After a trip to Paris gone bad, Virginia Sinclair-Brooks is facing some serious bills. On her third day in Paris, her back “went out,” and she was in sudden, severe pain. Her daughter took her to the hospital, where doctors confirmed she had a herniated disc, touching her sciatic nerve.

But what happened next may touch a nerve with our readers. Sinclair-Brooks called her travel insurance company, Travelex, which told her the policy she bought through Marriott Vacation Clubs does not cover her trip.

Why not? Because she had booked the trip with Marriott Rewards points.

Sinclair-Brooks’ incredible story raises questions about what responsibility companies like Marriott Vacation Clubs have to disclose exclusions when they sell insurance policies to their customers, why trips purchased with points would be viewed differently, and what customers can do to ensure they’re never in a similar situation.

And that situation was dire. On her fifth day in the hospital, Sinclair-Brooks received the bad news: Because her trip to Paris was paid for with Marriott Rewards points earned on her Marriott Visa card, the policy would not cover her medical care. During the course of her hospital stay, which lasted 13 days, she also developed pneumonia, complicating matters. Given her fragile condition, doctors recommended she fly home to be treated by surgeons in the United States.

The cost of the medical flight and coordination: $45,000.

Her daughter helped coordinate their return to the U.S., using Travelex’s contracted company, On Call International. Despite the denial of coverage, Sinclair-Brooks continued using the company, in the hopes that she could figure out the mixup and have the claim paid once she was home.

And “mixup” is a euphemism, to be sure. Sinclair-Brooks is one of Marriott’s best customers. She is a “premier member” in its timeshare program, Marriott Vacation Club, and she takes trips through her membership a few times a year. She also has a Marriott Rewards credit card, which earns her points that she can apply to reward travel.

Because she travels so frequently, Sinclair-Brooks has an annual travel insurance policy purchased through Marriott Vacation Club. Back in October, when she booked her trip to Paris, she called her Marriott Vacation Club travel advisor to handle the booking, as she always does. In January, she called them back to make sure her insurance was all set for her upcoming April trip to Paris.

The Marriott Vacation Club travel advisor told her something crucial: her insurance policy expired on Dec. 31, and Marriott Vacation Clubs had switched insurance providers. The agent told her that her new policy would be with Travelex, and Sinclair-Brooks paid for the insurance over the phone. The Marriott Vacation Club agent didn’t tell her anything about exclusions, and didn’t send her a copy of the policy.

Although Sinclair-Brooks’ claim was denied, she proceeded with medical evacuation, as her problems were compounded. What would have been a simple laparoscopic procedure to remove a portion of her herniated disc had become complicated by pneumonia, an infection of the lungs that makes surgery much riskier.

On Call International, the medical evacuation company, arranged for a nurse to fly from New York to Paris to accompany Sinclair-Brooks on the transatlantic flight. She needed oxygen and was in excruciating pain, so the company arranged for a few rows of seats to be removed from a Lufthansa jumbo jet, and replaced with a gurney.

After a few days of recovering from pneumonia, Sinclair-Brooks had successful spinal surgery with a doctor near her home in Washington State. Since then, she has been unable to get a straight answer from Travelex about the so-called exclusions for having paid for her trip with Rewards Points.

Travelex even refunded the premium she paid for the policy, as if to disavow any responsibility or participation in this mess.

We contacted Marriott Vacation Club, which punted, claiming that it had nothing to do with the purchase of insurance.

A Marriott Vacation Club executive responded to my email:

The travel insurance is not sold by Marriott Vacation Club. Travel insurance products underwritten by Travelex, the insurer, are offered to Marriott Vacation Club owners and guests as an elective option for them to use. Any questions or concerns she has about the conditions and requirements of her coverage should be directed to Travelex as we were not involved directly with this transaction.

Well, that’s funny. Sinclair-Brooks bought the policy over the phone with Marriott Vacation Club. And if the company doesn’t sell insurance, how could they possibly “offer” the insurance to owners and guests? Is this a question of semantics?

I continue to assist Sinclair-Brooks in the handling of this insurance disaster, which is far from over. Travelex has yet to produce a copy of its policy, as required under the law. In the Description of Coverage documents available online, there is no exclusion related to payment of a trip with points.

I asked Sinclair-Brooks if she was being pestered by collections agents over the $45,000 debt. Painfully, she told me that she dipped into retirement savings to pay the debt, which she charged to her credit card.

Not just any credit card. Her Marriott Visa.

Any idea what she can do with all those points?

Update: Sinclair-Brooks wrote with good news: “TransAmerica (the policy underwriter) gave in and paid the medivac bill. The company made a “one time exception” because I “might not have known” of the exclusion used to deny the claim initially. Lots of work went into filling out claims and making phone calls. But I strongly suspect an intervention by a consumer advocate like you turned the tables.”


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