KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A family in the Northland is learning the hard way that travel insurance isn’t always what it appears to be.
Jill and Scott Heil’s son is a high school junior, who has been studying Chinese for three years.
He was scheduled to visit China with his class next month, but the trip was canceled after the U.S. Department of State raised the travel advisory for China to a level four due to the Wuhan coronavirus.
“He was so excited,” Jill said about her son. “It’s been over a year since he paid for the trip, but planning started earlier than that.”
The trip was booked through EF Educational Tours, Inc. and cost $3,665, most of which their son covered by saving up his money. The Heil family also purchased global travel protection through the company, which cost $165.
“We’ve bought travel insurance for cruises and other trips, and generally if flights are canceled, there’s a hurricane or massive issues in countries or weather-related, that should cover the cost of the trip,” Scott said. “I expected this to be no different. I mean it’s named travel insurance.”
When the Heils learned their son’s trip had been canceled, the reached out to EF Tours in hopes of getting their money back.
However, the couple was told that since the cancellation happened within 45 days of departure, a full refund wasn’t possible.
Instead, they said they were given three options.
“You could get a voucher equal to the price of this trip to use at a future date. That we could go at the same time of this trip to Europe or the third option was the voucher, but our teacher would redo China next year,” Jill explained.
At one point, the company offered the Heils a partial refund. The couple was willing to concede a portion of the refund, but they believed they were entitled to more than what the company was offering.
“To keep $2,000 when really you haven’t rendered really any service to us at all, I think is excessive,” Scott said.
In an email to FOX4, a spokesperson for the company said their cancellation policy is designed to “reflect the most likely personal causes for cancellation or disruption to a traveler’s experience – things like delayed flights, family illness, job loss, lost luggage, etc.”
Virus outbreaks are not covered.
“It is very rare for the U.S. Department of State to restrict travel to a certain region, which is why this very unlikely situation is not covered by the policy,” the spokesperson explained.
“It’s a really tough situation, and I sympathize with this family,” said Stan Sandberg, the co-founder of www.TravelInsurance.com
The online site allows consumers to compare travel insurance prices and coverage.
Sandberg said virus outbreaks aren’t covered by most plans.
“Travel insurance hasn’t really figured out how to contend with the virus outbreaks in the world. It does not really provide a whole lot of protection in that regard,” he said.
There is one exception. Consumers could purchase Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) coverage.
“Cancel For Any Reason coverage tends to be only available in the more premium plans, tends to cost another 40-50% on top of the base cost of a travel insurance plan, but it gives you the most flexibilities,” Sandberg said.
However, even with CFAR, the buyer isn’t guaranteed a 100% refund. Reimbursement under CFAR is usually between 50-70%.
Sandberg suggests consumers consider shopping around for travel insurance instead of automatically going with the insurance offered by the agency booking the trip.
“You have options,” he said.
That’s not enough for the Heils, who offered a warning to consumers.
“Don’t take travel insurance for what it is,” Scott said.
Here's the full statement from EF Educational Tours:
“The health and safety of our students, staff and travelers is always our top priority, and we are closely monitoring the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus. We continue to be in touch with our teams in the United States and China, as well as with the relevant authorities in both locations.
"One of the main reasons why our customers choose EF Educational Tours is our 50-year legacy of putting student safety first and the fact that we have offices in nearly every destination to which we travel.
"We are currently working with our customers who had trips planned to mainland China to determine the best solutions, so they feel safe and supported. In these specific types of situations, we always give extra flexibility to our groups. We always offer the choice to change destinations entirely, delay travel to a later date or take a refund in the form of a transferrable travel voucher. As the situation evolves, we continue to make changes for groups as needed.
"We always comply with international and federal guidance and restrictions, and we will continue to provide all relevant updates to our customers in an efficient and timely manner as the situation evolves.”