By Christopher Elliott
CSA Travel Protection’s website promises that its policyholders can “travel with confidence,” so when Norma Tarrow’s flight from New York to San Francisco was canceled after the recent Asiana Airlines crash landing, she felt protected, she said.
But she wasn’t, at least not in the way she thought. When she filed a claim for the $565 she had to pay for a new flight when her trip was interrupted, her insurance company turned her down, saying that the flight cancellation wasn’t a “covered reason” under her policy.
Her request didn’t seem unreasonable to Tarrow. She was in a wheelchair recovering from surgery when the aviation disaster left her stranded in a JFK terminal.
Her airline told her that the soonest it could fly her home was two days later, so she asked her son to book a ticket to San Jose, Calif., on another airline. If ever there were a time to invoke insurance, it was then.
A new study by the Washington-based advocacy group National Consumers League suggests that the travel insurance industry profits from customers like Tarrow by using misleading language to lure them into buying a policy, but denying too many claims based on the fine print.
It’s particularly critical of the airline industry, which it claims enjoys a symbiotic relationship with travel insurers, making hefty commissions on the sale of useless policies.
“Gouging consumers whose plans change because of a family illness or other unforeseen events is not a good business model,” said Sally Greenberg, the consumers group executive director.
This gap between a traveler’s expectation and the realities of travel insurance is hardly new. But the NCL’s conclusion that the chasm appears to be widening at the expense of the traveler is noteworthy.
The study says that while overall travel insurance sales are rising, surging 46 percent between 2006 and 2012 to $1.9 billion, so are airline change fees.
Air travelers are left with two options to avoid a $200 ticket change fee: book a refundable ticket (the cheapest costs 350 percent more on average than the cheapest nonrefundable ticket, according to NCL’s research) or buy travel insurance.
These policies are often sold online under high-pressure conditions, at the conclusion of an airline reservation and without adequate notification of the coverage terms, according to NCL.
The US Travel Insurance Association, a trade group for the travel insurance industry, says that some of the report’s findings are flawed. “There’s no correlation between the increase in travel insurance sales and airline change and cancellation fees,” says the association’s spokeswoman, Linda Kundell. “That’s a totally erroneous conclusion.”
The growth in travel insurance sales is linked to stepped-up industry efforts to market its product, increased consumer awareness of the benefits of travel insurance, and a rise in travel spending, according to Kundell.
But she didn’t disagree with all the NCL report’s conclusions. She says that the travel insurance industry is always concerned with the way its products are marketed online.
The NCL is calling for “common sense” reforms, including an industry pledge to market travel insurance in “clear, nonmisleading” language.
It’s also calling for congressional oversight hearings to review the relationship between rising change and cancellation fees and the aggressive marketing of cancellation insurance.
NCL is also proposing a tiered change fee schedule based on the proximity of your travel date.
By the way, Tarrow’s appeal didn’t have a happy ending, even after I took up her case. CSA stood by its decision.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2013 Christopher Elliott/ Tribune Media Services Inc.