Question: A friend and I signed up for a Smithsonian Journeys’ European trip. Unfortunately, she fell and broke her wrist, which required extensive surgery, and the doctors told her not to travel. I invited my daughter to go with me and paid my friend for the cost of the trip, but now the Smithsonian and Odysseys Unlimited tell me that it is too late to change the reservations to my daughter’s name. Can anything be done?
Answer: What can be done has been done: Smithsonian Journeys made an exception and agreed to let Read’s daughter fill in for the injured friend after we raised the issue.
But the meat of the crisis is what should have been done, which has nothing to do with Smithsonian and more to do with us as travelers.
Smithsonian wasn’t obligated to make this exception. Its terms and conditions say this: “A participant’s withdrawal from the tour for any reason, including, but not limited to, illness, injury, family engagements, work related issues, or geopolitical concerns, etc., will be deemed a cancellation. Please understand that there will be no exceptions to our cancellation policy.” (Emphasis Smithsonian Journeys.)
A cancellation made within seven days of booking this trip would have netted a full refund. A cancellation, even caused by a medical problem 95 days or less before departure? No refund.
Its website repeats the no exceptions mandate.
This fine print is really not so fine: It looks to be about 13-point type, more than a third bigger than the body type of the Los Angeles Times.
Rule No. 1 of travel must be this: Read the terms and conditions. They are boring. They are frightening. But you must read and understand them, whether they are for an airline (and this is particularly critical for low-cost carriers), a hotel, a cruise line or a tour company.
You learn amazing things. If you read this week’s Cruise News, you’ll see that European river cruise companies have been dealing with a drought that has affected Danube trips. In some cases, the method of passage changed from boat to bus because there was not enough liquid to float the boat. But that’s not what you signed up for, right?
No, you did not. If, however, you read the terms and conditions on most cruise lines’ sites — I’m looking at Viking’s at the moment — they say it may make changes to an itinerary. Viking’s terms and conditions note that it is not responsible for “adverse weather or water conditions” that cause “delay or inability to perform.”
Note that every company is different. Road Scholar, for instance, a well-regarded company offering group tours, will penalize you 100% if you don’t show up, but you can receive varying amounts of refunds. If you cancel more than 56 days before departure, you lose $100; 30 days before, you get a 50% refund.
Globus, another popular tour company, will return all but $100 for a domestic cancellation 56 days before the departure. For international, you must cancel more than 67 days before departure to get back all but $250.
As with most companies, the closer you get to departure, the more you’ll be penalized.
In this case, however, the request was to change a name. Isn’t that a simple matter?
It’s not as easy as it might seem, said Karen Ledwin, vice president of program management at Smithsonian Travel.
Airline tickets are usually nonrefundable for the lowest fare categories, which is what most of us fly. That means you probably won’t get your money back if you’re never using the ticket; you will pay a penalty if/when you do change your ticket, and the name on the ticket probably cannot be changed.
Besides the flight, there are administrative and contractual costs, Ledwin said, that come into play if changes are to be made. For example, does the new participant want a different kind of hotel room, and is it still available?
And one more thing: “Any time you do something like this, you increase the chances of error,” Ledwin said.
The change made “was most definitely an exception,” Ledwin said. “We cannot operate based on exceptions.”
And now, Rule No. 2: You may not want to choose your group tour based on its terms, but you at least should be aware of their implications.
Rule No. 3: If you can’t abide the penalties but really want to take the trip, protect yourself with travel insurance.
I know, I know. I’m singing the same song, 977th verse. No, I don’t have any vested interest in any travel insurance company. I do know that having travel insurance has bailed me out three times when life did what life does and laughed at my plans.
In two of the three cases, getting the money I was owed was pain free; the exception was a combination of resistance (or incompetence) by the insurance company and resistance by a family member who, when asked for medical records, demurred. It all worked out, if not exactly happily ever after.
“I truly believe that the trip cancellation [insurance] is an element of planning a trip that everyone should include in their budgeting,” Ledwin said.
Remember too that you may need supplemental insurance if you are on Medicare, which generally does not cover you outside the country. You also may want medical evacuation insurance and newer, increasingly common evacuation insurance that gets you out in case of civil unrest.
These policies will require you to read the fine print, and insurers — the good ones anyway — will answer your questions before you buy. But it’s also part of your homework to know that, for instance, if your kid plays sports and gets hurt, the insurance may not cover you if you must cancel your trip. (Look carefully at the exceptions in a travel insurance policy.)
Achieving the leisure of travel is hard work. You must put in the time before you can have the time of your life. Worth it? Your call. Half the fun of travel is anticipating the good things. The dread of something unexpected happening and having no recourse is baggage better left at home.