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The trip cancellation policy for her European river cruise promises her a full refund, but when Sylvia Sweeney tries to recover the $5,595 she spent through her tour operator, she's turned down. Can Sweeney do anything to recover her money?

Q: We're having a problem with a travel insurance claim, and need some help sorting it out. We recently booked a European river cruise through Grand Circle Travel. Since my husband and I are both over 80 years old, we were interested in a trip cancellation policy, in case we couldn't make it.

We called and spoke with a Grand Circle representative to clarify that their insurance would cover us. We were assured that we would receive a full refund if a cancellation were necessary. His exact words were, "You can cancel anytime -- even up to the last day -- and receive your money back."

Because of a problem with my husband's spine, we had to cancel our cruise. We filed a claim, but after much back and forth with Grand Circle, we were referred to its insurance company, TripMate.

They have refused a refund and have issued travel vouchers that must be used in a year and are not transferable. To take advantage of the vouchers it would involve a long flight, and I am not able to do this. We would greatly appreciate any help you can give us with this matter. -- Sylvia Sweeney, Summerfield, Fla.

A: If Grand Circle promised a full refund for your cruise, you should get a refund. But did the company really guarantee an unconditional refund if you had to cancel for any reason?

Most travel insurance policies come with pages of fine print, including exceptions for pre-existing conditions, bad weather or other unforeseen events. That should have been clearly explained to you when you booked your trip -- not when you were making a claim.

Either the Grand Circle representative with whom you spoke made assurances about your policy that were overly broad, and ultimately misleading, or you didn't understand what he said. That's the trouble with phone conversations: there's no written transcript, and the conversation can easily be misinterpreted.

Grand Circle should have either offered to send you a brochure with the documentation on the policy or pointed you to a place on its Web site where you could read the details. Telling you that you can cancel "anytime" and you can receive a full refund -- if, indeed, he said that, left you with the impression that you were totally protected. I don't know if there's any kind of policy that can offer full protection.

Next time you book a vacation, take a little time to review the fine print. Remember, talk is cheap. When you call the sales department, they'll tell you what they need to make the sale. (That's why they call it the sales department.) If someone makes a claim that seems too good to be true, ask for it in writing.

Some large travel companies record their sales calls, so it might be possible to go back to the tape and review the promises that were made. Certainly, if you decide to make a reservation by phone, it helps to take good notes, including the name and extension of the representative who helped you.

Grand Circle shouldn't have deferred to its insurance company. If it made a claim about your insurance that wasn't true, then it needs to make this up to you. And a voucher is not a "full refund" that you were originally offered.

I contacted Grand Circle, and it refunded you $5,595 -- the full amount of your cruise.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.