ALBERTA

Vacation Companies ‘Pass The Buck' After Honeymoon Wrecked By Hurricane

01/14/2015 07:00 EST | Updated 03/16/2015 05:59 EDT
A honeymooning Edmonton couple spent three days holed up in a storm-wrecked Mexican resort, and then returned home to begin a two-month fight over compensation for the unused portion of their ruined vacation.

After inquiries from Go Public, RBC Insurance refunded the three days as a “goodwill gesture,” but said its vacation insurance policy doesn’t cover such a loss, and that industry practice is for hotels and tour operators to compensate guests.

Andrew Hillier says no one told him that was the practice, and he believes he’d still be waiting had he not told his story publicly.

“It’s all news to me. Everyone seems to pass the buck,” Hillier said. “We were in the dark. It’s kind of hard to make sense of it.”

Hiller, and his wife, Sarah, planned to spend a two-week honeymoon in September 2014 at the Riu Santa Fe resort in Cabo San Lucas.

Hillier paid $416 for RBC’s Deluxe Package to cover medical emergencies, lost luggage, flight accident and cancellation, and for trip interruption — exactly the situation he says he and his wife found themselves in when Hurricane Odile tore across Mexico’s Baja Peninsula halfway through their stay.

RBC Insurance did issue them a cheque for $970 on Nov. 4,  for five days’ unused vacation beginning when they arrived home in Edmonton.

But the Hilliers believed they were owed $400 more, saying their honeymoon ended once Odile made the resort uninhabitable.

RBC’s travel interruption policy lists as a benefit “the non-refundable unused portion of your prepaid travel arrangements,” but RBC maintains the unused portion of the vacation began once they arrived home in Edmonton.

“We didn’t use anything,” Sarah Hillier said.

“No food, no water, not even anywhere to sleep — our room was drenched. So I’m not understanding what we’re paying for.”

Little warning of hurricane’s approach

The Hillers said that when they arrived, they had no inkling of what was coming and spent the first week enjoying the sun and sea.

“It was gorgeous. It was everything you hope to see when you go to Mexico,” Sarah said.

On Sept. 14, the sky darkened and the sea got rough, but Andrew said resort guests had no idea what lay over the horizon.

“We had no warning that there was a hurricane. We thought it might be a storm, but nothing was really said,” he said.

As guests took pictures of the rising surf, resort staff began packing up chairs and closing outdoor pools.

Then, in late afternoon, guests were told to return to their rooms because a hurricane was coming.

Odile —  the most powerful storm to hit Baja in the modern era — made landfall at Cabo San Lucas with winds of up to 200 km/h.

Andrew said they spent a harrowing night in their room without power, listening to glass smashing outside and watching the walls shake.

“It sounded like a train when it’s at full-go,” he said.

All-inclusive resort wrecked, abandoned

The next morning revealed Odile’s destruction. The Hilliers’ second-floor room was soaked. On the ground level, knee-deep water had swamped rooms as it swept through the resort.

They emerged from their building to find other shocked guests wandering through the mud and debris in an eerie silence.

“There was no staff that we could see,” Andrew said.

“The front desk was abandoned. The lobby was abandoned. Nobody knew anything.”

Hundreds of hotel guests had to cope with intense heat and humidity without food or running water, and the Hillers said it wasn’t long before people started helping themselves to whatever they could find.

“Anytime you saw anybody with food or water you were asking, ‘Where did you find this?’ Because we didn’t have anything,” Sarah said.

The Hillers said there was no information, only rumours, and that the entrance to the resort was blocked by polluted, waist-deep water. They said they were warned by locals not to go into town because of mass looting.

“If we could have left voluntarily, we would have,” Sarah said. “But there was no way of getting out.”

On Sept. 17, word got around that buses might come to take people to the airport. The couple followed a trail of other people who had climbed a fence and walked through scrubland to the road.

That evening, after six hours of what they describe as a chaotic scene outside a wrecked airport terminal, they boarded an emergency flight to Vancouver.

He said he called Go Public after two frustrating months trying to reach RBC.

“To have a company that big squabbling over a couple of days, to them it’s not much. But to a family, it’s hundreds and hundreds of dollars.”

Andrew said RBC never told him he should pursue anyone else for compensation.

Paid out as ‘goodwill gesture’

RBC Insurance initially told Go Public it can take over two months to review an appeal, and the Hillers’ was still in process.

However, the next day the couple received a call saying RBC had arrived at a solution.

In a statement, RBC Insurance said the time the Hilliers spent in the abandoned resort isn’t covered by its policy.

Catherine Hudon, RBC’s senior manager for communications, said it’s common for hotels to reimburse travellers when accommodations are affected by extreme weather.

But since that hadn’t happened, Hudon said, RBC decided “to pay the claim as a goodwill gesture to our clients.”

Riu Hotels and Resorts maintains it has compensated all its guests who were in the hotel from the time Odile hit until their return home, according to Laura Malone, Riu's communication director.

Hiller denied he was ever contacted by Riu or by tour operator Sunwing and said he assumed his claim was with RBC.

Sunwing said it was unaware Riu was offering compensation and promised to follow up with the Hilliers.

Hiller believes he would still be trying to collect had he not told his story publicly.

“Nobody likes bad publicity. Unfortunately, unless it is in the limelight, I think a lot of companies can get away with stuff like that, because who’s going to say anything?” Hillier said.

“It’s good to have programs like this that can stick up for the little guy.”

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