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Fare refunds flow as people turn skittish about Mideast travel

Special to The Times

WHEN hostilities broke out between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group, my weekly radio show was besieged by calls from listeners who were scheduled to depart on vacations to the Middle East. (You can listen live or hear a podcast at www.wor710.com.)

I had few words of comfort for them; the average trip-cancellation insurance policy excludes “war” or “acts of war” from insurance protection. Consequently, insurance companies have declined to cover cancellations of trips to the Middle East, claiming that what has happened is akin to a war. Curiously, most of them do cover cancellations for “terrorist acts,” which all of them think have not occurred in the present crisis.

The airlines -- and some specialist tour operators to the Middle East -- have taken a far more benevolent stand. I’ve spoken with El Al, British Airways, American, Delta and Lufthansa, and all are allowing passengers to postpone, cancel or change their tickets to Israel and Lebanon without penalty. El Al added nonstop, round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv in July, but it has no plans to discontinue the flights, which are scheduled three times a week. “They’re doing quite well,” said airline representative Sheryl Stein.

I’ve also spoken with several of the major tour operators specializing in the Middle East: All are issuing refunds to worried passengers, no questions asked. Isram (the largest U.S. tour operator to Israel) and General Tours are also allowing passengers to apply the money they paid for an Israeli vacation to one in another part of the world (Italy, perhaps, or Chile, Brazil or France).

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A third option offered to many tour passengers is to put off their trip for now, with the right to rebook during the next 18 months without penalty (or losing the deposits earlier paid).

Several other smaller or less specialized tour operators have been less forthcoming. If there’s a lesson here, it’s the advisability of using a specialized tour operator for travel to potentially unstable parts of the world. Those specialists rely on repeat business to their customary destinations, and they don’t force their clients into harm’s way. I’ve been impressed by their generous attitude toward passengers in the Israel/Lebanon crisis.

Meanwhile, are tourists still visiting other parts of the Middle East?

Surprisingly, they are. Even trips to Syria have remained uncanceled, for the most part. And according to staff members at Isram, only about a third of its customers have canceled trips scheduled for the upcoming months to Israel, though many changed their itineraries to avoid visits to that nation’s northernmost cities. It’s interesting how much more sophisticated Americans are becoming about traveling to areas affected by violence.

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After the Madrid and London bombings, there was no significant drop-off in travel to those cities although thousands canceled travel to the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War of 1991 (even to parts of the Mediterranean, nowhere near the conflict) and after Sept. 11. People today seem far more savvy about distinguishing where the actual problems are and taking calculated risks.


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