Image: After the quake
Tan Xi  /  Zuma Press
Tourists sit in the street after they were evacuated from the Sichuan Hotel following a major earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale that jolted Wenchuan County of southwest China's Sichuan Province.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/19/2008 10:10:56 AM ET 2008-05-19T14:10:56

Talk about adding insult to injury.

When a natural disaster strikes — like the recent earthquake in China or Myanmar’s devastating cyclone — travel companies like to play the God card. Unless everyone is looking.

The God card — technically, the Act of God clause, a legal term for, “circumstances beyond our control” — basically means your airline, cruise line or hotel owes you nothing. After all, the tragedy wasn’t their fault.

Miss your flight? Sorry, nothing we can do about that hurricane. Couldn’t get to the port on time because of a wildfire? Hey, don’t look at us — we’re not arsonists. Couldn’t make it to the hotel because your house was flattened by a tornado? Not our problem, and oh, P.S., you still owe us for the room.

That’s what happened to Carol Knight when she prepaid for her hotel in Key Largo, Fla., recently. As it turns out, a hurricane had made similar plans, and the storm forced the resort to cancel her reservation. She believed she would get a refund. “I was given a cancellation number,” she remembers.

But Knight didn’t get her money back, and a dispute with her credit card failed to recover the $721 she’d been billed for a nonexistent vacation. Fortunately, I was able to help her get a refund with an assist from her travel agent.

When a natural disaster strikes, a happy ending like Knight’s is unusual. After having the God card played on them, travelers are often left to fend for themselves. Perhaps the only exception is when everyone is paying attention to the tragedy. During a major disaster, when TV cameras are pointed at the carnage, airlines sometimes issue exceptions to their onerous ticket change rules.

If it weren’t for the catastrophic loss of life that led to this action, it might be amusing to watch the process unfold. One airline will issue a statement promising to waive certain fees, and then the other carriers will pull a “me-too” by either bending some of their rules or sweetening the offer. And then, the moment the tragedy is out of the public eye, airlines quietly delete these exceptions from their Web sites, lest anyone think they might ever set aside to their strict and customer-hostile policies again. (I should note some prominent exceptions, including American Airlines, which publishes a blanket hurricane policy on its site — permanently.)

Generally, hotels are equally insensitive. No surprise there. They’re in the business of making money from their rooms, and when the inn is closed, they’re earning diddly-squat. They’re going to try to keep your money, and yes, they’ll play the God card if they can.

As a traveler, your goal must be to stop them from invoking the “Act of God” clause and to start acting responsibly. Here’s how to navigate the dangerous and uncertain waters of a natural disaster:

What if you can’t travel because of a natural disaster?

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Pack a good policy
Having a good travel insurance policy can make the difference between weeks of worry and peace of mind about a refund. Consult with a knowledgeable travel agent and research the policies that are available before buying one. The right insurance will help you get a prompt refund when your vacation is canceled because of a natural disaster. And the wrong policy? Let’s not even go there.

Call your agent and work the phones
When Mother Nature gets in one of her moods, you’ll congratulate yourself for using a travel agent. This is one of those times when a good agent proves his or her value, despite what some readers of this column have suggested . But it’s a team effort. While you agent is applying pressure for a full refund, it’s no time to rest. Phone your airline, cruise line or hotel and find out if you can get your money back, too. Read your contract carefully before letting your fingers do the walking. For example, some resorts have hurricane “guarantees” that might apply to your situation.

If you can’t get there, push for a replacement
Your first order of business is to secure a full refund. That’s where a good agent and insurance policy can come in handy. But plan B ought to be a replacement vacation. Most major travel companies will, when pushed, offer credit for a make-up vacation. If they don’t, there’s still Plan C: asking your travel agent to make things right. Some major online agencies will step in and issue credit to their customers, even when the travel companies they do business with say “no way.” For example, here’s one person who missed her cruise because of a blizzard, but in the end, received a full refund for her vacation from her tour operator.

What if you’re on vacation when a natural disaster strikes?

End the vacation
Although being in an exotic destination when a tragedy strikes can be fascinating — you might be thinking, “Wait until I tell everyone back home about this!” — it’s generally considered bad form to be kicking back as the rescue crews arrive. Unless you want to turn your vacation into a volunteer vacation, you need to end it now. Never mind the fact that staying there can be dangerous. In March, a British tourist probably waited too long — or maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time — when he was killed in a freak avalanche triggered by a storm. It’s a dangerous world out there.

Get home safely
When tragedy strikes and you’re already on the road, your first priority is to get home without getting hurt. Phone your travel agent and then call your airline to make arrangements. You may be forfeiting a few days at your hotel or skipping out on a tour you had planned, but you can work on a refund once you’re back in the States. If you’re overseas, contact the closest U.S. embassy or consulate and let them know need to get home. Here’s more on how to let the government know of your whereabouts.

Play the victim card
So your travel company is going to play the God card? Well, here’s a card you can play — it’s called the victim card. You’ve just been caught in an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami or volcanic eruption, and you need to get outta there quickly. Even though travel companies don’t want to bend their rules for you, they can and they often will do it when you inform them of your circumstances. Maybe your resort got burned to the ground by a raging wildfire, flattened by a tidal wave or carried out to sea by a cyclone. Speak up! The people on the other end of the phone are human, and they are capable of compassion. They just need a little encouragement.

When disaster strikes, don’t let your travel company read you chapter and verse from its contract, and don’t let it play the God card. Remember, whether you’re about to go on vacation or you’re already there, you’ve got options — and a card or two you can play as well.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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