, nontransferable and non-changeable unless she paid a hefty fee.

“I called US Airways and asked what could be done,” she said. “I was told that I had to buy a new ticket and also pay a change fee of $150 — a total of $273 — if I wished to travel on the next flight out. I did question the agent about any other ways to avoid paying all that money and was told that was my only option.”

No, I’m not going to suggest that de Pascht should have checked the air pressure in her tires before heading out, although in hindsight, that might not have been a terrible idea. It helps, though to have some passing familiarity with airline policies.

Turns out that there’s a “flat tire” rule, and airlines are known to cut their passengers some slack if they can’t make it to the airport through no fault of their own. (Seems fair, given that we’re pretty understanding when their planes break down.) I thought the rule had been phased out, but I’m told it’s still unofficial policy at some airlines, including US Airways. Had de Pascht politely invoked that rule with the reservations agent or the agent’s supervisor, she might have been able to rebook her flight at no charge.

A US Airways supervisor at the airport conceded that the $273 fee to fly the same day seemed unfair, but he couldn’t initiate a refund. Only the refunds department is allowed to do that. Eventually, de Pascht’s story reached the ears of the Transportation Department, which referred the case back to the airline. As a “courtesy,” US Airways agreed to refund the $150 change fee.

And what about van Iersel? Standard travel insurance wouldn’t have addressed her troubles, although a slightly more expensive “cancel for any reason” policy may have allowed her to recover part of her ticket. Nor did using a travel agent protect her from the Luciole’s restrictive refund policy. But it gave her an advocate in dealing with the cruise company.

She might have avoided her problem by carefully reviewing the cruise line’s policies and paying by credit card. Many cruise lines offer either a full or partial refund as long as you cancel with enough advance notice.

Also, I would never recommend paying with anything but a credit card. While a small percentage of legitimate travel companies accept only wire transfers as payment, many more questionable operators insist on having the money in hand, because they know they’ll be able to keep it even if you have a problem.

I have no reason to believe that the Luciole’s operators fall into that category. But nothing could compel me to wire anyone $3,900, unless maybe they were holding one of my children hostage.

I had a lengthy conversation with van Iersel’s travel agent, who reiterated the Luciole’s policy. I got the impression that a refund was all but out of the question, because her cruise was only a few weeks away. But a few days later, I heard from both the passenger and her agent. The cabin had been sold and a refund was being processed.

“I am off the hook,” van Iersel told me.

I love a happy ending.

(Photo: Magic Ket chup/Flickr Creative Commons)

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.