By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 5/12/2009 11:21:02 AM ET 2009-05-12T15:21:02
travel troubleshooter

Q: I'm having a problem with a travel insurance claim. We went on a Celebrity cruise to the Mediterranean more than a year ago. Luckily, we all paid premiums for hospitalization insurance, because I became deathly ill with bronchitis requiring trips to sick bay to see the doctors, who administered breathing treatments, antibiotics and a chest X-ray.

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All this cost $675. After our return, I immediately put in a claim for my medical expenses. After many phone calls that were never returned, I finally received a letter from another insurance company, which had assumed the original insurance company's claims, assuring me that eventually I would be paid.

Recently, I received another letter from Universal Assurance Group saying my claim had been approved and it's only a matter of time until I receive payment. It has been more than a year since the cruise and I think I'm just about due for my refund. What do you think? — Anita Isaia, Tamarac, Fla.

A: I think your claim should have been processed and paid a year ago. And it probably would have — if it had been a real insurance policy.

Had you taken a little time to read the fine print when you booked your cruise, you would have seen that this is technically not travel insurance, but "protection." What's the difference? Mainly, your policy is cheaper than a comparable travel insurance policy, but it's also not regulated by the state. So if you have a problem with, say, a late payment, you could be out of luck.

I'm a little skeptical of any product that sells itself as "insurance" but doesn't play by the same rules as the other insurance companies. As a matter of fact, I've followed this particular company for a few years as it has changed names and relocated to various states, always offering a form of traveler "protection." It's a troubling pattern.

Your best protection against a travel insurance policy that isn't a real policy is a reliable travel agent and paying attention to the details. A legitimate travel pro will offer you several policies with a proven track record and take the time to explain the differences. It's up to you to take a hard look at each to decide which one is right.

Why cut corners on travel insurance? It's not as if you're settling for a hostel when you want a five-star hotel. The only time you'll notice a difference is when you have to make a claim. So you have to ask yourself: Do you feel lucky?

I can't say whether the trip "protection" you had was legit or not. What I can say is that I've heard from many customers who are unhappy with the coverage offered by trip "protection" like yours. And that I would think twice before buying anything other than bona fide travel insurance, if it were my cruise.

I contacted Universal Assurance Group and asked it to review your case. You received a $675 check a few days later.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

© 2008 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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