Detained in East Berlin Aftermath: Travel Insurance Limbo

I made it home safely from my travel and travails, described in great gory detail in Detained in East Berlin, but my journey was far from over.

I was ever so careful to purchase travel insurance for all my flights, but all I bought was a false sense of security. The school of hard knocks taught me many things I did not know about travel insurance, things I would never have known had I not tried to use it.

When I learned that I would be unable to return on my originally scheduled flight and found that I would not be able to change–but could only cancel–my reservation on Air Berlin, I realized my only recourse was to make a claim against the travel insurance. Even with a doctor’s note indicating that I would not be able to fly for medical reasons, I would have to make a new booking at the current and much more expensive last-minute fare. I was told all this by an Air Berlin agent in an indifferent too-bad-for-your tone. Their callous attitude, and inflexibility if I needed to change again, turned me away from relying on Air Berlin for a way home.

Allianz Travel Insurance Purchased through United Airlines

As things seemed uncertain, I opted to use miles on United to book my return; award travel can be easier to change. I made a reservation in exchange for some miles and odds and ends fees. On the booking page there was an option for travel insurance that, given my circumstances, seemed like a good idea. Not surprisingly, I did have to change the reservation and incurred more fees and had to use even more miles. When I returned home, I submitted the claim with a doctors note indicating why I needed to change my reservation along with supporting documents showing all my subsequent expenses. I will give Allianz credit on one point, they did send me a letter promptly within weeks after my claims submission. Unfortunately, the claim was denied for what they claimed was a pre-existing medical condition defined as “seeing or receiving treatment for or had symptoms of…” within 120 days. What you read on the United booking page does not make clear the massive restrictions on these policies. After subsequently reading their 20 pages of fine print, I really had to squint and search to find that exclusion. Yes, I should have read it throughly before purchasing, but I still felt the travel insurance option is misleading as seen on the booking page. It still is not clear to me if the 120 days is from the time of booking or the time of travel, probably both. I have also found out that, even if my claim had been honored, that award miles have no monetary value and I would not have received any compensation for the loss of miles.

Yes, I felt foolish for not having read their terms–in the 20 pages of fine print–before clicking the purchase button, but given my circumstances and state of mind at the time, even if I had read it chances are I would have blown right past the exclusion without understanding the implications. Still, thinking I am a person with some amount of comprehension, I had to think that it is a bit deceptive to sell this product without at least a bulleted list of exclusions, an “about” pop-up with basic facts, or some sort of warning that coverage is denied to people who have medical histories, injuries, or illnesses over such a long span of time. With that in mind, I wrote a polite letter to United relating my concerns. I am happy to report that not only did they write a nice letter in response but they also deposited the miles I had lost as a result of the change into my account.

Sadly, airlines are so fee happy and, assuming they get a nice kickback from these travel policy purchases, they are not likely to change their selling tactics. Lesson learned: read the fine print or research and purchase travel insurance on a site that allows travelers to compare costs, restrictions, and exclusions.

Three weeks after I returned from Berlin, and before I had received the letter denying my claim, I had flights to France via Frankfurt insured with Allianz. They were flights of fancy, as I flew with the naive belief that I had coverage at that time. They too would have resulted in denied claims had my ear not healed sufficiently to fly. Fortunately, although I was still healing, I was medically cleared and able to fly. It would have been a rude surprise to get one claim denied on the heels of another.

7-Corners Travel Insurance Purchased through Air Berlin

When I first learned I could not return on my original Air Berlin booking, I immediately notified the travel insurance company, 7-Corners, that I would be unable to travel on the flight. Within hours I got an email response giving me a link to the claim submissions form and quoting the allowable time span in which I would need to submit it. Within a week of my return, I replied to the email with the completed the form and the scanned supporting documentation. A few weeks passed, no response. I resubmitted the claim, attaching the claim form and documentation, to a web portal link on their site. This time I got an email response stating the claim was being processed. I finally heard back several weeks later, a letter dated in late December saying my claim had been approved for a little over $500 and that a check would be sent separately. There was no explanation as to how they arrived at that amount but no worries, I assumed an accounting would be included with the check.

Nearly 3 weeks after I received the letter but no check, I called to inquire about the claim. After a span of time spent in choose-from-the-following-options-and-please-hold limbo, I spoke to a representative who told me that they did not do any tracing of checks until they have been missing for at least a month. Okay, fine. I waited to see if it would turn up but put a note on my calendar to call two weeks later if it did not. It did not.

A couple of weeks after my first call, I ticked away more time in the choose-from-the-following-options-and-please-hold limbo before reaching an agent who was very pleasant and seemingly helpful. She researched it and said a check would be mailed but, as it was Friday afternoon, the check would not go out until Monday. She even offered to call me on Monday to let me know the check had been sent. No call, no check.

A couple of weeks after my second call, I invested still more time in the in choose-from-the-following-options-and-please-hold limbo. This time I reached a representative who listened to my story and put me back into the hold limbo as she transferred me to someone else. Once again I related my story, and once again I was told that the hour was too late to do it that day but the check would go out the next.

A couple of weeks after my third call, I wrote a letter relating my story and the dates of my phone calls. No response.

Three weeks after my third call and one week after my letter I filed a complaint with my state insurance board. Another lesson learned, travel insurance is not regulated by the state insurance board. They wrote a nice letter and recommended I file a complaint with the state attorney’s office.

Well, I thought, time for a new tact. I searched the Air Berlin site for contact information to file a complaint with them, given that I had purchased the policy on the Air Berlin site. All I could find was a portal to submit a complaint with a drop down selection box to target it to one of the various subgroups of their operation. None of the options was a good fit, but I selected the one that seemed to be the most promising. My immediate response was an its-not-my-problem-not-my-job message. I responded that I had purchased this policy from them and, if it is a bogus policy, they were the ones who sold it and collected the money from me for this questionable product. He bumped me to his supervisor who initially had a similar not-my-problem-not-my-job response. Again I used my “but you are the agent” argument, and I received a response that was a bit nicer but he said that they were not the correct group to handle this complaint. He included a link to file my complaint. The link was to the original portal where I had filed the original complaint. I wrote back to him saying as much and asked for the proper selection to make on the drop down list of subgroups. I also indicated I was willing to write a letter if he could provide a physical address. No response.

Around this time, someone recommended reaching out to a consumer travel advocate who has appeared in several major newspapers, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune to name but two. Christopher Elliot not only writes articles but he also has a site Elliott.org with articles, forums, contact information for executives at companies, and a portal for submitting travel complaints. I went to their complaint submission page, and within a day an advocate had contacted 7-Corners on my behalf. She recommended that I follow up with the Better Business Bureau if I did not hear anything within the week.  She also checked in on the progress of my complaint over the next couple of weeks. They do not take on and advocate for every complaint, but for anyone who has a valid grievance, I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Having found the Elliott.org tab that listed business contact information for executives, I found an email address for an Air Berlin executive in Germany. I wrote him an email explaining my frustration with the product that Air Berlin had sold, attaching all my email correspondence from the earlier Air Berlin complaint. No response, but perhaps a coincidence.

A couple weeks after my letter and a few days after my email to Air Berlin and the contact made on my behalf by the advocate at Elliott, a received a voicemail message from an ombudsperson at 7-Corners. I dialed the number and amazingly reached her directly, being spared the usual choose-from-the-following-options-and-please-hold black hole. I politely recited all the various calls, letters, and complaints filed. She said that just that day my letter to 7-Corners had reached her desk and that she had begun investigating it. And, just that day–such a strange coincidence–she had discovered that the check had been mailed that very morning.

Well, dear readers, I leave it to you to decide. Was it the consumer advocate’s contact, the Air Berlin executive following up with them behind the scenes, or my calls and letters? I held on to the precious direct number, the get out of jail free card from choose-from-the-following-options-and-please-hold dungeon. Happily, I did not need to use it. The check arrived, no explanation of benefits awarded in my claim, but a check that was deposited into and accepted by my bank. Perhaps, given the time, the frustration, the annoyance, and the effort, the amount received was not worth the time I put into it. But then again, as a matter of principal; it was a fight worth fighting.

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Travel Insurance, Is it Worth It?

From reading forums on the Elliott website, there are brokers and websites for comparing policies. There are also many tales of denied claims, so knowing what you are buying is so very important. Death, injury, illness, family emergencies, and life happens;  it is up to the airline, cruise line, car rental company, resort, or other travel entity to show kindness or not. Reservations that are non-refundable, non-changeable are made and paid for at your own risk. Pay ahead of time, pay less than you would for a changeable reservation, and gamble that life events do not intervene. Sometimes a travel company will be understanding, sometimes they will not. I suppose my lesson learned in this is twofold, 1) insure only if the financial risk is way more money than I can afford to lose and 2) know what I am buying.

If I do purchase trip insurance again, you can be certain it will not be from clicking a purchase button on an airline reservation page.

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