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Illness Sinks a Cruise and Costs Thousands

Refunds are the exception, not the norm, so here's how to protect yourself

Refunds are the exception, not the norm, so here's how to protect yourself when your travel plans fall though

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Buying travel insurance is one of the easiest ways to protect yourself if unexpected problems occur before you travel.

En español | To celebrate almost a half century of marriage, AARP members Camille and Jim Barco of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, were looking forward to a weeklong trip with Viking River Cruises from Paris into western France.

Their dream turned into an emotional and financial nightmare when, less than a month before their April 2014 departure, Jim was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The $7,305 they'd spent upfront on the cruise would have been a big help in offsetting the escalating medical bills, but because the diagnosis came so close to the travel date, the riverboat reservations were not refundable.

Cruise lines and other travel carriers are understandably restrictive about last-minute cancellations. Most of their operating costs are fixed, and every empty seat or stateroom is lost revenue. Given the health crisis that swamped the Barcos, we hoped the company might have a change of heart. Thankfully, Viking River Cruises generously agreed to a full refund.

But such "compassionate" refunds are the exception, not the rule. Here's how you can protect yourself in a similar situation.

• Buy travel insurance.

• Consider refundable or transferable tickets.

• Use a credit card for payment.

• Politely make your case. The good news is that some companies are willing to make exceptions.

Consumer advocate Ron Burley writes the On Your Side column for AARP and is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For. Got a complaint? Tell your consumer woes to Ron at aarp.org/ronburley.

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