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HEALTHY TRAVELER

Searching Out Travel Insurance on the Internet

May 09, 1999|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Even travelers who book a trip well in advance tend to put off one detail: buying travel insurance for health problems and other trip-related emergencies.

Up to 30% of travelers wait until two weeks or less before their departure date to inquire about the coverage, industry experts say.

So it's no surprise that the latest travel insurance trend is selling the product online. It can make the 11th-hour purchase of coverage--which can include medical coverage, evacuation insurance, trip cancellation insurance and other benefits--much easier. Already, many companies cater to their last-minute customers by offering coverage via faxed application or a toll-free phone application followed by faxed verification.

Only a handful of companies licensed to sell trip insurance in California are now selling online, but rival insurers say they too are thinking about launching online services. There are other consumer-friendly trends surfacing, too, such as broadening the "legitimate" reasons for cancellation.

Right now, online buying accounts for less than 10% of his business, says Bob Chambers, vice president of sales and marketing for C.S.A. Travel Protection, telephone (800) 348-9505, Internet http://www.travelsecure.com, which began selling travel insurance online last summer and is underwritten by Commercial Union Insurance Co.

Among other companies selling online and licensed in California are: Travel Guard, tel. (800) 826-1300, Internet http://www.travel-guard.com, underwritten by CIGNA, and Highway to Health, tel. (888) 243-2358, Internet http://www.highwaytohealth.com, underwritten by CNA.

Even online sales aren't yet entirely paperless, says Chambers, who notes that "we follow up with a hard copy for coverage verification." He predicts that online buying and selling will increase in the next few years.

Before buying travel health coverage online, consumers should verify that the company is licensed in the state, says the California Department of Insurance. There is no special license required to sell online, a department spokesman says.

To verify that the company is authorized to do business in California, consumers can call the Department of Insurance's consumer hotline. From the 213, 818 and 310 area codes, call (213) 897-8921; from other area codes, call (800) 927-4357. Consumers also can access the department's Web page, http://www.insurance.ca.gov, to verify that a company is licensed (you must know the company that underwrites the plan) or that an agency or broker is.

Besides the option of online buying, companies are exploring other ways to make coverage more accessible. Sheri Machat of TripGuard Plus, tel. (800) 423-3632, says her company now allows the valid reasons for canceled trips to include terrorism and relocation for job purposes when mandated by an employer. Her company also has broadened the definition of "family": "Up to four people not related can buy the family plan if they are sharing a room." The cash savings is not great, she acknowledges, but it might help travelers on a tight budget.

Access America, tel. (800) 284- 8300, Internet http://www.accessamerica.com, provides coverage for no extra charge for children under age 18 who travel with covered adult family members.

And Highway to Health notes on its Web page that it will help customers make medical appointments during their travels.

Before buying a travel health plan, consumers should of course find out what is already covered by their personal insurance plan or health maintenance organization. Typically, a health insurance plan covers medical emergencies for trips away from home. And check in with your credit card company to see if any travel-related coverage is part of the benefits package that comes with your card.

Once you discover what the gaps are in coverage, you can shop more intelligently. Depending on your destination and the quality of medical services there, you might consider evacuation insurance. Before buying, ask if the evacuation is to the nearest medical facility, the U.S. or both.

Look at the coverage limits and decide if the maximum allowed for expenses will be enough. And compare premiums and coverages. Example: For a trip costing $2,000, Access America charges a $133 premium for its comprehensive plan, which includes trip cancellation, up to $10,000 in emergency medical and dental coverage, emergency medical transportation up to $30,000, plus compensation for baggage delays and other hassles.

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