DennisBeaverSeptember 17, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

E.J. and his wife Anna loved Hawaii, having traveled there many times during their 56 years together. In January, at 74 and 73 years of age, respectively, they planned another trip to the islands for May to celebrate E.J.’s 75th birthday.

When we hear of people that age who look like they are in their 50’s and act as if they are in their 30’s, this couple matched the definition perfectly. After E.J. retired from the beverage business, they “still maintained a highly active, mobile lifestyle,” he explained, adding that “travel was an important part of our business and personal lives, taking us all over the world. We both really loved flying, even after one frightening experience returning to California from the East Coast, when our plane went through the most severe turbulence we had ever experienced.

“It felt as if the plane was being shaken apart. Both I and my wife were literally trembling. In glancing around the cabin, everyone we saw were visibly terrified. It was simply a nightmare. But that was not going to stop us from returning to Hawaii.”

You’ve got travel insurance

Using an online reservation service, E.J. purchased two non-refundable, first-class tickets from Los Angeles International Airport to Honolulu for $3,500. When his American Express credit card bill arrived, he realized that in addition to the tickets, he had also purchased a travel insurance policy for $170 from Travel Guard, one of the largest sellers of these products in the United States.

“I do not recall checking the box for this insurance, but, especially at our age, we figured that the trip cancellation and medical coverages might be useful if something were to happen,” he reasoned.

“One of the problems in booking flights online is that unless you opt out, without knowing it, you might have bought a policy. It is so important to carefully study the website, and deselect what you do not want,” San Francisco attorney Alexander Anolik commented when we discussed E.J.’s situation. Anolik is considered the nation’s most highly regarded travel attorney and wrote the first comprehensive text on travel law – now in its fourth edition – “The Law and the Travel Industry.”

At times, life will hurl bad things at us, often in rapid succession. Between January and their May departure date, E.J. lost seven of his lifelong friends, “just due to old age,” he told us, eyes beginning to water and a profound sadness overcoming our Southern California reader. The seeds of depression had been sown.

And then, two weeks before the flight, while the couple were talking about where they would go, what they would visit, “Suddenly I began to tremble. I was afraid, so afraid, thinking of that horrible flight. I just couldn’t shake it. This has never happened to me before, never! Then I knew that I could not fly, not now, perhaps not ever again, or at least, not for a long time,” he told us.

His wife immediately scheduled an appointment with their family doctor, who wrote a very detailed letter to Travel Guard, concluding, “Due to this severe panic attack, my patient is unable to fly.”

“But, of course, we had travel insurance, therefore, no problem in getting a refund. I filed our claim, enclosed my doctor’s letter, and waited for a check,” E.J. told us.

“You are not covered for this event”

Several weeks later, Travel Guard send the couple a denial letter, quoting the following exclusion language: “The policy does not cover any loss caused by or resulting from mental, nervous or psychological disorder.”

There would be no compensation, not one cent. In fact, most travel insurance policies have similar language.

With non-refundable tickets, most airlines have a “use it or lose it” policy, allowing a non-refundable ticket to be re-issued within a year’s time for the passenger. They also might refund a ticket if a passenger or spouse dies or is hospitalized. As our readers would not likely be flying for a long time, if ever, they now faced the complete loss of all the money paid for those tickets.

No is an invitation to try by other means

With E.J. in our office, we spoke with a reservation supervisor. “Could you folks reissue the tickets for the couple’s adult children, so they could travel to Hawaii?”

“No! We just don’t do that, and I wish we could,” was the polite response.

“Will you give me the name and number of your media relations person?”

Given that information, we placed a call, left a detailed voice mail message and waited for a response.

Next week, we’ll tell you the outcome as well as provide money-saving tips from travel attorney Anolik on how to shop for travel insurance – if you need it at all.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.