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.

Detained in East Berlin

I began to write this some months ago, but sometimes things are just difficult to revisit. Not much more than the title and the link to my trip theme song sat in my drafts folder in all that time. Spring cleaning season, I have to either finish this or delete it. I went back and reread emails I had sent to friends during this time to help recall all the details in my attempt to write this. It is still a struggle. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” (William Shakespeare, Henry V

Theme Song for a Travel Adventure

Often things do not go as planned while on travel. When the unexpected happens it can lead to unique and memorable travel experiences. Often though, the most interesting travel stories are the hardest to experience. The reward for surviving a bad travel derailment is a good story to tell; a story of unexpected circumstances, obstacles to overcome, and the heroes and villains who helped or hindered the journey.

Pharmacies in European countries tend to be knowledgable and helpful, they are usually staffed with pharmacists who have enough English fluency to understand the issue and make the appropriate suggestions. They certainly can address the usual travelers’ problems of digestive disruptions,  jet lag induced cold viruses, foot blisters, and even the occasional welts from insect bites. My international medical care has been that little cross sign, sometimes green, sometimes blue, sometimes red, but whatever the color, that sign lights the way to relief. Until this trip.

We had arrived in Berlin on a very early Saturday morning and checked into our apartment. The apartment was centrally located by the U-bahn and tram lines, which was great for getting about but not so good for the sleeping through the night-long commotion. Sirens went off all hours of the night, trams rumbled by, and even 6 floors up we heard crowds of jubilant people going by on the weekends. By Monday evening I had a sore throat that progressively got worse day-by-day but had no other symptoms: no fever, no fatigue, no stuffiness, just a sore throat. Other than visiting the pharmacy for progressively stronger throat lozenges, I pretty much just carried on. Thursday night I developed conjunctivitis and on Friday night, as I was walking home from dinner, suddenly–and without warning–my ear felt stopped up and painful. In the night amidst snap, crackle, and pop fluid began to drain out. A ruptured eardrum without even having a cold? I had heard of precision crafted German driving machines, but this powerful German crafted virus was a first.

My second Saturday was a tour of clinics with my daughter, and thank goodness for her. I would have been completely lost without her translating skills in both the language and the culture. We went to a clinic that she knew would be open on Saturday, and they were, but they would not see me because they did not have the specialists to treat my symptoms. They sent us to a hospital on the other side of Berlin which, with transfers, would be an estimated 40 minute tram ride. I had withdrawn 300 Euro for medical expenses, so with all that Euro in my pocket we decided to splurge on a taxi rather than negotiate trams.

When we arrived at the hospital clinic, not easily found on a huge campus, we waited our turn to check in with the receptionist. After only a few minutes wait, I was relieved to find she spoke some English. Between my daughters German skills and the receptionist’s English, we were able to communicate. They would see me for a prepayment of 300 Euro. I did not have 300 Euro, I had 300 Euro minus taxi fare. When she gave me the option of 100 Euro on a credit card, offering that option as if it were a bad thing as compared to paying cash, I whipped out my Visa, failing to show any reluctance to use a card over cash. With a 100 Euro prepay on a credit card, a scan of my passport, a scan of my insurance card, and my daughters local address for any additional billing, a flurry of papers were printed, stamped, and inserted into a folder. We had our ticket for admission.

We were told to go to another area and hand the folder to a nurse. The clinic area was a confusing sea of people but we quickly realized that nurses were identifiable by their blue uniforms. None of the nurses spoke any English. My daughter cornered one, handed him the folder, and they spoke at length while I stared uncomprehendingly. When they finished, my daughter guided me to the waiting area and told me to get comfortable. As the other clinic had said, I would need to see different doctors for my eyes and ears, neither of which were at the clinic but were on their way.  There were about 10 people ahead of us and they estimated a 3 hour wait. With that much time stretching before us, my daughter left the mobile phone restricted area to make a call. Fortunately, it was not as long of a wait as three hours, and even more fortunately my daughter returned moments before they called my name. Even if I had recognized my name as pronounced in German, which I did not, I would have found all subsequent directions incomprehensible.

We saw the eye doctor first, a very kind young woman with very good English. She gave me a complete eye exam including vision and pressure exams. She pronounced a virus but gave me a prescription for antibiotic drops, drops to reduce the irritation, and orders to go out and enjoy Berlin as I felt up to it. Then it was back to the waiting room for doctor number two.

Doctor number two. She had her back to us as we entered, turned around suddenly and in a clipped voice said, “I am Doctor so-und-so, what is your problem?” A little intimidated, I meekly gave her my rundown of woes while she roughly poked and prodded with no warning as to what she was going to do. She jammed a metal tongue depressor into my mouth so far back and so suddenly that I gagged. And can I tell you how high I jumped when she unexpectedly stuck some sort of vacuum contraption in my ear and turned it on without warning on my inflamed eardrum? Then I mentioned I was flying home on Monday. Without hesitation, she proclaimed “No! No flying. You do not fly for two weeks.” My daughter and I had a look of horror on our faces. Two weeks. It did not seem likely we would have a pleasant doctor-patient discussion, but nevertheless we did try. She would not rescind her no fly order but eventually did say 1 week if I get clearance from an ENT. She wrote out scripts for Amoxicillin, a high dosage ibuprofen, and nose spray along with the diagnosis and a no-fly order for the airline.

In Germany, pharmacies close at 2:00 pm (or 14:00 as they say in Europe) on Saturday and do not reopen until Monday. At this point, it was about 2:30 and I had a fist full of prescriptions from the two doctors. The hospital staff knew of one “after hours” pharmacy at the Hauptbanhoff, the main train station, on the other side of town. Once again we dipped into the stash of Euro and ordered a cab. At the train station I got my fistful of prescriptions filled and, along with some probiotics, a hot water bottle for comfort, and silicone earplugs to keep water out of my ear in the shower, the total came to 106 euro for the 5 prescriptions and extras, payable on a credit card. It gave me hope that the final clinic charges would be as reasonable as the pharmacy’s.

We finally collapsed in a Vietnamese restaurant about 4:00 (16:00) to have a comforting noodle soup for lunch. Only then did we attempt to track down the spouse and deliver the news that I could not fly home on Monday. He had been at a Greek restaurant that afternoon where they had dropped a glass full of ouzo in front of him and had refilled it at every opportunity. We were grateful for those generous pours of ouzo for when he came to join us he took the news quite well. As my return was so uncertain, we decided that he would fly home on Monday as scheduled and I would follow as soon as I able.

I had no worries about the return, I had purchased insurance. But nothing is ever that easy. Even with a no-fly note from the doctor, Air Berlin would not change my return. I could cancel and apply to the insurance for the balance of the unused portion of the ticket, but a return would involve booking a brand new reservation at current (last-minute) costs. If I had to change again, which was a distinct possibility, it would be rinse and repeat. All this was related to me by an unsympathetic and officious Air Berlin Agent. Fortunately, I had miles on United and was able to bypass Air Berlin and book a return on Lufthansa 10 days after my originally scheduled flight, splitting the difference between 1-2 weeks. Just to be sure, I purchased travel insurance in case that ten days out Tuesday was too soon.

The apartment owner was very kind;  I could stay in the apartment until the following Thursday morning, but another group was arriving so I had to find another place to stay. At my landlord’s suggestion I checked  Home Away and my daughter checked Air B&B, eventually we found another place to stay on nearby Schönhauser Allee. My daughter and her German (and German-speaking) boyfriend talked to various doctors offices and found an ENT who would agree to see me in spite of not having German health insurance. Once again, her having a local address (and fluency) saved my bacon. For the most part, everything had fallen into place.

imageMonday morning early the spouse boarded a cab for the airport, shutting the door on his vacation and leaving me behind in an empty apartment. Meanwhile, my daughter had put off all her appointments and responsibilities the prior week for her parents’ visit. She had no time during my additional days and, other than a couple of late afternoon outings, we saw each other every evening for dinner, and sometimes even that was rushed. I am fine spending time on my own, and even traveling on my own. However, I was completely deaf in my left ear and it was very disorienting trying to interpret sound.  I was fine in a quiet environment but when I went out amidst the traffic and city noise my brain had trouble processing the sounds, it was all a dizzying auditory confusion. Not that I could understand German any better with two ears, but the city noise itself was an incomprehensible jumble. Other than the times I went out with my daughter I spent quiet time indoors, reading, knitting, and resting. I always pack enough yarn and projects to outlast a zombie apocalypse, but this time I did so much knitting that even I had to buy more yarn.

Although I had packed for the forecasted mild weather, I had thrown in a wool jacket and a couple of light shawls as an afterthought. By now the weather had turned from temperate autumn to pre-winter chill. I had to buy hat and gloves but otherwise managed in spite of packing for warmer temperatures. The first apartment had a washing machine and I could wash my just-a-short-trip supply of clothes, giving me more use out of what I had brought. My resources were a very tiny washing  machine and a drying rack; it took a few days to get through my suitcase of warmer weather clothes but in addition to getting something unseasonable but clean to wear it gave me something productive to do while serving my sentence of solitary confinement.

My most difficult day was Thursday when I had to change lodgings.

On Thursday I had to check out of the first apartment, cross town to see the ENT Doctor, and check in to the next apartment with nothing timed to do any of that smoothly. My landlord kindly offered to hold my luggage and to let me stay until it was time for my daughter to pick me up for the doctor, well past the usual check out time. The new place could not let me in until late afternoon, although my daughter arranged to meet the agent earlier to pick up the keys and drop my luggage, I would be homeless from the moment I checked out until late afternoon.

The staff at the doctor’s office spoke only German but the ENT spoke English fluently. She was very nice when she delivered more bad news. I could not be released to fly for several weeks unless I got an eryngotomy–a procedure to open the eardrum and release the pressure–and flew within 72 hours of the procedure. She could schedule it at the earliest the following Tuesday. Tuesday, the day I was scheduled to check out of my second apartment and fly home. Once again, I would have to change return reservations and find a place to stay.

We had lunch, returned to apartment number one, picked up the luggage, went to apartment number two, dropped off the luggage, went to a cafe around the corner from the new apartment, and I bid my daughter goodbye as she rushed off to another appointment. Deposited at a table by the window with a cup of ginger tea, I was left onimage my own. With more than two hours before I could get into the apartment, I sat a solitary figure as rain fell from gray skies, hearing little and unable to understand what little I did, drinking the cup of tea slowly to fill the time. I had no internet access in the cafe and, although would be anxious until it was sorted out, had no means to undo and redo my travel arrangements. It was a very sad and lonely moment, a moment in which I could have let the wave of self-pity wash over me and carry me away. About an hour in, I gathered myself–stepping out of the wave of self pity that had by now had reached past my ankles–and found a local grocery store to buy supplies for my lunches, breakfasts, and tea times. Comforted by doing this small action, I walked slowly towards the apartment in hopes that I could settle into my new place when I arrived. The key turned in the lock, the apartment was silent, cold, and empty but ready for occupancy. The Internet was working and my devices connected as I walked through the door.

When we had dropped the luggage and picked up the keys, on the pretense of making sure I could connect with the Internet, I had connected and quickly sent an email to the manager asking if I could add an extra day’s stay. We could not stay to get an answer but a positive response awaited me when I returned and opened my email. Accommodations were now taken care of but flight reservations were not quite so painless.

Now less than a week away, the number of miles needed for flying on Wednesday had skyrocketed. Phone calls on my international plan are very expensive, so I rang the stateside spouse on FaceTime and asked him call United to see if there were any other options. His response? “I can’t do it right now, I have an appointment for a massage.” Such are the perils of remote communication, he, keys in hand, ready to head out the door, mind on his mission, and caught unexpectedly by a ringing phone; unaware of my internet-less gray-skied ginger tea afternoon with the many hours of disruption, uncertainty, and isolation all the while unable to take action and fighting back self pity. Although not at the forefront of my thoughts and feelings, a low hum in the back of my mind looped the fear of the upcoming and intrusive medical procedure. He, in his on-the-way-to-somewhere state of mind, did not know anything of my day.  Still, hearing, “I am late for a meeting” would have been a less bitter pill to swallow than something about a massage in the midst of that difficult day. Speechless, I disconnected while I still had a small fragment of stretched nerve intact to stave off a meltdown.

Inhale. Exhale. Think.

To solve the phone problem, I put funds into my Skype account so I could call a landline number. I crossed my fingers, took a deep breath, and called United. It worked. In that cold, rainy, nightmarish, all alone moment, I reached the kindest and most helpful person at United reservations. There is nothing quite like finding kindness when all you expect is indifference, especially at a moment when it is as welcome as it is needed. I watched the minutes tick by–all the while hoping my Skype would not run out of funds and disconnect me–but she stayed with me through exploring options, connecting with the frequent flyer desk to cancel the Tuesday reservation and redeposit the miles, and finally withdrawing the miles and funds needed for booking the new flights. Another $25 fee and more miles, but she booked me on a Business Class flight through Munich on Lufthansa for the following Wednesday, a flight that left Berlin at a reasonable hour and reached Chicago early evening. Someone had an appointment for a message, and I had a reservation for business class.

After spending most of the day without having internet to update my reservations, only to be told to wait still more hours when asking for help, I had finally resolved the final piece of the puzzle with the help of an unlikely stranger. Relieved, I brewed a cup of tea and selfishly ate a good portion of the cookies from Vienna that my daughter’s boyfriend had brought back for us to share, enjoying every bite. Thoroughly relaxed by now, I emailed the reservation details to my family. The spouse initially responded with a couldn’t-you-get-something-that-arrives-earlier-in-the-day response but he rose in my estimation by following up with a suggestion that we book a hotel by the airport. After my arrival we could have dinner, rest up, and make the long drive back home in the morning. He also came through by booking a local ENT follow up appointment for me on Thursday afternoon. Thankfully, I had not eaten all the cookies and he was duly rewarded with their crunchy goodness and my appreciation.

Although most of my remaining days in Berlin were spent on my own, and mostly in the apartment, my daughter and I did get some “bonus time” together. I did what I could to not be an imposition while she fretted and felt badly about leaving me, but she had so much to catch up with and I was completely sympathetic. In truth, the quiet time to rest and recuperate was probably for the best. But when we could get together it was very nice. It is so rare that it is just the two of us. Our outings together were special moments that I will remember fondly, the happy outcome in spite of all the rest.

My daughter picked me up and went with me when I got the procedure on Tuesday. She had a calm, stoic demeanor but the grip she had on my hand betrayed her fear for me when the doctor began the procedure. It sounded awful to get my eardrum opened but really the worst of it was the injections of Novocain into the ear. Not only did I get a feeling of relief but I also regained some hearing. It was not so very bad. Still, to have it over and done with, and to be able to hear again, was a great relief. The long journey home was ahead of me–and it would not be easy–but I was released and free to go. The doctor told me to keep the ear open by periodically plugging my mouth and nose and blowing, which created the oddest feeling and the weirdest noise imaginable, something like a kazoo I was told. The noise must have bewildered fellow passengers, but I followed orders and subjected them to it.

Thankfully the journey home was uneventful. My daughter stayed at my apartment the final night and came with me to the airport to get checked in. I was so nervous about the flights, and it was uncomfortable but I made it through. A doctor friend recommended chewing GoldFish crackers for take-offs and landings; swallowing while eating opens up the ears better than chewing gum apparently. I found some tiny bio German crackers to substitute for the GoldFish and faithfully nibbled them for all ups and downs. Playing my built-in kazoo helped when the pressure became too much.

Staying at a local hotel was a great idea. I was so stressed about take-offs and landings that I had barely enough energy to collect my bags and negotiate customs, it was time to put an end to the day. By the time we checked in nothing sounded better than a shower and a warm bed and the spouse did not have to turn around and drive another 2-1/2 hours after having driven up to the airport; it was a good plan and worth every penny.

With a good night’s sleep behind me, a follow-up with an ENT in front of me, we at last loaded the car with out of season clothes and headed for home, back to Wenig Haus auf der Prärie, the Little House on the Prairie.