Most of us buy travel insurance as a hedge against a disaster and secretly hope we never have to use it.
But sometimes a trip falls apart and you have to get home in a hurry. On a recent trip to Australia we faced that situation and learned what travel insurance covers, how long it takes for reimbursement and what documents are important. We also learned there is wide difference in how companies treat you in an emergency. Some are sympathetic and helpful, while others couldn’t care less.
We flew to Sydney, Australia from Toronto in March for a three-week trip. On the 5th day, while in Cairns, North Queensland at the Great Barrier Reef, we received word my wife’s 94-year-old mother was seriously ill. Within hours we were on our way home. We rebooked tickets on the fly, returned our Budget Rental Car and cancelled pre-paid accommodation, including a campervan rental for later in the trip. We got home in 48 hours via three airlines, four airports and 8 or 9 time zones.
Top Marks: Qantas, Jetstar, AirBnB, CIBC Travel, Britz
The highest marks go to Qantas, Australia’s national airline and their no frills subsidiary Jetstar. Speedy, sympathetic and helpful. CIBC Rewards Travel, a perk of our Aventura Visa Infinite credit card also deserves high marks. Within an hour and late at night Toronto time, an agent rebooked the flight home.
Air BnB was another 5 star surprise. We have used them for several years, but never needed their help. Their corporate customer service stepped in to give us a full refund when a Sydney rental balked. Britz Motorhomes & Campervans, a New Zealand company was also considerate.
Failing Grade: Budget Car Rental
Budget Car Rental is part of the Avis Budget Group and you may recall the slogan: At Avis, we try harder. At Budget, it seems, they try not at all.
We had rented a Budget car in Cairns through Expedia for 5 days at C$177. We brought the car back 2 days early because of the emergency and were billed $289, or 40% more for the early return.
Not a lot of money, but there was no explanation then, or now, despite a handful of attempts to contact the company. The Cairns airport agent could only say it was policy and was unable to change an automatic calculation that created the new bill. He seemed embarrassed.
Back in Toronto, an international customer service rep repeated that the surcharge was policy without explaining it. When bumped up to a supervisor the answer was the same. Neither cared about the reason or suggested a way to pursue it. Over the course of several weeks, Budget’s media relations department ignored a request for clarification. An email message to Budget Car Rental CEO Larry De Shon was also ignored.
Budget Car Rental Australia responded 2 weeks after I sent a message via their online form. A rep asked for proof of the reason for the early return. That was provided almost immediately. In the intervening 6 weeks nothing despite a further query.
I asked consumer advocate and former Toronto Star colleague Ellen Roseman for her opinion.
“Think of it like a cell phone contract,” she said. “You get a better deal if you sign up for a fixed term. But if you leave early, you’re penalized. The good deal is gone.”
Ellen said what likely happened is that Budget Car Rental viewed the contract as broken by the early return and so charged the highest day rate for the three days of use.
“Still, I am disappointed to see they didn’t reply to you after many attempts,” she said. “Bad behaviour.”
In the end, travel insurance paid the difference, so this isn’t about the money. It’s about Budget Car Rental’s basic lack of courtesy. No help, no interest.
Ellen said I am not alone in my poor customer service experience with Budget Car Rental. She passed on a link from the Tripsavvy web site headlined The worst car rental agencies. In 2016 rankings Budget was rated 3rd worst overall.
Travel insurance tips
If you have travel insurance, you will get your money back, but it takes a while. Trip interruption insurance covers prepaid amounts and the cost of getting home, including airline tickets hotels, meals and taxis.
It does not reimburse for the unused return portion of flights. You can often get a credit for these a we did with Qantas and Jetstar, so insurers seem to view the reimbursement as double dipping.
Another perk of our CIBC Aventura Infinite VISA was that it offered $2,000 per person for trip interruption through Global Excel Management Inc. We purchased another $4,000 through AIG’s Travelguard, figuring $8,000 would cover our prepaid expenses. Together they were more than enough for the $4,600 claimed after refunds. It took about 2 months to settle both claims.
Jetstar, the Qantas subsidiary, refunded a prepaid flight booked for later in the trip. It also provided us with credits worth almost AUS $600 (C$550) for unused return portions of our Cairns to Sydney flights. This was done graciously over the phone in about 10 minutes. Jetstar’s cancellation policy is clear and quickly found on their Web site. Qantas’ bereavement policy is likewise clear and easily found.
Insurance reimburses for prepaid accommodation, but the insurer may want proof you tried to mitigate the loss. Keep emails to show you asked for help. Insurance will also cover hotels and meals on your return trip home.
We had prepaid a campervan for a week of touring the vineyards in the Hunter Valley through Britz. We had paid C$2,000 for the 8 days. Britz provided a 50% refund as per their policy, since we were less than a week from pickup. When given the circumstances, they offered a credit good for 1 year for the balance. That was more than fair, but we declined, preferring cash from the insurance claim.
The two key documents are a letter from an attending physician explaining why you had to come home and a death certificate. Funeral homes provide multiple copies of the latter.
With the exception of Budget Car Rental, the experience was straightforward and fair. It is time consuming and it is slow and it is important to be able to show the insurance company you tried to sort things out before claiming. Thereafter, it’s about the right documents and providing as much information as possible. The clearer and more complete your paperwork, the less hassle there will be.
We all hope these things don’t happen, but they do. It pays to be prepared so when the worst happens you know what to do.
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