What good is the vacation waiver if it won’t cover this?

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By Christopher Elliott

Christopher Benson and his wife, Betty, planned one last trip to Paris together. They booked air and hotel through Orbitz and were careful to also include the online agency’s vacation waiver option. That’s because Benson’s wife had cancer, and there was a small chance that the couple would have to cancel the trip so she could seek additional treatment.

And then the unthinkable happened. The cancer returned and they had to call off their vacation. Which is when the Bensons discovered that Orbitz’ vacation waiver didn’t work the way they thought it did.

“I feel I have been duped by Orbitz,” says Benson. “They offer a vacation waiver which does not seem to work.”

Benson’s tragic case is a reminder of the importance of reading the fine print on any travel product, but especially travel insurance. It’s also a case study in compassion from a company that isn’t known to bend the rules.

How they ended up with a vacation waiver

Benson and his wife wanted to see Paris last year, a well-deserved break from her cancer treatments. And they found a great deal on Orbitz. For just $3,757, the couple could fly from Chicago to Paris on Lufthansa and stay at the Hôtel M Saint Germain for eight days. The package even included trip protection offered through the online travel agency, which the Bensons needed.

“We knew that there was a risk due to my wife’s cancer,” he says. “But her medical team gave us the full go-ahead indicating they would work treatment around the trip.”

Here’s what the vacation waiver covers (Expedia owns Orbitz):

If you purchase a Vacation Waiver, you may change or cancel your Trip for any reason one time prior to the Scheduled Start Time, and we will:

Southwest Airlines is dedicated to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to providing our employees with a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Process that change or cancellation on your behalf with the applicable travel providers (airline, hotel, rental car company, destination activity provider, etc.);

Waive our own change or cancellation fees (if any);

Return any amounts refunded by the travel provider(s) to you;

Refund any amounts withheld by the travel provider as a change or cancel fee;

Apply any travel credits awarded by a travel provider to your account with that travel provider (subject to provider’s redemption policies and restrictions); and

When you redeem these travel credits, we’ll reimburse you for any change or cancellation fees you are charged by a travel provider at the time of redemption.

You are responsible for any increase in the cost of your Trip as a result of any change or cancellation.

In other words, Orbitz will do what any self-respecting travel agent would do, and will try to get a full refund if you cancel your vacation. I can’t believe Orbitz is even promoting something like this.

A bad situation takes a tragic turn

More than a week before their trip to Paris, Benson learned that his wife’s cancer would require immediate medical attention.

“We knew that we needed to cancel so I proceeded to work through Orbitz,” he recalls. “Tier one staff were incredibly friendly and courteous. They managed to get me reimbursed for the hotel and for some transportation.”

But the airline tickets from Chicago to Paris on Lufthansa were another matter. Orbitz said when it came to those, he was on his own.

“They told me to write to Lufthansa requesting a goodwill refund with documents including a statement from the medical providers,” he says. “I was given an email that did not work.”

He appealed, and someone from “Tier 2” agreed to contact Lufthansa on his behalf.

“On August 25, I received a terse response from Lufthansa that the ticket was nonrefundable,” he says.

His wife died two days later.

What’s the difference between a vacation waiver and insurance?

The Orbitz vacation waiver is not a full-fledged travel insurance product. It’s an add-on option that the online agency offers at the time you book your vacation, and it seems to be nothing more than a promise to do its job as a travel agent.

Travel insurance is underwritten by a third party and covers either named perils or allows you to cancel for any reason. Here’s more information about the kind of travel insurance that’s available. Benson and his wife would have been covered by insurance if they had a waiver for her pre-existing medical condition or if they’d had a more expensive “cancel for any reason” policy.

There’s so much confusion about the difference between travel “protection” and “waivers” and real insurance, it’s no wonder Benson went with the Orbitz waiver. It seemed like a good deal at the time, with its promise to “protect you against life’s unexpected occurrences.”

But he now wishes he had read the details before buying the vacation waiver.

A bittersweet ending

Benson set his refund request aside for several months as he attended to his wife’s funeral. But this fall, he decided to take the matter up with my advocacy team. And when we reviewed the file, we found that one thing had changed that could affect his case: one of the passengers had passed away.

From Lufthansa’s terms:

3.2.4. In the event of death of a Passenger en route, the Tickets of persons accompanying the Passenger may be modified by waiving the minimum stay or extending the validity. In the event of a death in the immediate family of a Passenger who has commenced travel, the validity of the Passenger’s Tickets and those of his or her immediate family who are accompanying the Passenger may likewise be modified.

There’s nothing specifically about a refund, but airlines are also known to refund tickets in the event of the death of a passenger.

A positive resolution

Our advocacy team suggested Benson might at the very least be entitled to a refund of the taxes and fees, which came to nearly $1,095. Those, she pointed out, should be refunded on both tickets. (Related: Don’t let behavior problems on vacation ruin everything. Here’s how.)

We contacted Orbitz on Benson’s behalf and it agreed to take another look at his case. The online agency sent him one last request:

Since the situation has now changed, I want to attempt and retrieve a refund from Lufthansa Airlines; however, I am requesting for you to please send as an attachment the death certificate as proof.

Once received, I will submit a refund request and I will keep in contact with you through this process. If for any reason Lufthansa Airlines does not approve the refund, I will look for other alternatives that I may take to provide you with a resolution.

Lufthansa refunded both of Benson’s tickets. His story is a painful lesson in the importance of reading the fine print. If Benson’s wife were still alive, I’m certain Lufthansa would have kept the Bensons’ money.

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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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