Ticket? Check. Bag? Check. Insurance? Pre-check.

By | July 25th, 2010

Seconds before Terri Widder booked a recent flight from Chicago to Tulsa, she hesitated. Something felt wrong.

She scrolled up on her computer screen and noticed an option to buy a $19.95 insurance policy that would protect her if her trip were canceled, her bags were stolen or she needed emergency assistance.

The box was already checked.

“Fortunately, I caught it before I confirmed the reservation,” said Widder, a retiree who lives in Carol Stream, Ill. “I believe this is just another way to mislead the customer and get more in fees and adjustments in revenue from people who may not be that familiar with the process. There are no benefits to the customer.”

Forcing travelers to opt out of a purchase when they’re buying a ticket or a hotel room isn’t new. But the volume of complaints I’ve received about pre-checking is on the rise, as is the number of well-known travel companies engaged in this questionable e-commerce practice.

American Airlines, the carrier on which Widder had booked her tickets, says it doesn’t pre-check boxes online and referred my questions to Yahoo Travel, the online travel agency through which the reservation was made. That site offers a policy through Travel Guard, and as it turns out, it’s a good thing Widder gave her itinerary the once-over. If she hadn’t, she’d be stuck with a nonrefundable policy, according to the terms on the Travel Guard site.

“The practice of including travel insurance and other ancillary benefits is becoming more and more standard,” said Dan McGinnity, a spokesman for Travel Guard. “Thousands of people purchase travel insurance in this way. Our complaint rate is less than one-tenth of 1 percent.”

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Travelocity, which handles bookings for Yahoo Travel and is the company responsible for the pre-checking, said a majority of its users – 86 percent of customers booking domestic trips and 75 percent of those buying international vacations – click the “no” button.

“The price is also broken out as a separate cost, so there is no confusion on what is the airfare charge and the travel protection charge,” said Travelocity spokesman Joel Frey. “Should, however, a customer initially overlook the travel protection offer during checkout and later decide they do not want it, we’ll provide a refund within one billing cycle from the time of purchase.”

A follow-up call to Travelocity’s reservation number suggested that there might be some confusion about its return policy. A representative told me that an accidental insurance purchase might be refunded if it was bought within 24 hours.

Joyce Carlson, a reader from Oakland, Calif., recently had a similar experience to Widder’s when buying a round-trip airline ticket from San Francisco to Tokyo on Orbitz. She discovered that she’d left her box checked and inadvertently purchased a policy through Access America. She wrote to Orbitz asking for a refund and received what appeared to be a form letter denying the request.

“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 canceled,” an Orbitz representative said. “Therefore, we default to ‘Yes, Add Ticket Protector Plus’ to provide this peace of mind.”