“Opt out” scams rampant throughout travel industry

Ever buy travel insurance you didn't want? Unintended purchases are yet another of the traps the travel industry sets for you. A recent reader's experience shows how it works:

“Opt out” scams rampant throughout travel industry

Ever buy travel insurance you didn’t want? Unintended purchases are yet another of the traps the travel industry sets for you. A recent reader’s experience shows how it works:

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“I was billed for travel insurance I did not want. I “ordered” it by not unchecking a box next to small print when buying international air tickets from a big online travel agency (OTA). I don’t even remember seeing the box. Once I caught the problem, I called to cancel, but the agency had already billed my credit card and I’ll have to wait a month or more for the refund to process. Later I had the same problem with a cruise agency. In my view, the default option should always be not to buy — anything else is deceptive.”

I agree completely: The practice of automatically filling in a check or “yes” or “accepts” in a box on an order form is called “opt out,” indicating that you must take action to avoid buying whatever the extra might be. And it’s a borderline scam. It’s a minor nuisance if you can still go back and undo the deal, but it’s a major hassle if you don’t find out about it until after you’ve accepted the deal. Opt-out isn’t limited to OTA sites, either; travel agents may also include one or more extras in your total package or itinerary.

In my experience, travel insurance is the opt-out you’re most likely to encounter here in the United States. It’s almost routine when you buy tour packages or cruises, and you may also see it on straight air ticket and hotel-room purchases, as well. Insurance is almost automatic when you book local flights on European airlines: EasyJet, for example, automatically adds cancellation insurance to an ordinary air ticket on an opt-out basis.

This isn’t to knock the idea of travel insurance, as such. It’s generally a good idea any time you buy something with hefty cancellation penalties — which tours and cruises often entail. The problem with opt-out insurance is that it might not be the best policy for you. I always recommend, for example, buying a policy that includes primary rather than secondary medical coverage, because it saves so many bill-paying hassles if you actually have to use it. The cheaper opt-out policy is likely to offer only secondary medical. And opt-out certainly isn’t a good idea if what you get is a supplier’s waiver rather than a real insurance policy issued by a real insurance company: Coverage on a waiver is apt to be much weaker. Moreover, you may not need insurance at all if all you’re buying is an air ticket or hotel room, where you can get either a refund or a credit if you have to cancel. The bottom line: If you need insurance, buy it, but buy it separately and make sure you get what you need.

Insurance isn’t the only opt-out you might encounter. You sometimes find other extras, such as airport transfers and sightseeing, left out of the promoted price of a tour package and added back as opt-out extras. “Lei greetings” are often opt-out additions to Hawaii tours.

The most insidious opt-out scam is pre-acceptance of unwanted rental car insurance. When you rent a car, the agent at the desk may hand you a rental agreement with “accepted” or “yes” pre-entered or pre-checked into all four of the insurance programs most rental companies sell: collision, liability, personal property, and ADD (accidental death and dismemberment). It’s not too bad when the acceptance is obvious and spelled out in English. But in Europe, where I’ve seen the scam most frequently, you can easily miss it.

Again, I can understand why some American travelers might want to buy collision/theft coverage, overpriced though it may be. But the other three types of rental car insurance are generally unnecessary, overpriced, and duplicative of insurance you already have.

Vigilance is your only defense. Look out for any opt-out choices you may see, and weigh what you get carefully before you leave the box checked.