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By Herb Weisbaum

You’re online and ready to buy an airline ticket, but before you can checkout, the airline’s website pushes you to spend a little more to buy travel insurance to protect against delays and cancellation fees.

The hard sell includes phrases such as “highly recommended,” or “protect your trip.” In fact, with some airlines, you cannot complete the transaction without buying or declining the insurance offer.

Expect a similar pitch to purchase insurance from booking websites such as Orbitz or Expedia. With Orbitz the “no” button reads: “I understand by declining this coverage that I may be responsible for cancellation fees and delay expenses either personally or through alternate cover.”

Choose no and you’ll be reminded that “Your flight is not protected. Over $43.5 million worth of trips were cancelled in 2017 without insurance,” along with the opportunity to “reconsider” to avoid change fees and “protect your trip.”

Spending a little more to buy this “peace of mind” may seem like the sensible thing to do, but a recent analysis by Checkbook.org concludes that these policies “are (often incredibly) bad buys” for most travelers.

“It’s bizarre. Airlines and travel companies have manufactured an insurance product to protect their customers from their own ridiculously expensive fees and cruel cancellation policies,” said Kevin Brasler, executive editor of Checkbook.org. “These plans are pushed as good, sensible buys, but they actually provide pretty thin coverage, and most travelers don’t risk much skipping it.”

NOTE: Southwest Airlines does not sell travel insurance. It’s consumer-friendly policies include no change fees and the ability to change or cancel a flight up until 10 minutes prior to departure. Southwest Vacations does offer travel insurance for trip packages.

WHAT’S THE COST AND WHAT’S REALLY COVERED?

Checkbook found that most trip and cancellation policies typically cost $15-$30 per person for inexpensive flights and up to 15 percent of the airfare for pricey flights. They promise to reimburse you for:

  • Nonrefundable prepaid costs if you cancel your trip due to illness, death, employment termination or the need to stay home to care for a sick family member.
  • Additional costs if you miss a flight or connection for reasons beyond your control, such as weather or car accident.
  • Increased costs of interrupting your trip due to a medical problem, or a medical crisis or death in the family.
  • Lost or damaged luggage.

But read the terms and conditions, as Checkbook did, and you’ll find long lists of limitations and exclusions. “Most travelers will find the actual coverage pretty useless,” the report said.

The policies sold on most airline and booking websites often have dozens of “gotchas,” Checkbook found, which are typically disclosed in documents that run 15-20 pages.

As an example, the policies sold on the American Airlines website don’t cover:

  • Trip cancellation due to a preexisting medical condition, pregnancy or childbirth, or if there’s “any problem or event that could have reasonably been foreseen or expected” when you purchase the ticket.
  • Delays or cancellation caused by natural disaster, like hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and floods; air, water or other pollution; war or civil unrest; terrorist events; nuclear disasters; and epidemics.

THE AIRLINES RESPOND

NBC News BETTER contacted, American, Delta, and United to get their response to the Checkbook report.

United Airlines said its “affordable insurance program” offers trip cancellation/interruption coverage for non-refundable airline tickets, hotel reservation and rental car costs, as well as coverage for emergency medical and dental, emergency medical transportation, travel delay and concierge services. “Travel insurance can provide a customer peace of mind, by helping to cover a customer’s trip investment, offset expenses from travel mishaps and provide emergency travel assistance,” United said in its emailed statement.

We did not hear back from Delta, and American referred us to the industry trade group, Airlines for America, which provided this statement:

“There are a variety of travel insurance options in the marketplace enabling consumers to determine what, if any, coverage best meets their individual needs. Notably, airlines also offer fully-refundable tickets for customers concerned that they will need last-minute changes to their travel.”

YOU MAY ALREADY HAVE COVERAGE

Consumer advocate Charlie Leocha, president and co-founder of Travelers United, points out that trip insurance is a big revenue generator for the airlines. And while some consumers benefit from it, he believes “most travelers don’t need this kind of insurance.”

His advice: Check to see if any of your credit cards offer trip insurance as a free perk; many do.

Last summer, WalletHub, the personal financial website, compared travel insurance coverage offered by 64 credit cards from the largest issuers to come up with a list of 2018’s Best Credit Cards with Travel Insurance. WalletHub found that:

  • 93 percent of all credit cards and 85 percent of business credit cards offer travel accident insurance.
  • Nearly half (46 percent) of all cards and 20 percent of business cards offer trip cancellation insurance.
  • 39 percent of all cards and 60 percent of business cards offer lost luggage insurance.
  • 25 percent of all cards and 20 percent of business cards offer delayed luggage insurance.

WHEN TRAVEL INSURANCE MAKES SENSE

Veteran travel reporter Ed Perkins, who writes for SmarterTravel, says cancellation insurance only makes sense if you have a non-refundable ticket or cancellation penalties “that amount to more than you can afford to walk away from — thousands not hundreds of dollars.”

“The policies the airlines sell are pretty meager,” Perkins said. “If you need travel insurance, you generally need more than the policies the airlines sell.”

Perkins suggests that if you want insurance, skip the airlines or the travel website and use a site such as InsureMyTrip, QuoteWright or SquareMouth to compare various policies from different companies. You want to look for coverage and exclusions.

For travel outside the U.S., you may want to consider international travel insurance to cover medical expenses should you get sick or injured while abroad. (Medicare does not cover foreign healthcare costs.) These policies will also pay for the staggering cost of medical evacuation, if you need to be taken to a place with better medical care, and your health insurance plan does not cover the expense. Checkbook has detailed advice on travel medical insurance for anyone traveling internationally.

MORE TRAVEL TIPS

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