When it comes to travel insurance claims, Hannah Yun was about as sure as anyone that hers would be successful.
Shed bought a gold-plated cancel for any reason policy for a trip to South Korea. When her boyfriend proposed and she decided to call off the trip to start planning her wedding, she thought that collecting a check would be just a formality.
Travel Guard, the company shed purchased the policy through, turned down her claim on a technicality. Yun, a college student in Salt Lake City, originally told the company that her plane ticket cost $1,090; she actually paid $1,092.50.
Denied because of a $2.50 price difference? You bet.
It just doesnt make sense, says Yun, a refrain I hear often. Complaints about seemingly arbitrary rejections cross my desk at regular intervals. No surprise: Travel insurance is a $1.8 billion-a-year industry, according to the US Travel Insurance Association (www.ustia.org), an industry trade group. And it has been growing steadily, from $1.3 billion in 2006 to $1.6 billion two years later to the latest figure, from 2010.
Its no shocker in another sense, too: The travel insurance business is generally profitable, the occasional volcanic eruption or tsunami notwithstanding, and critics say that the only way it stays that way is by rejecting most claims, particularly the expensive ones. Thats difficult to prove or disprove. The industry insists that its rejection rates are low. About one in six policyholders will file a claim on their insurance, according to the association, and fewer than 10 percent of those claims are denied.
Yun was among that unhappy minority. When I asked about her claim, Carol Mueller, a vice president at Travel Guard, said the company had reviewed the case carefully and that according to its records, Yun had claimed and repeatedly verified the $1,090 ticket price.
The full cost of all nonrefundable prepaid trip arrangements is insured at the time of purchase, Mueller said. Ms. Yun did not insure her full trip cost as listed on her itinerary at the time of her insurance purchase, and that was the criterion for her denial.
Seriously? The rejection seems absurd to the average traveler, until you take a little time to understand how the travel insurance business works. Ive spent the last year studying it, in part because Ive been hearing about so many policy rejections and in part because a lot of my readers buy travel insurance hoping it will protect them from some of the unbelievably awful things that I write about every day on my blog.
I should also note that my website attracts a fair number of sponsorships from travel insurance companies and sellers of insurance. Consider this my disclosure. Id like to think that it doesnt affect the fairness of my coverage, but Im sure that youll let me know what you think once youve finished reading.
To understand why a travel insurance company does the often confounding things it does, you have to know more about the policies and talk with insiders who are familiar with the claims process. Travel insurance policies are set by underwriters, the entities that take on the risk of insuring you on your vacation. For example, Travel Guard is underwritten by the National Union Fire Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh, and that company gets to tell Travel Guard how to word its policies. The verbiage doesnt leave much to the imagination.
Take trip interruptions, for instance. When you buy a policy, your travel agent might tell you that youll be covered if your trip is interrupted. But the policy itself will strictly define the terms.
For example, an interruption can be covered if its caused by an unforeseen circumstance. A sample Travel Guard policy defined that as the sickness, injury or death of an insured person, or of an immediate family member, traveling companion or business partner. Injury or sickness must be so disabling as to reasonably cause a trip to be canceled or interrupted, it adds.
Few travelers bother to read that language before buying a policy. Slightly more will review it when they need to make a claim, but its still a considerable minority. Even when their claim is turned down, they try to appeal it by referring to their travel agents promises or arguing with the rejection letter without knowing what their policy actually says.
Dan Skilken, who runs the travel insurance website TripInsurance.com, says insurance companies play it by the book when a traveler files a claim. They consider the facts of the claim at face value; If the policy covers it, they cut a check. If it doesnt, they wont.
The reason for a denial is usually pretty simple, Skilken says.
It was in the case of David and Mary Phillips, who bought a $387 policy through Allianz Global Assistance for a recent cruise to Brazil. Unfortunately, they ran afoul of one small detail: Neither the cruise line, Azamara, nor their travel agent had told them that U.S. citizens must have visas to travel to Brazil. As a result, they were denied boarding on the boat, and they lost their $6,739 cruise.
David Phillips, a retired doctor in San Mateo, Calif., was upset about his ruined vacation and even unhappier that Allianz rejected his claim. But the Phillipses insurance policy is clear: It doesnt cover trip interruptions that result from visa or passport problems.
To claims adjusters, such denials are as obvious as the quickest way from their cubicle to the water cooler. But to outsiders such as Yun and Phillips and me, too theyre not. You start to understand why some travelers are angry. Some feel victimized by the travel agents and online retailers who sell these policies and dont always explain them as thoroughly as they should. Upon reflection, theyre also angry with themselves for ignoring policy details and assuming the insurance would cover anything that could go wrong with their trip.
Which brings us back to Yun, who had every reason to believe her insurance company would pay for her cancellation, no questions asked. Travel Guard seemed surprised that she hadnt bothered to review the details of her policy; if she had, she wouldnt have wasted her time with a claim.
Weve listened to all the calls with Ms. Yun, and while there were three opportunities when she could have corrected the total cost of her trip, this did not happen, says Mueller, the Travel Guard representative. As part of our commitment to providing astonishing customer service, we could have asked her a second and third time to double-check her exact trip cost, though we are not required or obligated to do so.
Still, Travel Guard agreed to make one of those high-level exceptions to its rules and honored the claim.
Mueller was quick to add that I should let consumers know that they ought to read their policy carefully and make sure to fill out their paperwork correctly.
I agree. But maybe some travel insurance companies need to spend a little more time talking with their customers outside the claims process, if for no other reason than to understand why travelers are so disappointed when their policy doesnt work as expected.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his website, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.