CBS News August 21, 2018, 7:48 AM Senator demands answers from travel insurance industry
Consumers spent nearly $3 billion on travel insurance in 2016, more than double in 2006. Now, Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, is demanding answers from the travel insurance industry after a report from his office warns consumers might not get the protection they think they've paid for. The senator is sending the letters to insurers Tuesday, reports CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave.
New AAA research finds nearly 40 percent of Americans are likely to buy travel insurance for an international flight. The biggest reason is cancellation protection. Travel insurance can cover your trip if you're too sick to fly, get laid off or get injured while traveling, or even if a bag gets lost. But it does not cover everything.
Laura Tropiano spent nearly $1,100 on flights to Europe for her and husband Matt, a Marine veteran who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, to celebrate their second anniversary. With the trip 10 months away, she bought travel insurance through the airline.
"I just had a feeling that this time we'd need it and it wasn't that expensive," Tropiano said. "So about a month after we book the trip, I find out that I'm pregnant with my daughter, and she's due October 21 and our return flight to come back from Europe was October 19, so naturally you can't fly when you're that pregnant."
While the insurance covered illness, it didn't cover pregnancy. Her claim was denied.
"The only thing skimpier than airplane legroom is the coverage of these insurance policies," Markey said.
A review by Markey's office found nearly all major U.S. airlines and online booking sites sell travel insurance, typically requiring consumers to click yes or no to purchasing before being allowed to book a trip. The report found "questionable travel insurance marketing practices for policies that offer minimal coverage and often erect hurdles to the payment of claims."
"Consumers are being tipped upside down, money is shaken out of their pockets, and it's split between the airlines and the insurance companies, and it's just plain wrong," Markey said.
Just two companies underwrite all those policies. In a statement, the US Travel Insurance Association said the industry was not contacted by Markey and added, "Travel insurance … is a valuable product that protects consumers' financial investment."
The group "recommends that travelers fully understand the coverage options they are purchasing to make sure it fits their needs. …The purchase of travel insurance is voluntary."
The Better Business Bureau said complaints are on the rise, on pace to exceed 700 this year – more than double the 342 in 2015.
Chris Elliott runs Elliott.org, a consumer advocacy website that tracks the travel industry.
"The solution is better disclosure by the travel insurance companies and the airlines and online travel agencies who are selling these products. And the solution, ultimately, is a more informed consumer, by which I mean people actually reading the fine print," Elliott said.
For Tropiano and her husband, the airline refunded the taxes on their canceled trip, but they were out more than $700. Tropiano said she now ignores the travel insurance box when booking travel.
"No, thank you. I'll be out the money anyway," she said with a chuckle.
The report found similarly priced travel insurance plans not offered by the travel sites often came with better coverage. We reached out to Norwegian Air, the airline Tropiano was flying. The airline said its trip protection insurance and refund policies are clear and were properly followed, but as a courtesy will offer refunding the remainder of her airfare.
Here are full statements from industry groups:
US Travel Insurance Association Statement
"UStiA is not aware of Senator Markey or his staff having contacted us or anyone in the travel industry while they were compiling this report. As such, we found that the report did not match industry's experience with its customers, and we would be glad to share that experience with the Senator.
Travel insurance – whether purchased through airlines, travel agencies or online travel agencies, cruise lines, brokers, internet aggregators, or directly from insurance companies – is a valuable product that protects consumers' financial investment. UStiA recommends that travelers fully understand the coverage options they are purchasing to make sure it fits their needs. As with homeowners and auto insurance, travel insurance has some limits and conditions, and therefore, travelers should thoroughly review the terms and conditions before – and after – purchase. The purchase of travel insurance is voluntary."
Allianz also referred CBS News to the UStiA statement above.
Airlines For American Statement, the trade association representing most U.S. Airlines
"Passengers may choose to obtain third-party travel insurance, which is typically offered on many airline websites in order to safeguard them in the event they are unable to travel as planned. 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."
"Each year, travel insurance plans provide millions of travelers with protection for their financial investment and valuable travel assistance services. We ensure that a thorough description of coverage is available to our policy holders at all times."
Victoria Cagliero, spokesperson for the Expedia Group, which owns Expedia, Hotwire, Orbitz and Travelocity, said: "We are unable to comment on a report we haven't seen."
© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.