Travel Assistance and Travel Insurance: What's the Difference?



At a time when many agents are being encouraged to generate additional sources of revenue, as well as grapple with unforeseen emergencies, from earthquakes to political protests, knowing the difference between travel insurance and travel assistance can make or break a client’s travel experience—as well as improve an agency’s bottom line.

Travel Agent recently spoke with Michael J. Kelly, CEO of travel assistance provider On Call International, to ask him about the major differences between travel insurance and travel assistance, as well as to better understand how agents can use travel assistance to not only benefit their customers but their commission earnings.

Q: Why should travel agents pay attention to selling travel assistance?

A: With the recent events—such as the political crisis in Egypt and Libya to natural disasters in Japan and the Pacific—there has been an increased awareness of travel assistance. Travelers have determined that something can really happen to them while away and are turning to travel assistance to provide safety and security when traveling.

In addition to the recent events and an increased need for a sense of security, the economy has started to bounce back from the recession and more individuals are beginning to take trips. According to TripAdvisor, 36 percent of Americans plan to spend more on leisure travel in 2011 than they did in 2010, while 42 percent expect to spend the same amount. Ninety percent plan to take two or more leisure trips in 2011—a slight increase on the 89 percent who said they have done so in 2010.

Q: What are the main differences between travel assistance and travel insurance?

A: The differentiators between travel assistance and insurance are often quite confusing to consumers, and it is important for travel agents to highlight these differentiating factors. Travel assistance enables travelers to have support and assistance on the ground and immediately in the case of an emergency.

Some of the travel assistance services that On Call provides are emergency medical evacuation and repatriation to the hospital of the member’s choice; immediate travel arrangements for a member, travel companion and family in the case of a medical emergency; prescription replacement if lost or forgotten while traveling; worldwide medical, dental, pharmacy and legal referrals; and assistance with emergency travel funds.

In addition, a travel assistance membership includes cash advances and credit card replacement; delayed baggage tracking; language translation; embassy and consular relations; lost document replacement assistance; legal assistance, including bail bond; and the return of deceased remains.

Q: What kind of commission rates can agents receive for selling travel assistance to their clients?

A: Travel agents receive 30 percent commission rates.

Q: What are some recent examples of when travel assistance was of crucial help to one of your clients?

A: One of our members, a woman, was enjoying an adrenaline-packed excursion in Mexico with her husband when she lost control of her ATV and crashed into a rock wall. The local hospital was not capable of treating her multiple broken ribs and the hematoma on her lung. She needed an immediate evacuation back to her hometown in Virginia for long-term treatment. On Call International evacuated the woman by air ambulance, with her husband at her side. Soon after, she was safe at home with her primary doctors, receiving the treatment needed for long-term recovery.

Domestically, we had a customer who slipped and fell on a patch ice while on a business trip in Chicago, just seven hours away from her home in Minnesota. She fractured her pelvis in two places and needed long-term rehabilitation.  Since the patient was not deemed safe enough to travel on an airplane, On Call arranged for her to travel home on a stretcher in a ground ambulance with a nurse to administer pain medication.

Q: How is On Call International different from other travel assistance providers?

A: On Call International offers services in its membership that other competitors don’t.  For example, a big differentiator from our competitors is that we will transport members to their hospital of choice, and we also don’t require an airstrip to perform an evacuation, something that is required by some companies. We also have Canadian-based evacuation teams, giving us the ability to fly into places often restricted by the U.S., such as Cuba. The cost of a MedEvac depends on the traveler’s location and the type of evacuation, but it can range from $20,000 domestically to well over $100,000 internationally.  With an On Call International membership, those costs are all covered, no matter the traveler’s location.

Another differentiator is that we offer coverage for members who are traveling more than 50 miles away from home, while most of our competitors only cover incidents over 100 miles from home. We are also available to provide travel and medical assistance services for more than 13 million members and, in 2009 alone, we handled nearly 35,000 cases. Our team is very skilled and proficient in handling any type of emergency situation that may occur.

On Call also has an in-house medical director, who personally oversees every medical case we receive, to make sure each member receives the highest possible level of care. In addition, we have one of the largest physician and hospital networks in the world, allowing us to provide more immediate referrals for doctors and hospitals than many of our counterparts.

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