Sometimes a budget trip must be canceled at the last minute.
It's happened to many a traveler: five days before an eight-day trip to Mexico City, unexpected and horrific medical news arrived about a loved one. The vacation had to be canceled, and the $905 in upfront costs was not covered with trip cancellation insurance.
Airline tickets, hotel, airport transportation, two tours, and medical coverage already had been booked. What are the chances of minimizing the losses and getting at least some of that money back?
The news is mixed, and depends on how wisely the products were booked.
Budget travelers usually book cheap but non-refundable airfares. The non-stop, round-trip tickets from Chicago O'Hare to Mexico City had been booked two months in advance through United Airlines at the bargain price of $316 per seat.
Fully aware the tickets were non-refundable, I contacted United anyway and recounted the circumstances.
A United representative explained that credit for the money spent would be available for one calendar year from date of reservation, but a $400 penalty ($200 per ticket) would be assessed before the $632 credit could be applied.
United offered to review the penalty, but only after a future flight is booked:
"Please include a letter (on letterhead) from your physician confirming that travel wasn't recommended. If it's due to an immediate family's well-being, include the name and relationship to you also. The refund exception will apply to the change fee only and any fare difference will not be refunded."
So it's possible at least some of the money spent here could be recovered, which might surprise a few travelers. I'd just need to find a similar bargain airfare and then hope for grace from whomever it is at United who reviews these things.
No surprises. After all, when you buy non-refundable tickets, you take your chances in exchange for an exceptional fare.
The hotel room had been booked for seven nights through Expedia. It was a budget hotel in Mexico City's historic center that offered free breakfasts and other free light meals throughout the day.
The idea was to save some money on dining during the trip, and stay in an area close to some key attractions.
The trade-off was that the hotel was a bit more expensive than most budget travelers would have liked ($997 USD for seven nights, taxes included) and the room was reserved with a credit card.
But the five-day cancellation was in time to close the reservation without any penalty. No money lost.
Sometimes, such offers are made at lower prices if you book a non-refundable room rate. Taking the slightly higher rate with the option of cancellation attached can be viewed as cheap travel insurance.
At the time of cancellation, three tours for two people had been booked: A guided trip to the Teotihuacan Pyramids with a private archaeologist for $78, a half-day food tour of the city's historic center for $90, and round-trip transportation between the hotel and the airport for $36.
The airport trips and pyramid tours were arranged through Viator. The company sent a nice note of encouragement and a full refund for the pyramid trip. But the day I was to arrive in Mexico City, I received a call from the driver who was waiting for me at the airport. I offered apologies that she had not been contacted about the cancellation. I hung up figuring that there would be no refund for the airport arrangements, but I was wrong. A few days later, Viator refunded that amount as well "as a gesture of good will."
The food tour was booked through Sabores Mexico. Representatives from the company also sent along a personal email, but explained their policies did not allow a full refund in such circumstances. They converted the confirmed tickets to "e-certificates," valid for one year from date of reservation.
With the potential to lose $204 USD on these arrangements, the actual loss was only $90, but as with the plane tickets, this money could be recovered if the trip is rescheduled.
How can you see these terms prior to booking? On the Sabores site, they are mentioned in the FAQ section: "Once purchased, tickets cannot be refunded or rescheduled because your space is being guaranteed for that tour." At Viator, the "Help Center" features their refund policy.
Because the aforementioned expenses were not substantial enough to seriously impact my financial welfare, I chose not to get trip cancellation insurance. That obviously proved to be a mistake.
But I did book medical insurance for the time in Mexico. Most medical and dental plans do not provide coverage in another country. So treatment for a sprained ankle, broken arm, or intestinal disorder could become quite expensive without coverage. Some countries even require proof of medical insurance as part of your clearance to cross their borders.
The coverage selected was for seven days at a cost of $69 for two people. It had already been purchased by credit card.
The company, Travel Guard, refunded all but $3 of that charge within three days of cancellation. The $3 was kept as a processing fee.
Where can you find these terms? In most cases, you'll have to search the fine print of your policy.
A Lesson in the Value of Insurance
The total losses as a result of the trip cancellation stand at $725. That's not a huge sum, and as indicated, some of that money could be recovered if the trip to Mexico City is re-booked on United.
Travel insurance has its greatest benefit for people who book expensive tours or long-distance airfares. For many budget travelers, losing a large sum of money means no trip. It might be years before they can accumulate enough savings to book again.
The $725 in losses does not qualify for such a description.
Consider this: when the medical coverage for this trip was booked, that $725 in losses could have been fully recovered if I had spent $153 instead of $69. The additional $84 would have booked coverage for all the expenses of the trip, including "forfeited, non-refundable, unused payments or deposits up to the maximum limit shown on the Schedule of Benefits for trips that are canceled prior to the scheduled departure date."
I was willing to risk less than $1,000 in losses because I had booked a pair of tours that proved fully refundable, and I secured low airfares. The hotel reservation was guaranteed with a credit card, but could be canceled until three days before the trip.
The point is to either fully insure (medical and trip cancellation insurance) or book products that are at least partially refundable. Be certain you understand your choices before you click the buy button.