Savvy travelers already book airline tickets
and reserve hotel rooms and rental cars over the Internet. Now they can also go
online to buy travel insurance, selecting from options that include medical
coverage and evacuation and trip-cancellation insurance.
The new trend is a natural, given the buying habits of most
consumers. Travel insurance is often either a last-minute decision or neglected
altogether. Up to 30 percent of travelers wait until two weeks or less before
departure to inquire about travel-insurance coverage, industry experts say.
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including some of the oldest and most cherished medical myths out there. For our May 2011 issue, we asked David Freedman, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a board member of the International Society of Travel Medicine, about the widespread belief that airplane air has lots of germs.
So, turning to the Internet to buy travel coverage makes
sense, both for procrastinating travelers and for those who have just decided
to squeeze in a vacation before the end of the summer. Coverage typically goes
into effect at 12:01 a.m. on the day of purchase, the next day, or on a date
specified by the traveler, if the trip is in the future.
Right now, only a handful of companies offer travelers the
opportunity to complete the entire transaction via the Internet. Many companies
have Web sites that explain the products available but require a faxed or
mailed application in order to buy. Officials at insurance companies that don't
yet offer Internet transactions say they are investigating the service and will
probably offer it soon.
Not Entirely Paperless
Even some companies that promote the buying of travel health
insurance via the Net do not actually complete their transactions in
cyberspace. Customized Service Administration (CSA) Travel Protection, for
instance, began selling online in 1998 but still follows up with a hard copy
for coverage verification, says Bob Chambers, vice president of sales and
marketing for CSA.
Here is a sampling of companies now selling travel-insurance
CSA Travel Protection (www.travelsecure.com; 800/348-9505), underwritten by
Commercial Union Insurance Company
Travel Guard (www.travel-guard.com; 800/826-1300), underwritten by
Highway to Health (www.highwaytohealth.com; 888/243-2358), underwritten by
Continental Assurance Company
Caveats before Buying
As quick and convenient as online buying is, consumers
should research the plan and the company before buying. Be sure the company is
licensed in your state of residence, says Scott Edelen, a spokesman for the
California Department of Insurance. That's good advice no matter how you buy,
but critical if you're buying from a Web site rather than, say, a longtime
family travel agent who is accustomed to buying from licensed companies.
If the company is licensed in your state, it means the
company has met the state standards for insurance. And it may mean fewer
hassles down the road. "If the company is licensed, you should not have a
problem making or collecting a claim," says Edelen.
To find out if the company is licensed, check with your
state's insurance-regulatory agency. In most states the agency is the State
Department of Insurance, says Edelen. Often, state agencies regulating
insurance maintain a toll-free consumer hotline to provide such information or
post it on their Web sites. For instance, California maintains both a toll-free
number (800/927-HELP in some areas of the state) and a Web site