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Nonrefundable? It sometimes pays to fight company policy

Nonrefundable? It sometimes pays to fight company policy
When you must cancel a trip, it is possible to get back your money. Just be persistent and follow up meticulously.
Laurie Berger
November 6, 2005
Originally posted on: http://www.latimes.com/services/site/premium/access-registered.intercept

Question: One month before departure on our 23rd Princess cruise, my husband was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and rushed to the hospital for the first of three monthlong chemotherapy treatments.


We didn't buy travel insurance because of a preexisting condition. Having worked in the insurance business for 40 years, he knew that any travel claims would be rejected.


So we gambled and lost, to the tune of almost $15,000 for the entire trip.


Angela Behrens


Manhattan Beach


Answer: Our reader's story has a happy ending. Behrens recovered nearly $8,000 more than half of her nonrefundable payments from five travel companies.


Many travelers don't have the time, energy or know-how to get such results. But Behrens, a former Pan Am employee, knew that rules could be bent under the right circumstances. Persistence helped.


From her husband's hospital bedside, she waged a two-month letter-writing and phone campaign. "I made it my mission," she said. "It was basically a full-time administrative job."


Legally, the deck was stacked against Behrens. Without travel insurance or cancellation "protection," the companies she booked with Princess, American Airlines, British Airways, Expedia and the Cruise Web, a cruise agency were not obligated to refund her money.


But she didn't give up. "When someone said no, I didn't just crumble and walk away," she said. "You have to be tenacious."


Her efforts were rewarded. American, Expedia and the cruise agency credited her charge card immediately for all prepayments and fees. Expedia gave her an extra $100 credit for future travel. British Airways' refund came as future credits.


"If passengers make a rational request followed by a doctor's letter, we'll probably take care of it," American spokesman Tim Wagner said, echoing the responses of all the companies.


Only Princess wouldn't budge on its no-refund policy, despite the Behrenses' membership in its frequent-cruisers club.


"We do not provide refunds to passengers who have not purchased insurance, as this would be unfair to passengers who have purchased it," the cruise line said in a written statement, noting that its cancellation "protection" would have allowed the couple to back out for any reason, even a preexisting condition, and get 90% of their money back in cruise credits.


Most travelers would have stopped there. But Behrens was determined. "As loyal Princess customers, we felt betrayed," she said. "I told the cruise line I'd stop at nothing."


She contacted the media, telling her story on two radio shows. As a last-ditch effort, she called the executive assistant to Princess Chief Executive Alan Buckelew.


"I pleaded with her to get my letter in front of him," she said. "I told her that I was prepared to collect money on a street corner until I had enough to take out a full-page ad telling my story and I would have done it."


Shortly thereafter, Princess granted Behrens a cash and credit refund of nearly $6,000, about half the cost of the cruise, a rare exception to its policy.


A side note: Had the ship sailed at 100% occupancy and Princess not come through with a refund, Behrens might have had a good court case.


"The cruise line can't make double money off a customer," said Al Anolik, a San Francisco-based travel attorney and author of "The Frequent Traveler Guide." "They can only collect if they show a loss."


But suing a cruise line is costly and difficult, and most consumers are better off trying to resolve disputes as Behrens did with good old-fashioned tenacity.


How can you win the customer service game?


Don't back down. The squeaky wheel gets results. But be prepared to invest time and even money to see it through.


Call and write. Follow up phone calls with letters. For medical problems, send a doctor's note. "We have exceptions to policy but don't publicize them because people take advantage," said American's Wagner.


Escalate. If you don't get satisfaction, call back and ask to speak with a supervisor. Keep going up the chain of command until you reach someone who's empowered to make a decision.


Leverage elite status. Although many companies won't openly admit it, loyalty does count in getting problems solved. But sometimes you have to put it in their face, as Behrens did.


Book with financially sound companies. They're more apt to provide concessions in times of trouble. What's more, "if a company is bankrupt, you have to get permission from the court to sue them," Anolik said.


Know your risk. Beware of preexisting-condition promises from travel insurers. Request a copy of the actual policy and read the fine print.