Jane Bradley: Heroes and villains in family crisis

Earlier this week, I had to cancel our summer holiday. Yes, thank you, sympathy is welcome. Poor me. And my poor family.

AirBnBs policy came up trumps for a holiday refund. Picture: Getty
AirBnBs policy came up trumps for a holiday refund. Picture: Getty
AirBnBs policy came up trumps for a holiday refund. Picture: Getty

My husband recently took ill and was in hospital for a few days. Now home and thankfully on the mend, he was still too exhausted by the experience to travel – a sentiment his doctor wholeheartedly agreed with. Hence the need to cancel.

But trying to recoup as much money as possible while dealing with a stressful domestic crisis, the experience made me realise just how differently various companies deal with the same situation.

Some were lovely, some were evil.

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Unusually, we did have travel insurance booked in advance so this was a lucky feat of organisation. However, the excess was so high, it barely made it worth claiming for our budget holiday.

The cost of another trip we’d planned within the UK in the next few weeks – a jaunt to friend’s wedding in England – had to be entirely written off. Our travel insurance, an annual Europe-wide policy, didn’t include the UK – something which hadn’t even occurred to me to check.

But trying to sort logistics while worrying about my husband and trying to look after our toddler daughter, I just needed someone to be nice to me. And AirBnB, which has recently come under fire for moving away from its “sharing economy” roots to become a bit too corporate, almost made me cry, they were so nice.

My host, Jeanne, the owner of our gite in France, had selected a “strict” cancellation policy, which meant, as we were over a week away from departure, I automatically got back about a third of my costs. After that, the help section told me, I needed to provide proof of my husband’s illness and if they regarded it as a serious enough situation that he would be unable to travel, they would refund me the whole lot.

What was more, the proof they required was not complicated. No costly doctor’s notes specifically written for travel purposes here. A picture of his hospital bracelet would have done, they said. As it was, I scanned in a copy of the letter the doctor had written to sign him off work and the money was refunded immediately, along with a nice note from “Sam”, hoping that he was feeling better soon.

The personal contact with our host during an AirBnB experience was also a happy experience. At a time when I really needed a virtual hug, Jeanne sent many a friendly email wishing my unwell other half “un prompt rétablissement”.

Ryanair was a different story. While I could switch my flights, a robotic online agent told me, it would cost me £40 per leg. For each person – a total surcharge of £240.

I have done it, as we would like to resurrect our abandoned summer holiday later in the year once my husband has recovered fully and it is actually marginally cheaper than buying whole new flights – but I’m still left with a feeling that something large and sharp is stuck in my craw. Michael O’Leary himself, perhaps.

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It’s perhaps a trend specific to airlines – another friend tells me of a particularly bad experience when, delayed overnight at a hub airport while going to visit her seriously ill father, the airline refused to put her on the next available flight as she had to “wait her turn”.

Her tears, her explaining the situation repeatedly, that she might not get a chance to even see her father if she didn’t make it quickly, all failed to melt their frozen airline heart and her request was point-blank refused with not even as much as a free pack of tissues on offer.

The computer says no. She has never flown with that airline again.

While AirBnB’s policy could be open to abuse – I’m sure it wouldn’t take a mastermind to fake a picture of a hospital bracelet – in reality, few would bother. And in real-life crisis situations such as ours, their personal touch was so kind and their policy so understanding of the need for flexibility in a specific situation, that it was invaluable.

There was no computer saying no, there was merely a real human being who seemed to be genuinely sympathetic – and a company with a policy to help people.

I’ll not forget that next time I’m planning a holiday – neither will I book myself a budget travel insurance policy again.