Monday 27th May 2024

Travel insurance: What to do when a natural disaster strikes on holiday

Storm Insurance

I was stranded in Bangkok after floods in Thailand. Here’s what I learned:

Weather happens. You can’t predict an act of God. We know this, but you still don’t really think it’s going to happen to you, not on your holidays, and not after you scrimped and saved all year for your dream break on a faraway island. But what if it does? How do you get the money back?

I’ve just got back from Thailand, which is suffering some of the worst floods it has experienced in recent history, sparking a national crisis, a death count of 31 (at last count) and hundreds of thousands displaced. My partner and I were staying at a resort on the beach of one of Thailand’s largest islands, Koh Samui. We booked the holiday more than 12 months ago after research told us Thailand would be out of monsoon season.

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The Thai government was issuing twice daily weather forecasts, and warned of inland water surges. I looked that up on Google and wished I hadn’t.

The rain started last Wednesday. There were brief breaks in intensity, but the water kept coming. At first, we shrugged and set about changing plans, waiting it out in our comfortable beach hut. But, by Thursday, and after a ferocious storm overnight, I was scared. Footage from the mainland was dreadful (far worse than our island), but there were still places where the water, we were told, was now waist deep. The locals were getting around in canoes. We were told to stay indoors and nearby if we could. That day, we ate lunch in the partially covered hotel bar when a huge wind whipped through and took the roof off one of the sunbathing shacks by the pool. The roof landed across five deck chairs; luckily no one was hurt.

Trouble in paradise

By Friday, much of the island was under water; some to more severe degrees than others. Landslides were reported (I saw them later), and several people had died. We were told that, once the rain stopped, the water would drain within hours – such is the benefit of being on an island. But the rain just didn’t stop. It was so loud that it felt like constant static in the ears. By now, the Thai government was issuing twice daily weather forecasts, and warned of inland water surges. I looked that up on Google and wished I hadn’t. I spent all of Friday on high alert. We were due to fly out Saturday, but Koh Samui airport had grounded planes for large parts of the week, leading to cancellations and hundreds of people stranded at the airport having missed flights. We were dreading the journey back and, having received more reports about the flooding on the roads near the airport, realised we might not even be able to get to the airport at all.

By Friday, much of the island was under water; some to more severe degrees than others. Landslides were reported (I saw them later), and several people had died.

Friday morning, 6am. It had rained hard all night. We woke and waited for our 4×4 vehicle (the only vehicles making it across the roads at this stage). The driver attempted one route first but had to reverse as the water was too high. He took us around another way and drove into water so high that it came up to the windows, skidding and twisting across layers of mud and sand. When we finally made it to the airport, the planes were taking off again but with large delays. The funny thing is, I felt the worst was definitely over, we’d be fine once we got to Bangkok.

Lost in communication

The flight, unsurprisingly, was two hours late. By the time we flew into Bangkok, we’d missed our British Airways (BA) flight connection to London. No big deal, right? I realise in hindsight how incredibly naïve I was.

There were around 30 of us from the Koh Samui flight who had missed our connections. While the flights to Koh Samui were run by Bangkok Airways, the entire package was marketed and sold by BA. But when we got to the BA desk nobody was there. We traipsed over to the Bangkok Airways ‘miscellaneous’ desk. One lady was there. She told us that all the flights back to the UK were overbooked but we might be able to squeeze on a standby ticket. ‘Even for all these people?’ I asked, waving at the crowd behind me. She looked concerned. Then more people started arriving. Now that planes were finally leaving Koh Samui again, there was a backlog of thousands of passengers trying to get out of there, as well as other areas in Thailand. All in Bangkok Airport, all desperate to get home.

There was a total lack of communication between all parties involved and we found it quite impossible to understand why every staff member we spoke to seemed to be confused and woefully under-prepared.

The upshot is that between our insurer, BA, and Bangkok Airways we did not know who to speak to or, indeed, if anyone could help. Our insurance would have covered us for up to £5,000 per person for flights, accommodation, or food under a special ‘catastrophe’ section, so we knew we could claim back any extra expenditure. What we hadn’t banked on was just how difficult it would be to book another flight.

‘Who do we need to talk to?’ – we all asked time and time again. Nobody knew. I called BA for information. The phones rang out and then cut out. Over the course of two days, a core group of 20 of us who were stranded tried to contact BA to no avail. Twitter, the great bastion for customers needing swift attention and information, was no good either. I was tweeted back, at last, by BA, 48 hours after my plea. ‘Sorry John. This was a disappointing flight.’ An automated tweet, no less, and who was John? We were fuming.

There was a total lack of communication between all parties involved and, given the mounting scale of the problem, we found it quite impossible to understand why more staff from each airline had not been drafted in, and why every staff member we spoke to seemed to be confused and woefully under-prepared. Is there not a standard protocol for crisis communications and management in place by now? Not at Bangkok airport or with BA.

Love nor money

We went to the Bangkok Airways desk in between visits to the BA desk. There were just two women dealing with us all and more people kept turning up. We caught up with others from our flight, they told us there was no way we would get out that day and to ask for a hotel. A couple of hours later, Bangkok Airways sent a coachload of us to a hotel. ‘How will you know to contact us?’ We asked, thinking we would be called and that a queuing system might be in place to address the backlog. They nodded and smiled. We got to the hotel and asked the staff ‘have you heard from the airport?’ No one knew anything about it. Around 10pm that night, after calling BA, Bangkok Airways, and the airport, and all calls ringing out again, it dawned on us that nobody was going to help. We would need to go back to the airport and barter for flights to somewhere else, anywhere else.

On Sunday morning, the BA desk was finally open. The lady there was incredibly unhelpful. She said there were no flights available to anywhere in Europe until perhaps the Wednesday and that BA accepted no responsibility for any costs incurred. After I spent some time trying to cut through various tangential fobbing off, she revealed that the queueing system for flights was bullshit, too. All of us who had believed we would be put on a flight according to our place in the queue had been misguided. It was a bun fight the entire way through and a case of he/she who fights the longest and hardest wins. ‘What about flights tomorrow?’ I asked the BA lady. She shrugged and said, ‘let’s worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.’  I laughed (bitterly) and said: ‘Okay…so, see you tomorrow. Same time?’ and she laughed back. ‘I’m not working tomorrow.’

It was a bun fight the entire way through and a case of he/she who fights the longest and hardest wins.

We were desperate. ‘Just buy a ticket on the internet then and claim it back later!’ Our families urged us, when it became clear that BA were not going to help us arrange it. We tried and failed. Airlines were advertising flights that were already overbooked, and, while this practice is no secret, we found it both surprising and appalling that we couldn’t get on a flight online or at the airport, yet seats were still being advertised as available. At times like this, why do these deals not get paused? Our best bet was to go back to Bangkok Airways as they at least had access to the computers in the airport that were showing the true availability across each airline.

On the second night, Bangkok Airways stepped in once more and put us up in another hotel with more meal tickets for free. The next day we spent another five hours between airline desks and finally managed to get on a flight home through Bangkok Airways. We were incredibly lucky and didn’t have to pay a thing. I since found out that others paid for accommodation or didn’t get put up at all. One Norwegian passenger had spent three days sleeping in the airport. What did I learn from all this? If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Also, get travel insurance.

Essential travel advice should it happen to you:

Before you go on holiday…

Get insured

Not all insurers provide ‘catastrophe cover’ and some of them categorise different disasters as acts of God (which are outside of the cover). Confusing. My advice? If you are going away to a far flung destination near the equator, make sure you’ve got catastrophe cover on every eventuality. Please note, these policies will only cover unforeseen events. With every single claim, you need to keep receipts and get documentation from your carrier if there is a delay. You should also keep note of any coverage the disaster receives in the press. Why? Some insurers will use this to help validate your claim.

Buy with a credit card

Not strictly to do with natural disasters, but it’s good to know that, if you buy a flight with a credit card, then you are covered under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act for purchases between £100 and £3,000. If an airline goes bust while you are away or after you bought flights this could come in useful.

It has to be really bad

Basically, you can’t claim on insurance because the weather was a bit grotty. Stuff needs to be bad, uninhabitable or impossible. Check your policy for any specifications around what type of situation is classed as bad enough to warrant you cancelling or changing plans.

Don’t book with BA (kidding… kind of)

If disaster strikes…

If you don’t ask, you’re unlikely to get

Since getting back we realised that while our delay was caused effectively by Bangkok Airways they could have blamed adverse weather conditions and washed all hands of us in the same way BA did. They didn’t. However, they were not forthcoming with help. We asked for replacement flights, hotels, and meal tickets and managed to get the lot. It wasn’t easy, it required quite a lot of patience and persistence, but it paid off.

Don’t be fobbed off

More than once over last weekend, we were told a confusing nugget of information and told to ‘come back to the desk.’ So we’d wander off and then realise we still weren’t any closer to getting home, wander back again to find another massive queue had formed. My advice? Go to the desk with a list of questions and don’t leave until they’ve addressed each one. In our case, they kept trying to add us to standby queues for flights, but we also wanted a backup flight, too. I felt super awkward and pushy standing at the desk for nigh on five hours, but it was worth it. Customers who didn’t do this are probably still at the airport – yes, it was that bad.

Keep all of your receipts

If you do need to make a claim on insurance, you’ll need to keep all of your receipts. If an airline made you late, make sure you get a letter of apology from them – this will help you receive a payout, too.

For a snapshot of what Amy went through, here’s a short video from the island:

Amy Rowe

Mouthy Blogger

Ex journo now digital PR person who is okay at running and bad at saving.

    1. Thanks Marianne! Well, I didn’t even know we’d got that cover. We were v. lucky we didn’t have to use it! I’ve realised since the carrier owned the airport (Bangkok Airways owns Koh Samui airport) so that’s why we were as lucky – I guess they wanted to do some damage limitation. Re insurance again – Other travellers said their insurers wouldn’t cover it. It’s a definite grey area.

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