Waiting for assistance

    ITN was mailed a copy of the following letter, sent by a reader to Traveler’s Emergency Network (TEN) on Dec. 8.

My husband and I have been members of your organization since February 1998, and we have traveled abroad with more confidence due to our perception that our membership fees ensured we’d have “the best when it comes to travel assistance,” although we never had occasion to utilize your services.

On Nov. 17, 2005, at 7:45 a.m. in Wellington, New Zealand, I called collect to the telephone number listed on my membership identification card to seek a referral for medical consultation, in accordance with the instructions contained in my handbook and on my membership card. I expected to receive “immediate assistance,” as promised.

The person who took my call not only could not recognize my membership number, he apparently had never heard of Traveler’s Emergency Network. He attempted to advise me to call another 800 number, and when I reiterated that I was not in the U.S. he switched my call to another phone number, where I spoke to yet another person who had never heard of TEN. She suggested I call another number, which in fact was the original number I had called.

She ultimately switched me to a third party (I believe at the original number), who was able to recognize the name of the organization and to verify my membership. This person asked for my complete phone number in Wellington, which I provided, and informed me he would be back to me within the hour with a referral to a Wellington doctor or medical clinic.

After waiting two hours, I gave up and sought assistance from hotel staff, who were able to give me a referral to a doctor who was able to see me within two hours.

I remained at this hotel for 72 hours after I made this call, and I never received any response from a representative of TEN.

Perhaps you can imagine how this shakes our confidence in relying on TEN’s assistance in the event of a real emergency. In the years of our membership, we have traveled to several remote areas where we do not speak the local language, and I ask myself what the result would have been if we’d had a real emergency in Swaziland, Slovenia, Bulgaria or Botswana instead of a nonemergency in a developed country whose native language is English.

Vallejo, CA

    After six weeks, Ms. Poole told ITN that she had received no reply from TEN and was writing to them again (Jan. 22), this time requesting a refund of the premium. ITN mailed a copy of the above letter to Traveler’s Emergency Network and was sent a copy of their Feb. 22 reply to Ms. Poole, as follows:

Traveler’s Emergency Network has completed a review of the circumstances which led to the receipt of your letter, dated Jan. 22, 2006. The following information is from a detailed report from our current Assistance provider (On Call International) regarding its communications with you.

The Assistance Center received your call at 1:40 p.m. EST on November 16th. The Assistance Center contacted our affiliate in New Zealand requesting that it locate a physician for you. While the New Zealand affiliate was searching for a physician, our Assistance Center tried to call you at your hotel. The phone number given by you to the Assistance Center did not work.

The Assistance Center later tried again to contact you as it had found another phone number. This number went to an unidentified voice message; so there was no opportunity to leave a message for you at the Victoria Court Motor Lodge. Several more calls were placed to try and reach you without success. The Assistance Center operates on a 24-hour basis, so the 17-hour time difference was not a problem from this end.

The communications to and from countries outside of the United States presents most of the problems that we encounter. In this case, we had secured the information that you required but could not communicate it back to you.

Finally, on November 18th at 4:14 a.m. EST, the Assistance Center sent an e-mail to the hotel to your attention. This message included several physicians in the area that could provide assistance. According to the Assistance Center, you never called back after your initial call, nor did you respond to the e-mail sent to your attention.

Based on your feedback, the Assistance Center has determined that, in some circumstances, the phone lines in certain countries are not always compatible with our phone system. Most of the newer systems in the U.S. use digital systems, while in other countries they may still use analog systems. We now have additional ways to connect to these telephone networks.

In addition, our Assistance Center is constantly reviewing its processes and training procedures as part of TEN’s ongoing effort to continually improve its level of service and customer support.

Please rest assured that we are committed to meeting your needs, as well as those of all our members. We are sorry for the problems and inconvenience you may have faced during this incident. We are refunding your full membership as a show of good faith for delivering a service that was less than you expected.

EARL GRONKIEWICZ, President, Traveler’s Emergency Network, Box 668, Millersville, MD 21108

    Editor’s note: A lesson to be learned from the above predicament is to provide, if possible, more than one phone number or more than one way to be reached by a firm from which you are requesting assistance and a callback. In addition, if you have not received an expected call in a reasonable amount of time, cease waiting and try to call the firm back to find out what the problem is.