June 14, 2010

Egypt: Anatomy of a cancellation

Well, the Egypt trip is off. While my ankle sprain and foot fractures might heal enough to allow slight weight-bearing by the time of our intended departure, the trip is long and rugged, and I doubt I could fully participate. Arduous walking, self-portering of packs, sleeping on trains, boats, lean-tos and mud huts just don't seem doable to me right now.

I made the decision to cancel when I visualized the climb of 7,000-foot Mount Sinai to see the sun set, then the descent in darkness. Even if the foot were up to it, I couldn't shake the image of me respraining the compromised ankle at about 5,000 feet above the Sinai desert. That would be mighty inconvenient, not only for me, but for Dana and the other 10 folks booked on this trip.

Egypt's been there for millenia; it'll be there when I'm fully healed.

Which puts me in the position of having to cancel the trip -- land and air portions for two travelers -- and recouping the thousands of dollars I've doled out.

I have three parties to deal with: Intrepid Travel, the company supplying the land tour; Egypt Air, via Orbitz, through which I purchased the air tickets; Nationwide, my travel insurance company. Here's how it's working out so far.

This will be a bit long: getting one's money back requires some time and planning, and to keep some of you from getting burned in the future, I'd like to share what I've learned and/or confirmed in the last few days about protecting yourself should you have to walk away (in my case, hobble away) from an expensive trip.

First, Intrepid Travel has been excellent to deal with. I've had multiple email communications with a few staffers at the Boulder, Colorado office in the past few months, and when it came to canceling, there was no hassle and no push-back. We had one day of electronic back-and-forth because of a miscommunication about whether I was canceling just my trip, or Dana's as well (yes to that), but the correct refund amount was processed swiftly thereafter.

The correct refund amount was 50% of what I'd paid Intrepid, as I canceled 31 days prior to departure. Had I canceled less than 30 days prior to departure, I would have received no refund from Intrepid. This is spelled out in the booking terms. When booking a tour, always read the fine print and make sure you understand the cancellation terms. The fact that anything can happen and that it can happen both more and less than 30 days before your dream vacation led me to buy a travel insurance policy that covers cancellation so I'd get back anything I didn't get back from Intrepid. More on that in a minute.

Next, the plane tickets. First, I always buy refundable tickets. They usually cost a bit more -- in this case the refundable roundtrip from New York to Cairo was about 30 bucks more per ticket than the non-refundable version -- but a non-refundable ticket seems to me like a sword of Damocles waiting to drop and slice through your bank account. Sure, many non-refundable tickets let you use the value of the ticket for another flight, usually within a year, but betting that both Dana and I (the tickets are almost always non-transferable) would be able to sync our schedules and go to Egypt within a defined 12-month period with the clock already ticking was a wager I wasn't willing to take.

Like tour company cancellation terms, always check the fare rules of your air tickets to see what's allowed and at what price should you need to change or cancel your ticket. For me, refundable is the only way to go, especially if the ticket is expensive and/or is for passage on an unusual carrier to an unusual destination and not easily reused should your plans change.

I bought the tickets through Orbitz, which allows online cancellation with a few clicks -- but not of refundable tickets. To cancel those you have to make a toll-free phone call. I chatted first with customer service rep Yvette. I had the fare rules screen for my tickets in front of me as we talked. She confirmed that my tickets were refundable, with just a $100.00 per ticket cancellation fee and said she'd send me an email confirming my refund.

The email quoted a refund amount that was short by $1600.00. The email was, of course, from a "do not reply" e-mailbox. Just the thought of dialing again and speaking to someone who would surely not be Yvette to re-explain myself and plow through the errors in Yvette's work exhausted me, so I turned to the "Live Chat" customer service option on the Orbitz website and found myself typing with Sophia.

It took a while -- I drank multiple cups of coffee, read the mail and folded the laundry while Sophia investigated my case -- but eventually Sophia typed me the happy news that I was right, Yvette was wrong, and the full price of the two tickets less the $100.00 cancellation fee per ticket would be refunded to my credit card. I asked for an email confirming the amount, which I received within five minutes. I'm happy with Orbitz. (But Yvette needs retraining, or a math skills refresher course.)

So, I have my 50% from Intrepid and everything except 200 bucks from Egypt Air.

To get the other 50% and the 200 bucks, I now have to turn to the trip cancellation coverage I bought from Nationwide, through the online agent, InsureMyTrip.com.

According to my policy details, as long as I provide medical documentation and a letter from my physician stating that it is medically "inadvisable" for me to take my trip, Nationwide should reimburse me the missing money, down to the penny.

I'm preparing my claim package, complete with x-rays and a "she can't go" letter on my orthodpedist's letterhead. I hope this goes smoothly, and I'll let you know, one way or the other.

Read cancellation terms; buy refundable tickets; get cancellation insurance.

Then, have a nice trip.