Question:In May, my husband and I signed up to do a Habitat for Humanity build in Honduras in October. I knew our tickets were nonrefundable, but we were sure of the dates, so for once I didn't get cancellation insurance.
After the military coup in Honduras at the end of June, I checked the U.S. Department of State travel advisories and saw that there was a non-essential travel warning. I called Continental customer service to find out what would happen if Habitat for Humanity canceled our trip due to the unrest. I was told that if our trip was scheduled during the advisory period, Continental would either refund or give us full credit for our tickets.
By the end of July, the government had extended the travel advisory until October, and our trip was canceled. I called Continental to cancel, and was told that I would lose a $150 change fee, because the airline didn't have the new advisory dates in its system.
This week, I learned that one of our traveling companions, who booked at the same time I did, was able to get her change fee waived. I called Continental once again, but the agent I spoke with said her data still showed the advisory until July only, and that if there was an update to the date at Continental I would get the full amount credited back. I offered to e-mail the data but that was not accepted.
If one of us qualifies, the rest should as well. If Continental was going to do refunds for the first advisory, I don't understand why it hasn't acknowledged the revision after almost four weeks. Do you have any suggestions?
- Lynda Cook, Santa Clarita, Calif.
Answer:The U.S. Department of State is advising Americans to defer all non-essential travel to Honduras because of political and security instability. Such Travel Alerts are intended to address relatively short-term issues; the current Travel Alert for Honduras expires on October 20.
The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa issued a string of public announcements from June-August, updating travelers on demonstrations and reiterating the travel warning, but also noting that the airport was open for business. Major airlines, including Continental, Delta and American, continued to operate their regularly-scheduled flights, subject to change for safety reasons.
Policies on ticket changes in such cases vary. For example, American issued a policy along the lines of its storm policies that it posts during major weather disruptions, allowing travelers to change their tickets with no fee. It extended the policy dates when the travel alert was extended. Continental did not issue a blanket policy, according to representative Mary Clark, but is instead continuing to monitor the situation in Honduras.
"Since the impact to Continental's flights has been minimal, we have chosen to handle exceptions for Honduras travel on a case-by-case basis at this time," says Clark.
As Cook discovered, however, sometimes case-by-case protocols can lead to inconsistency: Her friend, booked on the same Continental flight, managed to get her change fee waived after multiple calls to the airline.
Continental reviewed Cook's case, and agreed to waive the two $150 change fees for the couple's demolished volunteer trip. "It was the right thing to do, and we're happy we could accommodate her," says Clark.
On a side note, travel insurance may not have helped Cook, unless she purchased a policy with a cancel for any reason clause. Most standard policies don't consider a U.S. Department of State Travel Alert on its own, in the absence of a terrorist incident, a covered reason for trip cancellation.
How can you avoid trouble?
• Strike a balance between patience and persistence. It can take some time for customer service agents to research your complaint, particularly if they have to update U.S. Department of State information. But you may have to follow up more than once to get your case resolved.
Linda Burbank first began troubleshooting travelers' complaints for the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. She now writes regularly for Consumers Union publications and is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. E-mail her at email@example.com. Your question may be used in a future column.