Dear Tripped Up,
I was set to take what for me was the “trip of a lifetime,” a $17,000 Antarctic cruise with Australia-based Aurora Expeditions. But when I tried to check in for my flight from Nashville to Santiago, Chile (via Miami), the check-in agent insisted that entering Chile required two forms I had never heard of, even though I had researched the requirements carefully. I missed my flight, and the cruise. When I complained, American Airlines quickly refunded the (nonrefundable) flight, but Aurora would not give me credit for a future cruise and my travel insurer, Trip Mate, denied my claim. I’d like American to acknowledge in writing that they made a mistake and use that to ask Aurora to reconsider and to file an appeal to Trip Mate. Can you help? Deborah, Franklin, Tenn.
I have good news for you: American will reimburse you for the total cost of your cruise.
I have bad news for everyone else: Getting you reimbursed for the airline’s obvious incompetence was such a maddening process, even for me, that I have very little hope for average consumers who suffer equally absurd wrongs in the future.
For starters, Trip Mate and Aurora could have been more understanding or even — though this is a stretch — humane. In an ideal world, American would have immediately recognized its error in writing, Trip Mate would have approved your claim for at least a portion of the cruise’s cost, and Aurora would have made up for another chunk with a sharp discount on a future cruise.
This is especially true given how responsible and persistent you were before, during and after your debacle.
You researched requirements for entering Chile on Sherpa, a free website that helps with travel documentation, determining correctly that a valid passport and a proof of Covid-19 vaccination were enough. When you were told differently at the airport, you pleaded your case, asked for (and were denied) an explanation in writing, returned to the airport later to seek such explanation, and wrote what you described to me as more than 25 emails to American, asking for a written statement to support your insurance claim and your request to Aurora for credit.
How could the original error have happened? My best guess is that the American agent confused the requirements to enter Chile as a whole to the much stricter documentation needed to visit the country’s isolated Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island). And then he stuck to his guns. So did American customer service: The responses they sent were unfailingly polite and entirely unhelpful. In one nonsensical email you forwarded, an American representative appeared to be plugging in random boilerplate language. “While I am glad that we were still able to accommodate you,” he wrote, “I realize that it was not the flight of your choice.”
Even so, you correctly filed a claim with Trip Mate. “The reason provided for your claim is not covered under the trip cancellation provisions,” they told you in a denial email. You also asked Aurora for credit, but they said you needed to cancel 90 days in advance, not one.
I would be remiss not to point out your one mistake: You booked a multi-leg, international flight that was to arrive the same day your very expensive trip was to begin, a risky plan. But just because someone walks perilously close to the edge of a cliff does not absolve the person (or airline) that pushes them over.
American began by refusing my request to interview someone on the record, or even to answer my list of questions in writing. After an extensive back and forth, I finally received a brief statement from the airline’s director of corporate communications, Jermaine Spight, saying it was “unfortunate” that you were unable to complete your journey and the company had already refunded the cost of the flight. “We are reviewing additional documents recently submitted,” he continued, “and hope to reach an amicable resolution soon.”
You then forwarded me communications with an American representative who pledged to be back in touch in 18 to 21 days. It sounded to me like American would offer you something that was neither an admission of guilt nor the full value of the cruise.
Then, to see how you might fare if you declined their offer and sued them instead, I dove into a the sprawl of legal documents on American’s site.
I knew from previous mind-numbing reading of airlines’ conditions of carriage that they go to great lengths to limit their liability to the value of the airfare, regardless of subsequent consequences. But, at least in American’s case, not great enough lengths.
Rule 25 of their 299-page General Rules of the International Tariff limits American’s liability when it refuses to board passengers for everything from traveling barefoot to having a diagnosed illness that may cause them to “become obnoxious aloft” and, of relevance to your case, when “travel documents are not in order.” But nowhere does it mention limited liability when they mistakenly refuse you boarding.
I pointed this out to American and drafted a column urging you to take American to small claims court in Tennessee (and offering to be your witness). But before we published, Mr. Spight wrote again with the good news.
Great. But this should not have been your (or my) battle to fight. This sort of situation is precisely why we have travel insurance.
I asked Trip Mate to explain why your claim had been denied. A spokesman, Patrick Jordan, said to me via email that your plan only covers specific events, called “hazards.”
“While we empathize and understand that the insured’s travel was negatively impacted,” he wrote, “the plan does not cover errors made in determining travel documentation.”
I begged to differ, noting that your policy covers trip delays caused by common carriers “including, but not limited to, scheduled departure and return times and actual departure and return times.” That “not limited to” implies to me that events like being involuntarily bumped from a flight or, say, being told mistakenly by a rookie agent in Nashville that you can’t board a flight to Chile, also qualify as potential “hazards.”
I told this to Trip Mate, and they seemed to blink, if just slightly. “With any claim that is submitted,” Mr. Jordan wrote back, “we look at the situation holistically to see where we can apply benefits within the limits of the specific policy.” The policy does limit reimbursement for “trip delays” to $3,000, though.
What about Aurora? They were “deeply sorry to hear” you were unable to make it, said Cameron Ward, an Aurora spokesman. “Unfortunately, a multitude of travel incidents happen all the time. It’s for this reason we require all of our guests purchase travel insurance that provides complete coverage for any number of issues that may arise.”
Fair enough, but I think Aurora was in a good position to be generous (and score some good P.R. points). Finding a way to get you on a future cruise with a nice discount — perhaps under the condition you take one that was not expected to fill up — would cost them a lot less than $17,000. When I offered such a suggestion, they declined to comment.
Which brings me to how I’m feeling about customer service in the travel industry as we enter 2023. After careful review of this newspaper’s policy on the use of curse words, I, too, decline to comment.
If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].
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