Evelyn Ashrafi couldn’t suppress her anger when talking about her son’s Cuba trip being disrupted by Hurricane Irma.
“My son was celebrating his birthday on Sept. 9,” she said. “His brother bought him and his girlfriend the trip through Air Canada Vacations and paid with his CIBC Aerogold Infinite Visa card.
“They arrived close to midnight on Sept. 5 and were evacuated on Sept. 7. I say bravo to Air Canada for getting them out of harm’s way.”
Her son later called Air Canada Vacations, hoping to get a refund for the five days he didn’t use at the Bahia Principle all-inclusive resort. But he was out of luck.
Air Canada Vacations offered no concessions for a trip cut short by a fierce storm that made the resort uninhabitable. No refunds. No rebooking.
Hotels don’t want to take the losses if you leave early, even if it isn’t your fault, when you book a low non-refundable rate.
“This is a common and customer-unfriendly policy across the global tourism industry,” says travel writer and consumer advocate Christopher Elliott.
The solution is travel insurance. A policy that covers trip interruption might allow you to recover some or all of your expenses.
Fortunately, the CIBC Aerogold Infinite Visa card used for the Cuba trip did offer trip interruption coverage up to $2,000 per person. But there was a problem.
The brother who paid with his credit card had the insurance. His brother – the gift recipient – was not covered unless he bought his own travel insurance policy.
“Yes, these young people did not carry travel insurance, but they never thought they would be in this kind of experience,” Ashrafi said.
“They had a whiff of fantastic hospitality, only to be whisked into the air due to Hurricane Irma. Isn’t there any compassion?”
The business of booking all-inclusive Caribbean trips is extremely competitive. If you want to rebook without penalties or get your money back, you should buy travel insurance.
But remember that insurance typically has a long list of things that are included and things that are excluded. It’s not a panacea.
Ashrafi’s story made me think about other cases where buying travel insurance might leave you bereft of coverage. I asked industry insiders for examples.
1) You pay for a trip with reward points from a credit card loyalty program, such as Aeroplan, Air Miles, Avion or Aspire and you cancel before leaving. Are you covered?
“The only insurable amount is the taxes. There is no dollar value to loyalty points, hence no dollar refund,” says Martin Firestone, a travel insurance specialist with Travel Secure in Toronto.
Before booking a trip far ahead in the future, you might want to think twice about handing over reward points that took you years to earn – especially if you face uncertainty about work and family commitments or medical issues.
2) You have a medical condition, controlled through prescription drugs, and you disclose this to the travel insurance company. If your illness recurs and forces you to cancel a trip, are you covered?
Your health must be stable, says Anne-Marie Thomas of InsuranceHotline.com, which compares rates for different types of coverage.
So, if your doctor prescribes a new drug before your departure date – say, 90 days before you travel – your insurance claim may be rejected.
Insurers see a change in medication as a risk. This is the case even if your health improves enough that your doctor takes you off drugs altogether.
“Check with the insurer about how long the stability period for medication lasts,” Thomas says. “This can vary from one company to another.”
3) You go south to the United States or Caribbean in hurricane season (May to November). Will your travel insurance pay for unexpected expenses?
The key is having the insurance in place before the threat of a hurricane. Once the Canadian government issues a travel advisory or warning, it’s typically too late, says InsuranceHotline.com.
Consult the federal government’s travel advice and advisories – once when you are planning your trip and again shortly before you leave.
Learn about the government’s four levels of risk. The highest is “Avoid all travel,” which currently applies to the Turks and Caicos Islands, Bahamas, St. Martin, Anguilla, Virgin Islands (U.S.), British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico – all affected by Hurricane Irma.
The same high risk level also applies to countries with political or military turmoil, such as Iraq, Yemen, Burundi, Afghanistan, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan, Libya, Mali and – yes, of course – Syria.
4) You are a woman in the late stages of pregnancy. If you give birth early on a trip outside Canada and the baby needs urgent medical care, will your travel insurance policy cover the cost?
Travel insurance covers only the named person, Firestone points out. So, a baby not born when the insurance was taken out – and thus, not named in the policy – will not be covered by it.
In a case that made headlines in 2014, a Saskatchewan couple went for a “babymoon” to Hawaii. Their infant was born nine weeks early and had to spend two months in neonatal intensive care.
This led to a $1 million hospital bill, most of which the couple had to pick up since it was for the baby’s care. The insurance covered the mother’s health care costs.
“Many people are shocked when they hear this,” Firestone told me at the time. “They may travel in the last trimester of a pregnancy and not know the baby’s expenses are excluded if there is a premature birth.”
My advice: Travel insurance policies are complex. Terms vary from one insurer to another. If you spend big money on a trip, you should spend time comparing insurance policies or asking people you trust for guidance.
Source: Ellen Roseman’s Smart Money column | The Star appears Tuesday in the business section.