Caveat on 'opt-out' insurance online. Cuba news. Unforeseen laws overseas

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the May 2016 issue.
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Locals playing chess in the colonial town of Trinidad — Cuba. Photo by Randy Keck

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 483rd issue of ITN, your monthly foreign travel magazine.

If you’re seeing a sample copy of this publication for the first time and are wondering what you’ll find inside, the answer is observations, recommendations and opinions from people who enjoy traveling. We print articles and letters from ITN subscribers, and the focus is on destinations outside of the United States.

The people sharing their experiences range from independent travelers to those who prefer group tours and from shoestring travelers to First Class flyers. All are free to express themselves candidly. All write for the benefit of other travelers, their fellow subscribers.

ITN staff adds travel-related news items plus information on places and events of interest. And our advertisers provide plenty of travel opportunities and ideas.

If you pick up a tip or two or find yourself intrigued about a particular place, turn to page 9 to see how to keep the news and travel suggestions coming. A year’s subscription works out to only $2 per month, and it includes full access to our website, where a search bar makes finding past letters and articles about specific tour operators and destinations easy for your trip planning.

Enjoy this issue of ITN. Here are a couple of news items to get you started.

In February, the New Jersey Department of Banking & Insurance released a statement warning about “opt-out” travel insurance being sold through Web-based travel-booking sites. The department concluded that the practice amounts to an “unfair or deceptive” act and is illegal under New Jersey law. California, Minnesota, Maine and Florida also have declared the practice of selling opt-out travel insurance to be illegal.

What these travel-booking websites are doing is including a charge for optional travel insurance with the booking of an airline ticket, hotel room, rental car, etc. This insurance could include coverage for trip interruption, loss of belongings and damage to accommodations or a rental vehicle as well as for sickness, accident, disability or death occurring during travel. If the purchaser does not want the insurance, particularly if he already has such coverage and does not want to pay twice for it, he must opt out.

However, when a travel package is being purchased through one of these websites, the final cost is not broken down into its components to show the additional taxes and fees and (if not removed during the booking process) the cost of the optional travel insurance, so the purchaser might not be aware that he is paying for an item he may not want.

Usually, a person can opt out by, if he happens to spot it, unchecking a box somewhere on the webpage during the purchasing process, but the steps to take to opt out may not always be obvious.

In regard to purchasing airline tickets, the US Department of Transportation made opt-out practices illegal in 2012. Specifically, all of the fees included in the price of an airline ticket must be clearly shown before the purchase is made. Unfortunately, the DOT ruling against opt-out insurance being tacked onto airline ticket charges is not enforceable against companies based in other countries.

 If you have been charged for unwanted insurance because of a deceptive opt-out scheme, you can file a complaint with your state’s insurance board. The contact information for each insurance board can be found at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ website at www.naic.org/state_web_map.htm

However, unless the company whose website you have used to book your service is based in the US or, better yet, is in one of the states that have passed laws against opt-out practices, there may not be much the commissioners’ office can do for you other than log your complaint.

The door to Cuba continues to open wider.

At the urging of the Obama administration, the US Department of the Treasury (DOT) has reinterpreted the rules regarding travel to Cuba. As of March 15, individual US citizens may travel to Cuba on self-designed “People to People” programs without having to join a group tour led by an authorized tour operator or travel organization. 

Until the US Congress rules otherwise, regulations still do not allow for tourism to the island, so any Americans who travel to Cuba independently will be responsible for planning an educational trip that meets the DOT’s criteria for travel to that Caribbean island.

According to the DOT, an individual will be authorized to travel there “provided that the traveler engages in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

In related news, on Feb. 16, US and Cuban authorities agreed to allow commercial flights to be scheduled between the two nations. American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines all have applied to fly routes to Cuba (April ’16, pg. 4). If approved, service may begin in fall 2017.

Also, on March 20, the DOT granted the US-based homestay company Airbnb special authorization to, through their website (www.airbnb.com), begin to rent rooms in Cuban homes to non-US citizens as of April 2. US travelers who meet any of the legal criteria for travel to Cuba have been able to rent rooms there through Airbnb since the DOT relaxed the embargo against Cuba in December 2014.

It never feels good to be on the receiving end of the expression ‘Ignorance is no excuse,’ but there are some places where it can mean really bad news.

On Jan. 2, Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old American visiting North Korea, was arrested as he waited to board a plane at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport at the end of a 5-day tour. After being held in prison for nearly a month, he was charged with committing a hostile act against the country. Specifically, he attempted to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel.

On March 16, Mr. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for his crime.

Why Mr. Warmbier tried to steal the poster is unknown. His own statements to the North Korean court ranged from wanting a souvenir of his trip to being offered a $10,000 car in exchange for the poster. What is clear is that he never realized that such a minor, albeit misguided, act could have such terrible consequences. 

As the world becomes a smaller place, travelers are increasingly visiting countries where laws can be unforeseen or are ambiguously enforced. It’s important to know that some activities that Americans would consider normal or, at worst, trivial are in certain countries considered serious offenses. 

The lèse-majesté laws in Thailand are one example. Any perceived insult to a member of the Thai royal family can result in imprisonment. Offenses can include posting critical comments on Twitter or Facebook or even “defacing” the King by treading on Thai currency, which bears his image. In December 2015, a Thai citizen was arrested just for insulting the king’s dog. (Examples of what was considered “insulting” are usually not republished so as not to inspire anyone to repeat those insults.)

Some other nations that routinely impose imprisonment, fines or both in response to insults made about royalty, government officials or the government are Poland (which also prosecutes for insulting any visiting head of state), Azerbaijan, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain (where insults against the flag or national emblem will also get you into trouble), Kuwait, Iran (including clerics), Cameroon, Venezuela and, perhaps most shocking, the Netherlands, where insulting any member of the royal family can result in jail time. 

(In different incidents regarding the Netherlands’ Queen Máxima in 2012, two men went to jail for making statements “offensive to her dignity,” one on Twitter and the other in a letter mailed to her.) 

In addition to lèse-majesté laws, another thing to look out for are blasphemy laws. According to the Pew Research Center (www.pew research.org), the following countries were arresting and prosecuting people for blasphemy as of 2012: Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Maldives, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Morocco (including Western Sahara), Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Bahamas, Belize, Antigua & Barbuda, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Suriname and Peru

Some of the countries listed can prosecute a person for saying or writing anything that can be construed as insulting to any religion, while others are concerned only with insults to the state religion. Punishments for blasphemy in these countries range from small fines to death.

Though Sri Lanka and North Korea are not on the Pew list, it is important to note that tourists found to have “insulted” Buddhism have been deported from Sri Lanka (Aug. ’14, pg. 69) and that visitors have been arrested for proselytizing in North Korea (Jan. ’15, pg. 70).

Other laws that can land travelers in hot water unexpectedly include taking pictures of certain persons or locations, speaking to common citizens without permission (especially about touchy subjects) and taking banned reading materials into the country (even mistakenly).

It’s important for travelers to research the laws of the countries they will be visiting. The US State Department’s website (http://travel.state.gov) is an excellent resource. On the website, visitors can search by country (under “Learn about your destination”) and, once on the country’s page, look under the heading “Local Laws & Special Circumstances” for examples of unknown and unexpected laws.

As he described in the July 2015 issue (page 14), ITN subscriber Tony Leisner of Tarpon Springs, Florida, purchased a $55 visa upon arrival when crossing into Bolivia from Peru while on a Viventura tour in May 2015.

Through a consulate, a 10-year Bolivian visa generally costs a US citizen $160, but sometime back in 2015, Bolivia quietly made it possible for Americans to apply for a lower-cost $55 visa upon arrival at most entry points into the country (so quietly, in fact, that the Bolivian Embassy could not confirm this to ITN in 2015).

At some point since Tony’s trip, however, Bolivia just as quietly ended this option. US travelers now can expect to pay the full $160 fee, should they wait until reaching Bolivia to get a visa. We thank Tony for this update.

A CORRECTION to note —

Steve Jennings of Colorado Springs, Colorado, wrote, “I have been to all three of the Baltic countries, so when I saw that the Baltics were featured in the April 2016 issue, I was interested. Mentioned in the article, the Hill of Crosses is a very interesting place. However, I would like to point out that it is located in Lithuania, rather than in Latvia,” as was incorrectly printed in the photo caption on page 43.

Another subscriber, Phil Korbholz of Stockton, California, caught that same error. Thanks, Steve and Phil, for calling that in. All input is appreciated.

Just back from a 2-week program as a volunteer English teacher in Cuba with Global Volunteers, Ted Mullett of Vero Beach, Florida, wrote, “I have one bit of trivial advice for ITN readers: If you go to Cuba, take a supply of black pepper, as we found it to be unavailable.

“I told you it was trivial!”

We printed letters from Helen Harper of Mill Valley, California, in our July and November 2015 issues. She later sent us a friend’s address and wrote, “My friend read my bit about National Trust sites in England (Nov. ’15, pg. 27) and would like to subscribe. Please send her a sample copy of ITN.”

We’ll send a free sample copy of the next-printed issue to any and all of your traveling friends, anywhere. ITN does not share people’s names and addresses with any other firm (except the company that handles our subscriptions, and they, too, will respect your privacy).

Helen added to her note, “Thank you so much for printing my article. It is such fun to be able to write about my travels and see the articles in print. I love this magazine!”

Eugene “Bucky” Edgett of Westminster, Maryland, wrote, “Loie and I look forward to ITN every month and read it cover to cover, often more than once. Many a pleasant discussion has been had about articles in ITN. Thanks for all your staff’s, and your readers’, great work.”

Bucky’s commendation is correct but incomplete. 

Yes, we on the magazine’s staff are on the job, and we depend on our subscribers to contribute the bulk of the material, but there is another part of the team responsible for our being able to produce each issue: the advertisers, many of whom have been helping to support this magazine for decades. They know where to find the world’s most enthusiastic travelers. 

Keep the trip reports and suggestions coming!

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Locals playing chess in the colonial town of Trinidad — Cuba. Photo by Randy Keck

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 483rd issue of ITN, your monthly foreign travel magazine.

If you’re seeing a sample copy of this publication for the first time and are wondering what you’ll find inside, the answer is observations, recommendations and opinions from people who enjoy traveling. We print articles and letters from ITN subscribers, and the focus is on destinations outside of the United States.

The people sharing their experiences range from independent travelers to those who prefer group tours and from shoestring travelers to First Class flyers. All are free to express themselves candidly. All write for the benefit of other travelers, their fellow subscribers.

ITN staff adds travel-related news items plus information on places and events of interest. And our advertisers provide plenty of travel opportunities and ideas.

If you pick up a tip or two or find yourself intrigued about a particular place, turn to page 9 to see how to keep the news and travel suggestions coming. A year’s subscription works out to only $2 per month, and it includes full access to our website, where a search bar makes finding past letters and articles about specific tour operators and destinations easy for your trip planning.

Enjoy this issue of ITN. Here are a couple of news items to get you started.

In February, the New Jersey Department of Banking & Insurance released a statement warning about “opt-out” travel insurance being sold through Web-based travel-booking sites. The department concluded that the practice amounts to an “unfair or deceptive” act and is illegal under New Jersey law. California, Minnesota, Maine and Florida also have declared the practice of selling opt-out travel insurance to be illegal.

What these travel-booking websites are doing is including a charge for optional travel insurance with the booking of an airline ticket, hotel room, rental car, etc. This insurance could include coverage for trip interruption, loss of belongings and damage to accommodations or a rental vehicle as well as for sickness, accident, disability or death occurring during travel. If the purchaser does not want the insurance, particularly if he already has such coverage and does not want to pay twice for it, he must opt out.

However, when a travel package is being purchased through one of these websites, the final cost is not broken down into its components to show the additional taxes and fees and (if not removed during the booking process) the cost of the optional travel insurance, so the purchaser might not be aware that he is paying for an item he may not want.

Usually, a person can opt out by, if he happens to spot it, unchecking a box somewhere on the webpage during the purchasing process, but the steps to take to opt out may not always be obvious.

In regard to purchasing airline tickets, the US Department of Transportation made opt-out practices illegal in 2012. Specifically, all of the fees included in the price of an airline ticket must be clearly shown before the purchase is made. Unfortunately, the DOT ruling against opt-out insurance being tacked onto airline ticket charges is not enforceable against companies based in other countries.

 If you have been charged for unwanted insurance because of a deceptive opt-out scheme, you can file a complaint with your state’s insurance board. The contact information for each insurance board can be found at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ website at www.naic.org/state_web_map.htm

However, unless the company whose website you have used to book your service is based in the US or, better yet, is in one of the states that have passed laws against opt-out practices, there may not be much the commissioners’ office can do for you other than log your complaint.

The door to Cuba continues to open wider.

At the urging of the Obama administration, the US Department of the Treasury (DOT) has reinterpreted the rules regarding travel to Cuba. As of March 15, individual US citizens may travel to Cuba on self-designed “People to People” programs without having to join a group tour led by an authorized tour operator or travel organization. 

Until the US Congress rules otherwise, regulations still do not allow for tourism to the island, so any Americans who travel to Cuba independently will be responsible for planning an educational trip that meets the DOT’s criteria for travel to that Caribbean island.

According to the DOT, an individual will be authorized to travel there “provided that the traveler engages in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

In related news, on Feb. 16, US and Cuban authorities agreed to allow commercial flights to be scheduled between the two nations. American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines all have applied to fly routes to Cuba (April ’16, pg. 4). If approved, service may begin in fall 2017.

Also, on March 20, the DOT granted the US-based homestay company Airbnb special authorization to, through their website (www.airbnb.com), begin to rent rooms in Cuban homes to non-US citizens as of April 2. US travelers who meet any of the legal criteria for travel to Cuba have been able to rent rooms there through Airbnb since the DOT relaxed the embargo against Cuba in December 2014.

It never feels good to be on the receiving end of the expression ‘Ignorance is no excuse,’ but there are some places where it can mean really bad news.

On Jan. 2, Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old American visiting North Korea, was arrested as he waited to board a plane at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport at the end of a 5-day tour. After being held in prison for nearly a month, he was charged with committing a hostile act against the country. Specifically, he attempted to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel.

On March 16, Mr. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for his crime.

Why Mr. Warmbier tried to steal the poster is unknown. His own statements to the North Korean court ranged from wanting a souvenir of his trip to being offered a $10,000 car in exchange for the poster. What is clear is that he never realized that such a minor, albeit misguided, act could have such terrible consequences. 

As the world becomes a smaller place, travelers are increasingly visiting countries where laws can be unforeseen or are ambiguously enforced. It’s important to know that some activities that Americans would consider normal or, at worst, trivial are in certain countries considered serious offenses. 

The lèse-majesté laws in Thailand are one example. Any perceived insult to a member of the Thai royal family can result in imprisonment. Offenses can include posting critical comments on Twitter or Facebook or even “defacing” the King by treading on Thai currency, which bears his image. In December 2015, a Thai citizen was arrested just for insulting the king’s dog. (Examples of what was considered “insulting” are usually not republished so as not to inspire anyone to repeat those insults.)

Some other nations that routinely impose imprisonment, fines or both in response to insults made about royalty, government officials or the government are Poland (which also prosecutes for insulting any visiting head of state), Azerbaijan, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain (where insults against the flag or national emblem will also get you into trouble), Kuwait, Iran (including clerics), Cameroon, Venezuela and, perhaps most shocking, the Netherlands, where insulting any member of the royal family can result in jail time. 

(In different incidents regarding the Netherlands’ Queen Máxima in 2012, two men went to jail for making statements “offensive to her dignity,” one on Twitter and the other in a letter mailed to her.) 

In addition to lèse-majesté laws, another thing to look out for are blasphemy laws. According to the Pew Research Center (www.pew research.org), the following countries were arresting and prosecuting people for blasphemy as of 2012: Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Maldives, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Morocco (including Western Sahara), Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Bahamas, Belize, Antigua & Barbuda, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Suriname and Peru

Some of the countries listed can prosecute a person for saying or writing anything that can be construed as insulting to any religion, while others are concerned only with insults to the state religion. Punishments for blasphemy in these countries range from small fines to death.

Though Sri Lanka and North Korea are not on the Pew list, it is important to note that tourists found to have “insulted” Buddhism have been deported from Sri Lanka (Aug. ’14, pg. 69) and that visitors have been arrested for proselytizing in North Korea (Jan. ’15, pg. 70).

Other laws that can land travelers in hot water unexpectedly include taking pictures of certain persons or locations, speaking to common citizens without permission (especially about touchy subjects) and taking banned reading materials into the country (even mistakenly).

It’s important for travelers to research the laws of the countries they will be visiting. The US State Department’s website (http://travel.state.gov) is an excellent resource. On the website, visitors can search by country (under “Learn about your destination”) and, once on the country’s page, look under the heading “Local Laws & Special Circumstances” for examples of unknown and unexpected laws.

As he described in the July 2015 issue (page 14), ITN subscriber Tony Leisner of Tarpon Springs, Florida, purchased a $55 visa upon arrival when crossing into Bolivia from Peru while on a Viventura tour in May 2015.

Through a consulate, a 10-year Bolivian visa generally costs a US citizen $160, but sometime back in 2015, Bolivia quietly made it possible for Americans to apply for a lower-cost $55 visa upon arrival at most entry points into the country (so quietly, in fact, that the Bolivian Embassy could not confirm this to ITN in 2015).

At some point since Tony’s trip, however, Bolivia just as quietly ended this option. US travelers now can expect to pay the full $160 fee, should they wait until reaching Bolivia to get a visa. We thank Tony for this update.

A CORRECTION to note —

Steve Jennings of Colorado Springs, Colorado, wrote, “I have been to all three of the Baltic countries, so when I saw that the Baltics were featured in the April 2016 issue, I was interested. Mentioned in the article, the Hill of Crosses is a very interesting place. However, I would like to point out that it is located in Lithuania, rather than in Latvia,” as was incorrectly printed in the photo caption on page 43.

Another subscriber, Phil Korbholz of Stockton, California, caught that same error. Thanks, Steve and Phil, for calling that in. All input is appreciated.

Just back from a 2-week program as a volunteer English teacher in Cuba with Global Volunteers, Ted Mullett of Vero Beach, Florida, wrote, “I have one bit of trivial advice for ITN readers: If you go to Cuba, take a supply of black pepper, as we found it to be unavailable.

“I told you it was trivial!”

We printed letters from Helen Harper of Mill Valley, California, in our July and November 2015 issues. She later sent us a friend’s address and wrote, “My friend read my bit about National Trust sites in England (Nov. ’15, pg. 27) and would like to subscribe. Please send her a sample copy of ITN.”

We’ll send a free sample copy of the next-printed issue to any and all of your traveling friends, anywhere. ITN does not share people’s names and addresses with any other firm (except the company that handles our subscriptions, and they, too, will respect your privacy).

Helen added to her note, “Thank you so much for printing my article. It is such fun to be able to write about my travels and see the articles in print. I love this magazine!”

Eugene “Bucky” Edgett of Westminster, Maryland, wrote, “Loie and I look forward to ITN every month and read it cover to cover, often more than once. Many a pleasant discussion has been had about articles in ITN. Thanks for all your staff’s, and your readers’, great work.”

Bucky’s commendation is correct but incomplete. 

Yes, we on the magazine’s staff are on the job, and we depend on our subscribers to contribute the bulk of the material, but there is another part of the team responsible for our being able to produce each issue: the advertisers, many of whom have been helping to support this magazine for decades. They know where to find the world’s most enthusiastic travelers. 

Keep the trip reports and suggestions coming!