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Having second thoughts about that Mexico trip

March 15, 2009|CATHARINE HAMM

Question: I am a 22-year-old college student who decided that it would be a wonderful idea to go to Cancun this spring break. In light of the recent events (kidnappings and murders), I have since decided that Cancun is not the ideal destination and have begun the process of canceling this trip. I would love a refund for my airline ticket. How do I do that?

Sarah Tjoa


Answer: You probably don't.

The least expensive airline tickets generally are nonrefundable (and nontransferable), so if you have to cancel you usually can get a credit, which can be good for as long as a year.

But Tjoa says she doesn't intend to go to Mexico in the next year. She just doesn't feel safe, she says.

We feel her pain. We really do. But in all likelihood she can say hasta la vista to that money.

She's just learned one of the harsh realities of the no-safety-net world of travel, and it's this: You either have to read the very fine print about refunds (dull but important) and buy your ticket accordingly or purchase cancel-for-any-reason insurance (also dull but important and not inexpensive, to boot).

My colleague Jane Engle, a longtime travel consumer reporter, always counsels me to buy insurance for any trip I can't afford to eat -- which, for me, is pretty much every trip. I haven't always taken her advice, so I've had a few ticket banquets.

But you can skip the smorgasbord by backgrounding yourself on any foreign destination you're considering, no matter how safe you think it is. Start with the State Department's site,, where you'll find the Feb. 20 alert on Mexico. That one superseded the alert of October 2008, which superseded the alert issued in October 2007.

So clearly, the problems in Mexico didn't happen overnight. Indeed, if you look at the Los Angeles Times' "Mexico Under Siege" series,, you'll see a ticker that counts the number of drug-war-related deaths (more than 7,300) since January 2007.

Even if you're not going to party -- and Tjoa says she was interested in the culture of the Maya, not the culture of mayhem -- that doesn't mean you won't become the victim of those living la vida loca. "Too many young people go away with friends during holiday time and leave their brains at home," says Susan Tanzman, owner of Martin's Travel in L.A. and the mother of two grown sons.

Still, a spring-break trip in Mexico "can be done safely," says John Rendeiro, vice president for global security and intelligence for International SOS, which helps travelers with, among other things, medical and security concerns abroad. "Plan your trip, be careful about side trips off the beaten track, travel in daylight hours only, and you can mitigate a lot of the risk."

Is Tjoa carrying caution too far? Readers, parents and travelers, what do you think? Send us your thoughts at, and we'll share them. Because this issue, like the drug war, isn't going away any time soon.


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