It was a dream vacation over a year in the making for Cheryl Cwiertniewicz and her family: a luxury Caribbean cruise. But just as they were packed and ready to go, the Blizzard of 2013 blew in and wrecked their best-laid plans—before they ever made it to the ship.
"We woke up in the morning to find that we weren't plowed out, that the travel ban was still in place and the roads were terrible,” recalled Cheryl, “Later in the day when we realized all hope was lost, we started calling our travel partners."
Jet Blue refunded the family for their missed flight, and Marriott refunded them for their cancelled hotel stay. But cruise line Royal Caribbean stuck to its policy, telling Cheryl that without travel insurance she was out $3,000—the cost of the trip. Her entire family was devastated.
"I got really, really, really sad. I cried,” said 6-year-old Cora.
“I was shocked,” Cheryl said, “I know they don't have to do these things. But just given the circumstances I just ask that they do what's right.”
With nowhere to turn, the Cwiertniewicz family called the Troubleshooters. We started investigating.
Travel agencies around the area told us they dealt with a lot of vacationers stranded by the blizzard. Nancy Kotowitz of Westfield, Massachusetts was one of them.
"It would have been a disaster. We had to take a cab from the airport to where we're staying. Then you figure the hotel, and the meals,” said Kotowitz.
She and her husband were left stranded in Miami, spending hundreds of dollars a day that they didn’t plan on. But Kotowitz had travel insurance, which is something experts insist makes all the difference.
"Trip insurance was $100 per person. So that really offset it a lot,” said Kotowitz.
All told, her insurance should cover about $800, much of the cost of the Kotowitzs’ Miami detour.
Though policies vary, experts tell us that on average travel insurance costs about 8% of your total trip cost. You can buy it directly from the cruise line or airline you’re booking with, or head to a third party travel insurer. But read the fine print to find out exactly what the policy covers, and under what circumstances.
For example, some plans pay for medical expenses, but if you’re covered for travel abroad under your health plan, you probably don’t need that. And if all you really want is trip cancellation insurance, know what the policy allows you to cancel for, whether it’s for any reason or specific things like medical issues or weather. And find out how far in advance you can skip your trip and keep your money.
"If you cancel 30 days out there's this penalty, if you cancel 14 days out there's another penalty, if you cancel 7 days or are a no-show it's full loss. So there are different steps,” said Enfield-based Copper Travels Co. travel agent Graham Hird.
Hird said without travel insurance, chances of a refund or credit from a cruise line, airline or other vendors are usually rare.
"It's a bottom line industry nowadays. It's all about numbers. And they just decided that they're going to play hardball, buy the insurance or this is it,” he said.
So the Cwiertniewicz family was lucky with the airline and hotel. And after the Troubleshooters contacted Royal Caribbean, the cruise line offered the family a resolution. The family said they’re happy with it, but can’t disclose details because of a confidentiality agreement. Cheryl told us she’s thankful the Troubleshooters got involved.
"I understand you can't make exceptions for everybody and I understand travel insurance and I understand cruise protection but I think there should be flexibility,” she said.
Additional tips for booking a trip and finding travel insurance:
- Travel agent Graham Hird says don’t be afraid to call your trip insurance company, airline or cruise line, and have them spell out their policy in a way that makes sense to you. It’s important you understand the details.
- Websites like squaremouth.com and insuremytrip.com let you compare plans based on your individual trip. You input information like date, place, and cost of your trip, and the sites will give you a list of possible policies. But remember to read each one carefully to make sure it’s right for you. The goal is to have no surprises when it comes to your travel.