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Frommer’s Warns About Unwanted Travel Insurance

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A recent article on Frommer’s website discusses the common practice of including travel insurance with a vacation purchase.  Some travelers unexpectedly purchase a policy when they pay for a trip.  This is only avoided if the traveler chooses to opt-out before the booking is finalized.  The following is an excerpt from the article written by Christopher Elliott and addresses how this happened to a traveler named Terri Widder.

Forcing travelers to opt out of a purchase when they’re buying a ticket or a hotel room isn’t new. But the volume of complaints I’ve received about pre-checking is on the rise, as is the number of well-known travel companies engaged in this questionable e-commerce practice.

American Airlines (www.aa.com), the carrier on which Widder had booked her tickets, says it doesn’t pre-check boxes online and referred my questions to Yahoo Travel, the online travel agency through which the reservation was made. That site offers a policy through Travel Guard (www.travelguard.com), and as it turns out, it’s a good thing Widder gave her itinerary the once-over. If she hadn’t, she’d be stuck with a nonrefundable policy, according to the terms on the Travel Guard site.

“The practice of including travel insurance and other ancillary benefits is becoming more and more standard,” said Dan McGinnity, a spokesman for Travel Guard. “Thousands of people purchase travel insurance in this way. Our complaint rate is less than one-tenth of 1 percent.”

Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), which handles bookings for Yahoo Travel and is the company responsible for the pre-checking, said a majority of its users — 86 percent of customers booking domestic trips and 75 percent of those buying international vacations — click the “no” button.

“The price is also broken out as a separate cost, so there is no confusion on what is the airfare charge and the travel protection charge,” said Travelocity spokesman Joel Frey. “Should, however, a customer initially overlook the travel protection offer during checkout and later decide they do not want it, we’ll provide a refund within one billing cycle from the time of purchase.”

A follow-up call to Travelocity’s reservation number suggested that there might be some confusion about its return policy. A representative told me that an accidental insurance purchase might be refunded if it was bought within 24 hours.

Joyce Carlson, a reader from Oakland, Calif., recently had a similar experience to Widder’s when buying a round-trip airline ticket from San Francisco to Tokyo on Orbitz (www.orbitz.com). She discovered that she’d left her box checked and inadvertently purchased a policy through Access America (www.accessamerica.com). She wrote to Orbitz asking for a refund and received what appeared to be a form letter denying the request.

“We have found that many of our customers choose travel insurance when booking an international vacation to protect their investment in their trip should covered emergencies require that the trip be canceled,” an Orbitz representative said. “Therefore, we default to ‘Yes, Add Ticket Protector Plus’ to provide this peace of mind.”

I looped back in with Orbitz, where a spokesman told me, “I’m pretty sure we’re following industry practices in terms of how insurance is sold.”

Oh, really?

“I think it’s unethical and obnoxious,” said Lauren Bloom, a business ethicist based in Springfield. “You’re tricking people into buying your product.”

Thomas Way, an associate professor of computing sciences at Villanova University, said pre-checking isn’t an industry standard. “We teach our software engineering students that if they are designing a website, it should never do anything the visitor doesn’t explicitly ask it to do,” he told me. “Forcing an opt-out selection of anything — much less a purchase — is a great way to anger customers, drive away business and ultimately ruin one’s business.”

The U.S. Travel Insurance Association, a trade group to which both Access America and Travel Guard belong, doesn’t explicitly forbid pre-checking. Its code of ethics requires members to present their products “clearly and accurately” and to “make no misrepresentations, false or malicious statements” about their products or services.

Including insurance and other add-ons with a vacation purchase is a practice used by many types of travel providers from booking sites to vacation property managers.  It is important to review an insurance offering like this to make certain it provides adequate coverage.  Travel insurance does not require a policy be purchased from the travel supplier or even at the time of booking.  Travelers have the opportunity to shop and compare travel insurance before deciding on the right plan.