Far & Wide, one of the nation's leading tour operators, filed for bankruptcy last month, renewing the debate about the best way for travelers to protect themselves and their vacation investments in an uncertain economic environment.
The Miami-based company, whose subsidiaries include African Travel, IST Cultural Tours, Pacific Bestour, Regina Tours, and Swain Tours, told customers it would not be refunding their travel payments and suggested they file claims with the bankruptcy court. It was the latest in a long line of travel company failures since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the aftershocks of the SARS epidemic and the Iraq war.
Edmund A. Cocco, president of Global Care Travel Insurance Co. in Lynnfield, said most travelers are not aware that the insurance sold by tour operators and cruise lines offers no protection in the event of an insolvency or bankruptcy. The only way to get that type of coverage, Cocco says, is to buy insurance from a third-party company like his that offers insurance protection against the financial default of a travel supplier.
''Someone should educate the public that there's a better way," Cocco said.
Hold on, said Christina Hopper, president of the Berkely Group in Garden City, N.Y., which provides the insurance offered by many tour operators and cruise lines. ''It's true we don't include insurance for insolvency, but that's primarily because it's duplicative," she said, adding that credit card companies offer basically the same coverage at far less cost.
Hopper said anyone who books a trip with a credit card is protected if the company goes out of business and fails to deliver a paid-for service. Cardholders generally have 60 days from the time a charge first appears on a billing statement to dispute the charge with the card company and seek a refund.
''The best advice I would give anyone is always buy a trip with your credit card," she said.
Using a credit card and buying the trip insurance offered by tour operators and cruise lines also saves money, Hopper said. A tour company's trip insurance is cheaper than insurance offered by a third party because it is tailored to a specific trip and a certain set of risks. By contrast, insurance offered by a third party has to cover any type of trip and has to be priced accordingly.
For example, the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line charges $109 for its standard trip insurance package for a cruise costing $1,500 to $2,000. A similar trip insurance package sold by Global Care would cost $84 for someone 31 to 55 years old and $154 for someone between 71 and 80.
But Global Care's deluxe plan, which offers a waiver of the preexisting condition exclusion and protection against the financial default of a travel supplier, would cost $129 for someone 31 to 55 years old and $224 for someone between 71 and 80.
Cocco acknowledges credit cards do offer most travelers protection from a travel company going under, but he says not all credit cards are the same and not all travelers use credit cards.
''Credit cards are wonderful, but . . . there's always that but," he said. ''Many people, seniors in particular, don't have credit cards and don't use credit cards."
Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Division of Insurance warned consumers to scrutinize trip insurance offerings to make sure they are getting the coverage they need.
The agency advised travelers to compare their trip insurance coverage with their home insurance to see if there is any overlap. Other tips included a careful review of the preexisting health conditions on a trip insurance policy and a check to see whether an insurance company is underwriting the trip insurance policy or the travel provider is self-insuring itself.
''If the tour or cruise provider goes out of business suddenly, there may be no funds available to pay your claims," the agency warned.
Anyone who has rented a car from Hertz and tried the company's Neverlost navigation system knows how useful and fun to use it can be. But does anyone really need one all the time?
Thales Navigation of Santa Clara, Calif., which developed the Hertz system, is betting that consumers will be willing to spend $1,000 to $1,300 for a portable voice-prompted navigation system that they can take with them in any vehicle -- or in a backpack.
The $1,300 model has an internal hard drive and comes loaded with maps of the United States and Canada that include points of interest, as well as gas stations and police stations. The cheaper model uses a compact flash memory card, which can store maps of selected areas. The maps can be downloaded with software supplied with the unit. Both models are linked to the global positioning system
The units are about the size of a hand and weigh less than a pound. They plug into a cigarette lighter and can be mounted inside a vehicle several ways, including being attached to the windshield using suction cups.
A company spokesperson said the systems are very affordable, considering units installed in cars typically cost $2,000 to $2,500.
It sounds great, but how many people travel enough to justify a $1,000 navigation system?
Bruce Mohl can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.