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Two travelers planned a three-day layover in Istanbul but soured on the idea. What can they do?

Sofia Bulgaria
An acrobat walks on a tightrope in downtown Sofia, Bulgaria
(Dimitar Dilkoff /AFP/Getty Images)

In the spring, Irene Kennedy of Laguna Niguel bought two round-trip tickets on Turkish Airlines from Los Angeles International Airport to Sofia, Bulgaria. She and her daughter, who is traveling with her, wanted to spend more time in Istanbul, so they arranged a three-day layover. Now they’re less than keen on that idea. Do they have any recourse?

Yes. But is there recourse that won’t cost money? For Kennedy, maybe not.

Sometimes we think we must use the tickets we have even if they are, like Kennedy’s, nonrefundable (like most airline tickets) and unchangeable (unlike most airline tickets, which you can change but at a cost).

You don’t have to use the ticket. In fact, you don’t have to go. You just won’t get your money back, in all likelihood.

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If you want to travel but are handcuffed by the rules governing your tickets, your first move is to ask the airline if there’s any way to get a do-over even on a no-no (no refunds, no changes) ticket. If you get a “no way,” thank the agent, hang up and call back again. And again. You never know when you might get someone who thinks outside a scripted box.

The other option is to eat the ticket, which is what Kennedy was considering. It’s an expensive, bitter meal, but it’s a lot easier to swallow than that lump of fear in your throat.

Recent events suggest that the world is an increasingly unpredictable and, sometimes, dangerous place. Istanbul, Turkey. Orlando, Fla. Paris. Nice, France. Munich, Germany. Sagamihara, Japan. Cold chills from that list give way to a cold reality if you are headed to one of those places and your enthusiasm has waned.

It is hard to protect yourself from the unexpected. It is not hard to protect your investment from the unfathomable, especially with at least one new option.

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Yes, I’m talking about travel insurance. Before you exclaim, “That woman is a shill for the travel insurance industry,” let me assure you I am not.

I am, however, an advocate for the leisure traveler, and I read too many letters from people who lost their investment when they didn’t have to.

In talking again with representatives for InsureMyTrip.com and Squaremouth.com, sites that allow you to compare travel insurance policies (there are others, too — Google to see them), I have slightly different advice and information for those who still want to roam the world — but with a backup plan in their back pocket:

— I used to say, “Read the policy.” Now I say, “Call and talk to a live human being.”

No one wants to spend time reading a 50-page policy that may be filled with the indecipherable.

“The best thing is to call a site like InsureMyTrip and ask a professional and let someone guide you,” said Lynne Peters, director of product for InsureMyTrip. “For people who aren’t in insurance, it [each policy] looks the same and [it is] not.

“We can … let people know which policy is best for what their needs and concerns are.”

Whether you’re calling InsureMyTrip [(800) 487-4722] or Squaremouth [(800) 240-0369], the person at the other end is trained to pick up on your needs, whether it’s a concern about an elderly parent back home, a worry about what you would do if your bags don’t turn up or a fear about an injury or illness of your own.

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“You learn very quickly to read between the lines” of what the customer says, said Rachael Taft, a representative for Squaremouth who answers phones at least two days a week. That enables the listener to answer questions you may not have thought to ask.

You may learn, for instance, that if your child suffers a sports injury before your trip departure and you need to cancel, the policy may exclude coverage for certain sporting activities. Some you might expect (skydiving, in some cases) and others are as common as everyday group sports.

— Ask about nonmedical evacuation, which is increasingly being offered, Peters said. For many of us, medical evacuation in case of illness or injury is a must (and, by the way, a friend who was just hospitalized in Italy reminded me that there may be conditions that qualify or disqualify you from evacuation, so ask about that too).

Nonmedical evacuation can mean a “terrorist incident or you’re in an unsafe environment in which something happens, maybe political unrest — something where your safety is in question,” Peters said. “You can be evacuated as you would be for a medical issue.”

Ask what the threshold is for getting out and getting home, courtesy of your insurance purchase.

— Before you call any insurance comparison site, make a list of what you want covered and jot down all your questions. Ask other people what questions they would ask. And then take notes.

InsureMyTrip deals with 28 companies and Squaremouth with 21, and each has various policies. It’s a lot of information, and you’ll want to review it before you make a final decision.

— But don’t delay. You can’t, for instance, purchase trip insurance the day before your trip if you learn that a hurricane is menacing your destination. And there are other time constraints too. Ask the deadline for your policy purchase. 

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— Nervous about your destination? Tough. At least, that’s what insurance companies will tell you. Being afraid isn’t a “covered” reason. Unless the State Department or other government agency steps in and says your destination is unsafe and you should stay away, your investment probably won’t be covered if you decide to cancel.

The insurance alternative is a cancel-for-any-reason policy, which is more expensive but more flexible. It is what it says it is, even if your reason for opting out is a bad hair day or the imminent death of a pet. You won’t recover as much of your investment, generally speaking, but you won’t lose all your hard-earned bucks.

— If you have gone to the trouble of buying insurance, keep the telephone number handy during your trip. Here’s hoping you’ll never need to use it, but if you do, you’ll be glad you didn’t rely on jumping back into your email and finding the insurance purchase confirmation in your saved documents. Not that you would follow my own worst practices.

And because you aren’t following my worst practices, you have kept copies of all your travel documents in one place (a folder, a thumb drive), along with your notes on dates, times and persons you spoke with and a copy of your policy. You’ll need some or all of this if you have to file a claim when you get home. (A flash drive with this info, along with copies of your passport and other important documents, is a good travel accessory. Encrypt it or keep it locked up. And it reduces paper waste — at least, until you have to file the refund request.)

Having insurance is much more palatable than having to eat a trip. It may not be the complete financial feast, but at least the financial cupboard isn’t bare.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.


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