- LATIN AMERICA
- MIDDLE EAST
- United Kingdom
- United States
- New Zealand
- South Africa
- iHaveNet.com: Travel
By Christopher Elliott
Terri Widder hesitated seconds before she booked a recent flight from Chicago to Tulsa. Something felt wrong.
She scrolled up on her computer screen and noticed an option to buy a $19.95 insurance policy that would protect her if her trip were canceled, her bags were stolen or she needed emergency assistance.
The box was already checked.
"Fortunately, I caught it before I confirmed the reservation," said Widder, a retiree who lives in Carol Stream, Ill. "I believe this is just another way to mislead the customer and get more in fees and adjustments in revenue from people who may not be that familiar with the process. There are no benefits to the customer."
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.
"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, 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
"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
I looped back in with
"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
Ethical or not, the practice may be illegal, according to Jeff Langenderfer, an associate professor at the
Customers agree that having to opt out of a purchase is out of line.
"This is akin to a car dealer negotiating a price but then slipping into the final paperwork a charge for upholstery stain protection or hundred-dollar floor mats that you did not order and do not need," said John Polich, a college professor in New York, who has had two trip insurance polices added to his cruises "as a favor" by his online travel agency in the past year.
Even some insurance companies frown on the practice. While Access America doesn't have any written guidelines for agents who sell its insurance, it recommends letting travelers make a choice. "The best practice we recommend is to require the customer to make a yes-or-no purchase decision," said Mark Cipolletti, an Access America spokesman. "In other words, neither option is pre-checked."
When made aware of Carlson's unwanted insurance purchase, Access America offered her a full refund.
Although insurance is primarily regulated by the states, the
Until then, travelers booking online must be extra careful before they click the "buy" button. Review the entire screen, as well as the fine print, to ensure that no one has checked a box for your convenience. Or theirs.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.
© U.S. Christopher Elliott, The Travel Troubleshooter
Travel | Ticket? Check. Bag? Check. Insurance? Pre-check