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Just following orders

What's travel insurance worth? If you booked your airline ticket through Priceline and Uncle Sam comes calling, not much.
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October 28, 2004 column - What's travel insurance worth? If you booked your airline ticket through Priceline and Uncle Sam comes calling, not much. Even though one traveler takes out a cancellation policy to cover a possible change in his fiancée's schedule, the site won't budge after he's redeployed. Should it? How can you prevent this from happening to you? And what, exactly, is in the fine print of those insurance policies?

Q: My fiancé is in the Navy and currently on a submarine. Before he left for his tour of duty, he purchased a $1,300 ticket from Priceline for me to visit him for his first port call, which at that time was scheduled to be in Japan.

He spoke with a Priceline representative and asked if they offered insurance, just in case the sub changes plans, which it often does. The sales representative said they did and convinced my finance and two other couples who were planning to travel with us to buy their $25 insurance.

Well, you guessed it, the schedule changed, and we were told to cancel our plans to visit. After numerous calls with sales reps, specialists and managers at Priceline, I have gotten nowhere.

Priceline will in no way offer us any type of refund or credit for our tickets. I have even supplied them with squadron numbers and other referral sources through the Navy to verify that our plans have indeed changed. Is there still nothing more that I can do?

-- Holly Gardner

A: I think you've done all you can. Other than disputing the charge on your credit card - which would be pointless - or taking this matter up in small-claims court, there's really only one thing to do. And that's contact me.

Priceline's policy on changes is clear. Once tickets are purchased "requests to change or cancel them are typically denied" - whether you've used part of the ticket or none of it.

How Priceline's employees interpret their policy isn't clear.

First, you were told that you could get around the rules by buying insurance. But I checked out the fine print on its travel insurance policy, and it's hardly conclusive that you would be covered if your fiancée's orders changed.

As a matter of fact, as I read it, there would have to be a terrorist act or natural disaster resulting in a complete cessation of air service to correspond with your trip in order for your policy to kick in. What would you say are the odds of that happening?

As it turns out (and I'll get to this in a second) you didn't need the insurance at all.

The key word for your case is "typically." Yours is hardly a typical case, and Priceline actually bends its rules when military orders are involved. The managers and associates you spoke with should have known that. "If you have someone who has to change their travel plans because of military orders, we'll let them do it," Brian Ek, a spokesman for Priceline, told me.

A word of warning to anyone who wants to take advantage of this loophole: be prepared to show your orders. Otherwise, you'll be stuck with a worthless ticket.

Next time, don't take someone's word for it when they say a cancellation would be covered under an insurance policy. Get it in writing. Your $25 could have been better spent elsewhere, because it didn't cover a change of plans due to military orders. Priceline already took care of that.

You should have heard from a company representative by now, and of course Priceline is letting you reschedule your trip without a penalty.