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Monday, June 23, 2014

Pay attention when buying online


I checked the Orbitz site and discovered that they sneakily default a checkbox on your online reservation to include travel insurance — in other words, you need to actively uncheck this or else you will buy the insurance.

Of course, I didn't notice this on my recent online flight reservation. And I've used Orbitz many times before, and have never unchecked anything and have never been charged. So obviously this is a new revenue-generating scheme. And it is very underhanded. I contacted Orbitz and the insurance company, without resolution. Each blamed the other entity. Can you help?— Gary Kawesch, Los Gatos, Calif.

A: Orbitz shouldn't have pre-checked a box that forced you to buy travel insurance. And it should have removed the charge immediately when you asked about it — not passed you off to the insurance company.

I'm surprised to see something like this from a major online travel agency like Orbitz. Pre-checking is more commonly associated with second-tier websites and discount airlines that are trying to pull a fast one on their customers. Experts on electronic commerce frown upon this practice. Why? Because buying something should be your choice, and yours alone.

Like other online travel sites, Orbitz has no shortage of "promises" and "guarantees" that ensure you'll enjoy a problem-free vacation when you book through the site. Its alert service is called "TLC" — implying that even though it's an online agent, you'll be taken care of with the same tender loving care as a conventional travel agent. But would a conventional travel agent automatically sign you up for insurance without first asking, and getting your permission?

And no, opting out of a purchase is not the same thing as opting in. Not by a long shot.

The best way to avoid this charge is to pay attention. Now more than ever, you have to read everything when you're buying online. It's not just the pre-checked boxes. Your name must be an exact match with your government ID or passport, otherwise you could run into trouble at the airport.

After seeing the insurance charge, I would have penned a quick, polite note to Orbitz, asking that it be removed. If it didn't, try appealing to an executive at Orbitz. I post a list of their names on my website at www.elliott.org/help/orbitz/.

I contacted Orbitz on your behalf. A spokesman said at the time of your booking, the site automatically offered insurance on certain purchases "to protect their investments," adding, "Our display of insurance is consistent with others in the industry."

A review of your file, however, suggests there was "a disconnect" between you and the company when you asked for your money back. Orbitz has refunded the $24.

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.

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