New York declared a state of emergency in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but insurers refused to pay up for cancellation, as Money writer Jill Papworth found on a half-term break
It was meant to be the family holiday of a lifetime, an expensive, but much anticipated, half-term five-night trip to see the sights of New York with our two children, aged 18 and 14. But it turned into the holiday from hell as we were virtually confined to our hotel, in a city in lock-down, with all public transport systems, tourist attractions and virtually all shops and restaurants, closed as Hurricane Sandy did its worst.
We were not, fortunately, exposed to direct danger, with our hotel – the Radisson Martinique on Broadway – away from the seriously flooded areas. So we tried to make the best of it and kept our British chins up – although having to climb nine floors to our bedroom because the elevators were out of action tested us severely.
What was really galling was that we knew before leaving the UK that this was going to happen, yet could find no way of cancelling and rescheduling without losing all our money – despite having paid £90 for comprehensive travel insurance, a Premier policy from Insurefor.com, and having booked the flight/hotel package with an ATOL protected agent, Lastminute.com.
We had thought long and hard about spending so much. Though we are lucky to be able to afford it, it was very much a one-off treat, not something we could think of doing twice. So when we heard late Friday night that New York’s mayor had declared a state of emergency because a hurricane was due to hit, our first thought was to cancel. Reports said that closure of transport systems was anticipated for several days, and the storm was expected to be extreme. Postponing was the obvious thing to do.
We were due to fly out on Kuwait Airways late Saturday afternoon. So, equipped with all the information I could find from online reports from the US, I rang our insurer’s claims department first thing Saturday morning to clarify our position.
I was told that, hurricane or no hurricane, if we cancelled, our policy would not cover us for the £5,000 cost of our trip – we would lose the lot. This is because travel insurers only pay out for cancellation if the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has specifically warned against travelling to the relevant destination. In this case, they hadn’t. Indeed, throughout last week, at no point did the FCO advise against travel to New York.
The Insurefor.com representative suggested I call our agent who could possibly help by rescheduling our trip or offering an alternative. No such luck. When I called Lastminute.com, I was told there was nothing they could do because our Kuwait Airways flight was still due to leave that afternoon, and they had received no information from the airline about the hurricane threat.
With just a couple of hours left before we were due to leave for the airport, we faced a stark choice. Tell the kids the trip was off for good and lose £5,000. Or risk going, make the best of it and hope we’d get a couple of days to see Manhattan. We chose the latter, a decision that we soon sorely regretted.
We feel deeply let down by our travel insurance company. Surely there should be some way of insuring against having to choose between going on a holiday that you know in advance will be spoilt in many ways – not to mention potentially dangerous – or losing your money.
• Jill and family were not alone in facing a “fly or lose your money” option at the airport, writes Miles Brignall. Sarah Kember and her partner were due to take their godson Lou to New York to celebrate his 18th birthday and they all met up at Heathrow on Saturday afternoon. But alerted to the fact that New York’s mayor had declared a state of emergency the pair, who live in Brighton, repeatedly asked Virgin Atlantic whether they could shift their booking to another date. But they were met with a blunt response: they could choose to travel on that day or cancel and lose the £2,700 flight costs for the four-day trip.
“It was a terrible decision, but you do not fly your godson into the path of a hurricane or into a city that the mayor was about to evacuate. It was particularly frustrating because British Airways was letting its customers cancel and rebook.” Sarah says.
“Telling Lou was terrible. We were in tears, while he was remarkably stoic. It was a huge amount of money to lose, but we decided it wasn’t worth the risk. What I don’t understand is why Virgin wasn’t warning us of what lay ahead, and proactively stopping passengers from flying.”
Her travel insurance, provided by NatWest through her bank account, proved similarly useless. She also lost the hotel booking costs because staff at the booking agent, Trailfinder, failed to tell her to contact the hotel to cancel.
Guardian Money took up her case with Virgin Atlantic, asking why it had refused to offer her a rebooking given that they were due to fly back on the Tuesday – the day after the “superstorm” hit. Thankfully, the airline made a swift about-turn.
It has apologised and said she can now rebook the trip, enabling Lou to see the Big Apple. It says: “Passengers due to travel to the east coast destinations of New York, Boston and Washington between Saturday 27 October and Friday 2 November, whose flights are not cancelled, can choose to delay their trips and rebook on a Virgin Atlantic flight at a later date, subject to availability. Rebooked travel must have commenced by the 28 November.”
Jill has been less fortunate. Insurefor.com is sticking to the clause in its “Premier” travel policies that failure to board a flight that has not been cancelled, to a country about which the FCO has not issued any warnings, amounts to “disinclination” to travel, and therefore is not covered by her policy.
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