This post has been updated since it was originally published. The updated version contains critical corrected information about Chase Sapphire travel insurance.
Travel is our sport.
Our gear: a suitcase, backpack, passport and travel insurance. And like most athletes, we have certain rituals to get us hyped before a big
- We say a family prayer asking for safe travels.
- We learn a few words in the local language.
- We blast our family travel anthem, Wavin’ Flag.
On July 15, 2016, we were driving to Atlanta to board a Turkish Air flight to South Africa via Istanbul. At the last note of Wavin’ Flag, Dale unplugged the AUX cord just in time to hear about the travel crisis unfolding in Turkey:
“There is a military coup underway in Turkey. Hundreds are dead. Martial law has been enacted,” announced a man on the radio.
Dealing with a trip interruption
After we picked our jaws up off the dashboard, we started scrambling for information. Our California travel companions, parents, friends, and colleagues had all been trying to reach us, but Dale and I left our primary cell phones at home.
Due to the crime in South Africa, I was traveling with an old iPhone that could be used with WIFI or a local SIM card once we reached our destination. In the meantime, we had unintentionally gone dark. Not cool.
Fortunately, Riley has an American Express relationship with her phone (she doesn’t leave home without it). For once, I was happy about this. As independent travelers, I am the travel planner. When something goes awry, there is no one for me to call to fix it.
Booking alternate transportation
Calling Turkish Air was out of the question. Their customer service is an absolute nightmare on a normal day when the government isn’t being overthrown.
So I quickly called our Chase travel insurance to confirm trip interruption benefits and get instructions on how to proceed. Chase’s travel partners informed me that we had $5,000-10,000 in trip interruption benefits and to book our alternate flights and file a claim.
Knowing alternate flights would fill quickly, I couldn’t waste any time. As soon as we parked and boarded the shuttle bus, I borrowed Riley’s phone. Since it doesn’t have my go-to flight finding app, OnTheFly, I had to call Travelocity.
The conversation with Travelocity
There are few things I enjoy less than speaking to someone in a call center on a different continent when I’m in a time-sensitive, high-stress situation.
Between his Indian accent and my Deep South accent, we struggled to understand each other. Our call went like this:
Travelocity: Hi, my name is “Dan” how my I help you?
Me: (I quickly tell him about the situation in Turkey and we urgently need to find alternate flights to Johannesburg)
Dan: Yes, I found flights for you flying from Atlanta, to JFK, to Dhaka (or Ghana, I never could understand), to Johannesburg.
Me: How much will it cost?
Dan: $55,000. Does that sound okay?
Me: Did you say 55 THOUSAND, not 55 HUNDRED?!
Dan: Yes, $55,000. Is that too much? What is your budget?
Me: As little as possible. And we don’t have to fly out of Atlanta. Look from other airports like Charlotte, Orlando, Nashville, New Orleans, Chicago.
Dan: Okay, I found flights from San Francisco. Is that good?
You get the picture. I had to get inside the airport so I could use the WIFI to access my travel apps. We arrive at the airport, race inside and find the Turkish Air counter. Confused looking passengers are milling around and lining up.
Dale approaches the counter and asks the agent: “What’s going on with the flight?!”
Looking at us like we’ve just asked the most absurd question on the planet, she replies, “We are checking in and the plane is on schedule. Everything is fine.”
Meanwhile, I’m making use of my brand new Medjet Horizon crisis assistance membership. On the phone, my personal Jack Bauer/Chloe O’Brien advisor is telling me a different story,
“There are bombs going off around the airport. We don’t know who’s running the country. Security is significantly diminished. The country’s under martial law.”
Immediately after connecting to ATL’s free WIFI, I’m able to access my flight search apps. I find non-stop flights on Delta three days later for significantly less than $55,000 (travel insurance should cover the cost). I book them.
Travelers bond during travel crisis
Now that that’s covered, we wait to see what’s going to happen with Turkish Air.
As usually happens in disastrous situations, people bond pretty quickly. We learned about our fellow passengers. There was:
- the family going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania;
- the family from Atlanta going to vacation in Rome;
- the young woman going to India solo;
- the family from western Kentucky going to Austria to visit their exchange student;
- the young couple returning home to Iran;
- the woman meeting her family in Israel for a Bat Mitzvah.
Every story and every destination was different. The one thing we had in common: we were not boarding that flight.
Turkish Air’s response to the crisis in Turkey
Passengers watch live footage of the violence in Istanbul as the FAA cancels all U.S. airlines flights to Turkey; meanwhile, the Turkish Air employees continue business as usual, at one point telling a passenger,
“We don’t care what’s on CNN. The flight is not canceled.” After a near coup at the Turkish Air counter, they offer to refund anyone who chooses to not take the flight.
We, along with about half of the other passengers, accept this offer. With one agent in charge of issuing refunds for dozens of passengers, it’s going to be a long night.
Finally, at 1:00 a.m., six hours after arriving at the airport, we depart…for home.
In the end, we are missing three days of our African vacation. Ironically, if we had elected to take the flight, we would have arrived in Johannesburg as scheduled.
However, I would make the same decision all over again. The U.S. continues to ban all flights to and from Turkey. An airport with “significantly diminished security” is a terrorist’s dream-come-true.
Um, no thank you.
Tips for dealing with a travel crisis
If you travel frequently, something is bound to go wrong at some point. Here are some tips for managing your travel crisis:
- STAY CONNECTED! Make sure you have cell access until you are wheels’ up. You can change out the SIM once you arrive at your destination if you want to avoid expensive carrier fees.
- BUY TRAVEL INSURANCE and know the details.
Many credit cards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Marriott Rewards Visa Signature provide travel insurance for Trip Cancellation and Trip Interruption for free.Correction: Chase travel insurance does NOT provide the key component of Trip Interruption coverage, and they do not disclose it. Do NOT rely on Chase travel insurance under any circumstances.
- DOWNLOAD a flight search app, like Momondo or Skyscanner, to your phone so you can quickly find alternate flights if necessary.
- BOOK ALTERNATE FLIGHTS QUICKLY. When flights are canceled, available seats on alternate flights get scooped up quickly. Most airlines allow cancellations within 24 hours with no penalties, so it pays to make a backup reservation quickly that you can cancel if you don’t need it.
- REGISTER YOUR TRIP with the State Department’s STEP Program.
- DO NOT RELY ON THE AIRLINE to give unbiased information about the situation. Turkish Air was telling us what their government wanted us to hear. Follow the State Department on Twitter for real-time updates and travel advisories.
- TAKE THE CREDIT CARD used to make the reservations. If you end up getting a refund, you’ll have to provide the card used for the original transaction.
Three days late, our African vacation has begun. Given the circumstances of this travel crisis, what would you have done if you were in our shoes? Taken the flight? Or refused to board? We’d love to hear your comments.
For important details on how Chase and its travel partners (Chubb, Allianz Global Services, and Broadspire) handle travel claims, be sure to read Travelers Beware! Don’t Get Stranded by Chase Travel Insurance.