Travelers who fear they can't take advantage of the great non-refundable deals they have found on air fares can partially cover themselves with some new, inexpensive insurance.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has prodded the airline industry to provide travelers with more flexibility with non-refundable tickets. That has led to some easing of restrictions. But fliers still need a good reason if they cannot take a ticketed trip as specified.
There are no industry statistics on how many discount air tickets, including non-refundable ones, went unused last year. But the International Airline Passengers Assn. in Dallas reports that 92% of all airline tickets in 1987 were purchased at a 62% discount.
With unrefundable fares, most carriers require a doctor's letter if a traveler claims that illness caused a flight change. Some carriers will refund money in such cases; others issue a voucher for another flight.
If a death in the family keeps a flier from using a non-refundable ticket, most airlines insist on proof of the death, for example, through a mailed copy of a newspaper obituary. Most airlines offer refunds in this case.
But if travelers simply miss a scheduled flight, change their mind about the trip date or have their business meeting canceled, chances are they will not get their money back.
Enter insurers, who now offer several low-cost plans to provide some reimbursement on non-refundable tickets that cannot be used.
Travel Guard International, a 7-year-old firm based in Wisconsin, offers the only "cancel for any reason" penalty-waiver coverage on air travel, tours and cruises.
The company--(800) 826-1300, (800) 782-5151 or (800) 634-0644 in Wisconsin--started the coverage last year; this year it introduced Travel Guard Gold, offering three separate plans to travelers.
"This is especially geared to the unrefundable tickets and allows travelers to cancel for any reason," said Peggy Mertes, the company's marketing supervisor. "Each plan pays 50% of the non-refundable or partially refundable cancellation penalty to a maximum of $200 or $400, depending on which plan they select."
To get coverage for penalty waivers, travelers must buy a Travel Guard policy within four days of their ticketing date or their initial trip payment. The rest of the plan may be bought as late as one day before departure.
Plan No. 1, Travel Guard's minimum advance-purchase, costs $19 a person for travel up to 30 days. Its penalty-waiver coverage will pay half the ticket price up to $200. It offers other benefits, including $400 worth of reimbursement if a traveler starts but cannot finish a trip. It pays up to $50 for a hotel if travelers are delayed en route; it pays up to $50 if they must buy personal items because of baggage delays. It also provides travelers $15,000 in death- and dismemberment-coverage on their trip.
Plan No. 2, the super advance-purchase, basically doubles the limits of Plan No. 1. It costs $39 a person for travel up to 45 days. Mertes said it was offered "because more and more people are purchasing expensive trips to Europe and $200 (reimbursement) is too low for those fares and for the expensive cruises, which have high cancellation rates."
Plan No. 3 is comprehensive and offers high coverage limits, including protection on medical and dental, emergency medical aid, tour operator default or bankruptcy and other benefits. It costs 8% of a traveler's total trip, including air fare, hotel, car rental and any land tours.
All three plans also offer a supplemental collision damage waiver for travelers' rental cars. This includes up to eight days of collision-damage coverage on a rental car, which, if purchased from rental car firms typically costs $6-$12 a day. Plan 1 offers $10,000 in supplemental collision coverage; Plans 2 and 3 offer $25,000.
"We have no objection to this kind of insurance, as long it is clear to the people what the restrictions and exclusions are before they buy it," Dan Smith, the airline passengers' group consumer and industry affairs director, said. "It is especially good when people are buying a ticket four months in advance. With that long of a time, they have more exposure to the eventualities of life."
Among other insurers offering cancellation or interruption coverage for trips, separately or as part of an overall travel package, are:
The Travelers Corp. Travel Insurance Pak, (800) 243-3174.
Mutual of Omaha Tele-Trip, (800) 228-9792.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield Access America, (800) 284-8300.
International Underwriters Group HealthCare Abroad and HealthCare Global, (800) 237-6615.
Travel Assistance International, (800) 821-2828.
WorldCare Travel Assistance Assn., (800) 521-4822.
Berkely Care's Carefree, (800) 645-2424.