By Ann Henson Feltgen, FloridaBulldog.org
Jack and Vicki Brennan looked forward to a sailing trip out of Grenada in July 2020. Months earlier as COVID-19 got worldwide attention, the St. Petersburg couple decided to purchase travel insurance, in case they couldn’t go.
In April during the pandemic the Brennans decided to cancel the trip after learning Grenada closed its borders. They had spent about $1,300 already but felt certain their policy with Travel Insured International would take care of them.
The company did not. In fact, the Brennan’s request for payment was denied four times. The couple’s next stop for help was the Florida Department of Financial Services and the Office of Insurance Regulation. A case worker told the couple by email that the state contacted the company to advocate on their behalf.
“However, we have received many complaints against this company due to denials related to COVID and the company has maintained the denial. We are an administrative agency and while we can advocate for consumers, we cannot mandate the company,” said agent Rachael Chieng.
Later the case worker wrote again: “It is a frustrating situation. The company is maintaining their denials based on their policy language. We will wait to see what they respond in your case. Consumers affected by the denials are going to have to seek alternate routes to try to obtain a resolution.”
The fourth and final response was the denial of the claim because border closings and fear of becoming ill with COVID were not covered in the policy.
Travel insurance rating
The insurance company was formerly rated A+, the highest rating given by the Better Business Bureau, which recently stripped the grade to not rated because of the number of complaints. In the past 12 months, Travel Insured International received nearly 200 complaints.
Florida Bulldog contacted the company for comment, but a spokesperson responded that it had none at this time.
Brennan says losing the money will not cause hardship, “but it’s enough to piss me off.” As far as he knows, the July cruise never happened because the border remains closed.
One option could have saved at least some of the money they lost. When the couple purchased their trip insurance through Travel Insured International, based in Glastonbury, CT, they thought they were buying a “Cancel for any Reason” upgrade. This add-on means that travelers can cancel for any reason and have up to 75 percent of all costs reimbursed.
It wasn’t until much later that Brennan learned the policy he purchased did not include that upgrade.
The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation website states the only way to determine if the policy includes this coverage is to closely examine the contract and to have a clear understanding of the reason(s) the individual is allowed to cancel the trip.
Travel insurance big business
The cruise industry is a huge business, serving 17.8 million passengers in 2009 going up to an anticipated 32 million passengers in 2020. Worldwide revenue amounted to $37.8 billion from 2010 to 2020, according to Statista.com.
Up to 70 percent of cruise passengers purchase travel insurance, according to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association. Travel Insured International has sold 82,840 policies since its inception in 2004, according to its website. In general, trip insurance companies charge a percentage of the total cost of the trip, usually between five and 10 percent.
Travel insurance is designed to cover a variety of events that may cause financial loss including coverage for trip cancellations, medical emergencies, flight delays and lost luggage. While most policies include similar coverage, the specific coverage varies.
To make sure the coverage meets needs, travelers should read and compare each policy’s documentation to understand what benefits are included, according to Squaremouth.com, a travel insurance resource company that offers its own plans as well as comparing those from other companies.
Levels of risk
Is trip insurance needed? That depends on a person’s level of risk. Experts suggest that travelers leaving the United States should highly consider the purchase.
According to CNBC, a hospitality and travel expert said the general rule is that travelers need to buy emergency medical or evacuation insurance when going out of the United States. The expert, Rick Garlick, with Magid Associates, said: “Insurance is much more necessary on international versus domestic trips, particularly ones you have to plan far in advance.”
Further, international vacations are more expensive than domestic trips, typically because Americans stay longer, CNBC reported. International trips last about 12 days on average and cost $3,242 per person and people book trips long in advance to take advantage of sales, according to ValuePenguin.com, a personal finance website.
Another consideration for buying trip insurance is because medical care is usually covered. If an emergency arises, medical insurance would pay “customary and reasonable fees” but in remote places, medical help can be difficult to get and will require expensive evacuation services. But remember that canceling a trip due to fear of falling ill is not covered by any standard travel insurance policy.
Experts agree that cruises hit all the major areas where comprehensive travel insurance is recommended: a big, upfront payment, international travel and higher risk of problems.
Consumer fight-back options
So, what happens to those who do plunk down the money for a policy, run into trouble and the insurance company says it is not covered — just like Jack Brennan and his wife who canceled their trip because COVID-19 caused officials to close the border of the country they were to visit?
Brennan said he would just take the financial hit.
“Trip coverage and car warranties are a neglected corner of the insurance industry,” said Brennan, a retired journalist whose beat included consumer complaints. “There is little policing and I’m not going to spend a lot of money hiring a lawyer.”
But there is another way to get some refunds, said Ben Wickert, an attorney with Raizner Slania, LLP, based in Houston. Wickert has worked on trip insurance denials for five years and the company has extensive experience in this area of the law.
“It doesn’t make sense for an individual to file a suit and pay an attorney,” he said. “It’s not viable.” He added that it isn’t practical for an attorney to take an individual complaint.
Not much can be accomplished by state insurance regulators, Wickert said. “They do have say in a lot of matters, but one policy is not in their purview. The state becomes involved at the macro level, not contract or policy interpretation.”
Insurance regulation cop-out
Florida Bulldog contacted a Florida Office of Insurance Regulation spokeswoman about her department’s involvement helping consumers who claim the travel insurance companies had ripped them off. She forwarded several paragraphs from the department’s website. She didn’t respond to subsequent phone calls and voicemails, emails and text messages seeking follow-up information.
Wickert and his firm work on class-action cases where plaintiffs hire a law firm based on a contingency fee. If they win, the attorneys get a percentage of the judgment and the plaintiffs split the remainder. Wickert said his firm is working on two of these class-action suits for travel insurance, one in New York and the other in northern California.
He said that travel insurance companies have extremely poor claims handling, adding: “Companies are taking a blanket approach” of denying claims.
The two frequent denials Wickert sees include whether a quarantine, which is covered, includes border closures and if COVID is a foreseeable event. Insurance only covers unforeseeable events.
Naples, FL resident Howard Morris decided to take the class-action route after he and his wife’s cruise from Rome to Greece was canceled by the cruise company, but the insurance company, Assicurazioni Generali Group, refused to reimburse them the cost of the policy they never got to use.
The suit alleges that Generali has refused to provide any refunds for premiums on canceled trips despite consumers’ “numerous requests,” and has instead been giving out vouchers that require rebooking by the end of the year, according to the suit.
The Morris case
Morris bought a $1,298 travel insurance policy with Generali in mid-February when he purchased a Seabourn cruise to travel between April 29 and May 9, 2020. After he learned of his trip’s cancellation in late March, Morris immediately contacted Generali to ask for reimbursement of the policy, according to the complaint. Yet Generali, one of the largest insurance companies with more than 61 million global customers, and more than 70,000 staff, according to its website, never responded to his repeated voice and email messages throughout April, according to the lawsuit.
The Florida resident said he bought the travel insurance to protect himself from risks that may happen during the trip. Because of COVID-19, he was prevented from making the trip, so Generali’s withholding of premiums paid for the trips is “unlawful” and “inequitable.”
The insurance group announced in early May that it would issue vouchers for trips booked by Dec. 31, 2019, to policyholders whose trips are canceled due to COVID-19.
“Given that the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the travel industry and global economy, this token gesture is unlikely to provide any meaningful value to the plaintiff and the class,” Morris said. He sought through his attorney. David E. Kovel with Kirby McInerney LLP of New York, to represent a nationwide class or a Florida subclass of everyone who bought travel insurance from Generali and had their trips canceled due to the pandemic, which the judge approved.
The carrier claimed that the policyholder was given 10 days to examine the policy and cancel it after he bought the insurance. But he never did so, and he cannot get any refund now, it said. The insured’s calculation that Generali bore no covered risks because the trips never happened is “naive,” the insurer added.
This case is scheduled for a Jan. 28 hearing in Manhattan before U.S. District Judge Valerie E. Caproni to determine if 11 other cases against Generali should be combined with the Morris complaint as the travel insurer has been hit with multiple lawsuits in the past months.