A B.C. couple who bought travel interruption insurance were shocked to find a large part of their claim denied — after their flight was grounded en route to their destination and they were stranded by an earthquake.  

"We were told we had the very best trip interruption insurance," said Rick Blake, from Burnaby.

Blake and his wife, Frances, were on their way to Buenos Aires to take a cruise last year — to celebrate her retirement — when their Air Canada plane, which had been scheduled to make a brief stopover in Santiago, Chile, wound up being grounded due to damage from a bird strike.

Air Canada put them up in a Santiago hotel, while the plane was being repaired. Then, in the middle of the night of Feb. 27, an earthquake struck Chile.

"At three o'clock Saturday morning, the hotel starts to shake," said Rick. "And then three or four seconds later I thought 'Oh my God, it's an earthquake.'"

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Rick and Frances Blake's trip to Buenos Aires didn't happen because they got stranded en route during the earthquake in Chile. ((CBC))

"[Santiago]

was just a stopover," said Frances. "We were supposed to be there for less than an hour."

The Blakes said they were stranded in Santiago for several days, along with dozens of other Canadians who had been on the same flight, because the airport was closed. When it opened, Frances said, they were flown home on an Air Canada flight, which they had to pay for.

Not covered for flights

"We thought that's all the information we needed to give to our insurance company and we would be covered," said Frances.

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They had purchased premium Manulife "trip interruption and disruption insurance" from Transat, through their travel agent. They said they were shocked when Transat informed them by letter that they would be reimbursed for their cruise but not for the flights to and from Santiago.

"They told us any portion you took was used and you would not be refunded for," said Rick.

The Blakes said the flights were the most expensive part of their trip, and set them back almost $3,000. They can't understand why their  insurer wouldn't cover them entirely.

"I think we did everything possible and we took the travel agent at her word," said Rick. "She said this is the best you could buy. And if your holiday was interrupted for any reason, then you would receive a full refund."

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The Blakes were shocked to find their trip interruption insurance did not fully cover their interrupted trip. ((CBC))

The Blakes said they are not upset with their travel agent, especially because she went to bat for them later trying to get the claim paid in full.

Their complaint is with the policy sold by Transat, which said in the fine print of the policy booklet that they would only be covered for any "unused" portion of their trip.

"If I had to read that, I would have been in the travel agent's office four to five hours reading their booklet," said Rick. "I am not a lawyer."

'Unfortunate,' says company

Transat sent a brief statement to CBC News, which said: "The situation described by Mrs. and Mr. Blake is unfortunate, but we believe that the treatment they received was fair under the circumstances and that Transat and the insurer stood by their commitments."

Manulife did not return calls asking for an interview.

"It's as if they all said, 'Well these people have been through a terrible experience here. What can we possibly dream up to make it even worse?'" said Rick.

"It's common that [flights] won't be covered," said Lorraine Bullock of the British Columbia Automobile Association, which sells thousands of travel insurance policies each year.

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The earthquake on February 27, 2010 forced Santiago to close its airport. ((CBC))

"There are a lot of losses when people are precluded from travelling," Bullock said. For example, we had people when H1N1 struck. We had people who, part of their trip included Mexico, and they had to cut their trip short," said Bullock.

Plane tickets are almost never covered, she said, because they are not "unused" travel.

"That is the way insurance policies work," she said. "People need to be aware that this limitation exists on their policies."