Orbitz calls “reprehensible” opt-out policy an industry standard

Let me start by saying that I like Orbitz. I like its new CEO, Barney Harford. I like the hard-working folks in its customer service department. I like the way it uses technology to improve your trip.

But I do not like the way it pre-checks the option to buy travel insurance when you’re booking a trip, and I don’t buy its arguments for doing it. Neither does Joyce Carlson, who recently bought a trip through the online travel agency.

Here’s what happened to her: Carlson reserved roundtrip tickets from San Francisco to Tokyo. When she did, she found that the insurance option was checked, automatically signing her up for an Access America policy.

I definitely had not wanted to purchase travel insurance, because I get this insurance through my employer. I had to try to book my tickets several times, and each time I thought I had opted out of the travel insurance.

Unfortunately, the one reservation that took hold in the computer was one for which I evidently did not opt out of insurance. An email confirming I had purchased travel insurance arrived much sooner than the email confirmation for the flights, and I was not happy.

In a subsequent email to Orbitz, she didn’t hold back, calling the practice of pre-checking “reprehensible.” To which Orbitz replied:

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 cancelled.

Therefore, we default to “Yes, Add Ticket Protector Plus” to provide this peace of mind. You may choose “No thanks. I prefer to decline Ticket Protector Plus.” on the Traveler Information page during the booking process.

Since 10 days had passed since she unwittingly purchased the policy, she was stuck with it. Carlson says she was unaware she could get her money back within 10 days, otherwise she would have asked for a refund. But the terms were hidden away on a PDF file that needed to be downloaded.

When I read her email, I thought it was a mistake. After what I’ve written about unethical pre-checking in the past, I honestly didn’t think Orbitz would do this. So I asked. Here’s my correspondence with the company:

Me: This must be a mistake. You’re not pre-checking the box for insurance, are you?

Orbitz: Let me check on this.

I’m not certain if below is the same, but we do suggest insurance in some cases, which is an industry standard (other OTCs do this too) for some packaged travel and international travel because of the high dollar volume involved for consumers.

We disclose this however and enable customers to opt-out if they don’t want it. But when you’re booking a prepaid package (much of which at times can be non-refundable) where your already experiencing a tremendous savings because you booked a package, it makes sense to make insurance a part of the package as a protection. That is why I know we urge consumers to spend the money to do it, but they don’t get it automatically included…as they can choose not to include it.

Let me get back to you when I know for sure, but I’m pretty sure we following industry practices in terms of how insurance is sold.

Me: Thanks. I’m fairly certain the industry standard is not to pre-check, but to allow customers to choose insurance or other optional items on their own. I appreciate you looking into this.

Orbitz: Actually, Travelocity does it even for domestic air tickets. We don’t.

Can I call you tomorrow on this? I will have more details.

Me: Sure, I’ll be here.

That was three days ago. I’m sure my Orbitz contact got busy with all the volcano-related cancellations. But I’m deeply troubled by this exchange.

First, it suggests the industry standard is to pre-check for options like insurance. I strongly disagree.

Carlson wonders what might happen if other businesses did the same thing. “What if, when you finished purchasing a camera online, you mistakenly neglected to opt out from purchasing an overpriced camera warranty?” she asked me.

I’d be pretty ticked off.

And second, this business with “industry standards.” Look, I think Orbitz does a terrific job most of the time, but calling pre-checking an industry standard — and pointing to Travelocity — doesn’t make it right. It makes you look guilty.

Orbitz and Access America need to distance themselves from pre-checking, no matter how profitable it is.

Why? Because it’s the right thing to do.

(Photo: hmmlargeart/Flickr Creative Commons)

Update (4/23): Access America has refunded her policy. She received the following email from Orbitz:

I have contacted Access American and they have cancelled your policy and they are issuing you a refund of $67.62. Please allow 5 – 7 business days for the credit to post to your account.

Although, we are unable to erase the negative experience you had with us, we can act upon your feedback to prevent such occurrences in the future. In fact the constructive criticism of our customers is one of the most significant means of quality control and is helpful in detecting shortcomings. Please be assured that we are listening and that your constructive comments have not gone unheard.

As a gesture of our sincerity for your disappointing experience, Orbitz would like to offer you a $50 future travel voucher on your next Orbitz.com airline, hotel or vacation package booking. Our future travel voucher is meant to emphasize our commitment to you and we remain hopeful you will continue using Orbitz for your travel planning needs.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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