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.
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 plans online:
- 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 CIGNA
- 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 (www.insurance.ca.gov).
It's important before calling to know the name of the company that underwrites the plan (usually noted somewhere on the company's Web page) since the license will be in that name.
In addition, travelers buying online should take the time to check out a travel health plan, just as consumers buying in person should, says Edelen. "Check the coverages and exclusions of whatever the policy is." Among the conditions a plan may impose: you must see a doctor from their list of providers.
Compare the premium you'll be paying to the coverage offered. "You may be paying a very high price for limited coverage," Edelen says.