By Travel columnist
updated 6/17/2005 2:05:36 PM ET 2005-06-17T18:05:36

When Marilyn McLean can’t reach her South America cruise because of a blizzard, her tour operator, Grand Circle, suggests that she cancel her vacation and make a claim through her travel insurance. But her insurer, Trip Mate, pays her only $200, which doesn’t even begin to cover the $7,546 she spent. Now Grand Circle says it can’t help her. Will McLean lose her cruise? And how can you prevent this from happening to you when you travel?

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Q: Last year my husband and I booked a tour to South America through Grand Circle Travel.

When we arrived at the airport in Charleston, S.C., a Delta Air Lines representative told us that all flights to New York were cancelled that day because of a blizzard. We immediately contacted Grand Circle and followed all of its instructions. But late the next afternoon, New York’s airports were still closed and there were no flights available to Rio de Janeiro until Wednesday night.

Since our cruise left Rio on Tuesday afternoon, Grand Circle told us we could cancel our trip. Fortunately, we had bought the cancellation insurance offered by Grand Circle through Trip Mate, so we contacted the company to make a claim.

Trip Mate issued us a check for $200 but denied the rest of our claim. Grand Circle has told us it isn’t their fault, and will not help us. We did everything in our power to protect our travels by buying insurance. We did what we were told, and despite that, we are out $7,546. Please help us.

— Marilyn McLeanHilton Head Island, SC

A: If your tour operator allowed you to cancel your vacation – and promised you would be covered – then it should make sure you get a prompt refund.

Buying trip cancellation insurance is important on a big-ticket vacation like yours. After all, you’ve invested a lot of money in a trip, and it makes sense to protect that investment.

What went wrong? I contacted Trip Mate, and it turns out Grand Circle told it that your trip was interrupted by just one day. “Obviously that information wasn’t correct,” said Linda Finkle, a spokeswoman for Trip Mate.

Next stop, Grand Circle. The company said a delay such as yours wouldn’t be covered under its trip protection policy offered through Trip Mate. For Grand Circle’s cruises, you can make a pre-trip cancellation for sickness, injury or death – but not because of the weather.

Stephanie Nichols, a spokeswoman for Grand Circle, said the correct procedure would have been to try to catch up to your cruise, however difficult that may have been.

Grand Circle reviewed its records and found that the representative you spoke with gave you inaccurate information. You were told you could cancel, when you actually couldn’t. Then the employee told Trip Mate that your vacation had only been interrupted by one day – hence the $200 check.

I’m disappointed that Grand Circle didn’t review this case until I got involved. If someone had bothered to scan the agent’s notes, everything would have been cleared up immediately.

Not that you weren’t completely blameless. First of all, you should have phoned Delta before leaving for the Charleston airport to make sure your flight to New York was still running. And rather than taking the employee’s word for it (remember, talk is cheap) you should have familiarized yourself with your insurance policy’s terms and conditions, if not before your trip started, then at least after the first delay.

It’s always a good idea to shop around for the best insurance policy rather than buying the travel protection policy offered by a tour operator. At a Web site like TravelInsuranceCenter.com, you can compare policies online and examine the fine print to make sure your vacation will be covered. Dan Drennen, the site’s sales and marketing director, told me one of the most common misperceptions about travel insurance is that people think they can cancel a trip for any reason, including “not feeling like going.” In fact, policies apply only to a specific set of events, like a documented illness or death.

I’m not saying the Trip Mate policy was no good – only, that it never hurts to get a second opinion.

Grand Circle refunded the full amount of your vacation, $7,546, minus the $200 Trip Mate already paid out.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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