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A beginner’s guide to travel insurance

(Washington Post illustration; iStock) (Washington Post illustration; iStock)

It’s not uncommon for travel plans to veer off track. When things go haywire, travel insurance might not turn your trip around, but it can protect you from resulting financial losses.

However, it’s not a one-size-fits-all service. People worried about the coronavirus outbreak will need different coverage than, say, travelers going paragliding in Peru. And finding the right travel insurance can require a lot of time, and in some cases, money.

“What consumers can have in the back of their mind is [travel insurance] could be anywhere from 7 to 9 percent of your total trip cost,” says Carol Mueller, vice president at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. “We just encourage leisure travelers to make sure you understand what you’re getting for the price that you’re being charged, and if you’re not sure, call the company that’s behind the policy and ask.”

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For those who have established they would like to buy travel insurance, it’s essential to read the fine print of a policy to make sure if, and how, it covers your specific concerns. It’s a complicated landscape to navigate, particularly because it’s not a perfect system.

So when should you buy travel insurance?

You’re concerned about your health.

According to Mueller, the most common type of travel insurance claim is trip cancellation and trip interruption, “and that’s typically due to a medical reason,” she says.

Trip cancellation coverage can help would-be travelers get their money back if their own medical problems force them to cancel travel plans or come home early. But what isn’t covered by a travel insurance trip cancellation policy is fear of a health issue. For example, travelers concerned about contracting coronavirus during a trip won’t be reimbursed if they want to cancel their plans, but they would be reimbursed if they were quarantined during their travel or became ill before their travel.

“Insurance is something that’s going to protect you for something that has happened to you. Not if something may happen to you,” says John W. Cook, founder of Travel Insurance Ratings & Reviews and president of “So cancellation due to concern about being exposed to the coronavirus is not a covered reason on any of the policies that I am familiar with.”

Does my travel insurance cover coronavirus? Read the fine print.

Travelers who want the option of getting at least some of their money back if they cancel a trip out for potential health risks can look for policies that include “cancel for any reason” coverage.

“That allows them to cancel for any reason other than what’s already covered by the policy, so you can just say, ‘I don’t want to go, I’m afraid of covid-19,’” Cook says.

But, of course, added flexibility leads to added costs. Cook estimates between a 40 to 50 percent additional surcharge to your policy. You also need to buy it within a specific amount of time after making a deposit on your trip and cancel before a blackout period before your departure.

During times of crisis, such as the coronavirus outbreak, a cancel-at-any-time policy may be hard to come by. An increase in demand for the service is collapsing the market.

“There are already two companies that have announced they’re not doing it anymore,” Cook says. “One company indicated that they had a 60 percent increase in sale for cancel for any reason, and that just means they’re going to be hammered with claims.”

You’re worried about the health of a loved one.

Travelers could benefit from travel insurance in case they need to cancel or cut short vacation because of the well-being of family members. Travel insurance plans covering trip cancellation or interruption extend not only to your own health concerns but to those of your family.

According to Cook, that usually includes spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents, parents-in-law, grandparents-in-law, children, stepchildren, adopted children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, guardians, wards, travel companions and a travel companion’s immediate family.

Your health insurance doesn’t cover travel abroad.

The second-most common travel insurance claim is emergency medical coverage for those traveling abroad. While many medical plans will cover you outside of the United States, albeit with greatly reduced benefits, not all will. Medicare, for example, doesn’t cover customers traveling internationally.

Call your insurance provider to see how you’re covered while traveling abroad before buying additional travel insurance ahead of your trip. Armed with that information, you can buy travel insurance to fill in any major gaps, such as medical evacuations.

Warning! Travel insurance doesn’t cover this

You want to protect your stuff.

Lost, delayed, destroyed or stolen luggage can ruin your trip. No one wants to show up in Aspen, Colo., without their skis, or have their camera stolen at the Eiffel Tower. Travel insurance can help you get some money back for your items.

“If you lose your baggage, if your baggage is delayed or if your baggage is stolen, those are the general coverages that you would get in a comprehensive travel insurance plan,” Mueller says.

People traveling with any valuables — including work gear, expensive electronics or sentimental possessions — should invest in a travel insurance policy that covers personal belongings.

You’re taking risks with adventurous travel.

For travelers embarking on particularly adventurous trips (think trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro or white-water rafting) where the potential for injury is higher than your standard weekend getaway, travel insurance is a must. It’s particularly important if you don’t have the protection of personal wealth to cover a cost like getting helicoptered off the side of a mountain.

“If you had a $150,000 medical evacuation, are your finances such that you could afford that?” Cook asks. “I personally have known people that have had to file bankruptcy because they didn’t have medical coverage while they were on a trip.”

Not all travel insurance policies will cover your adrenaline-junkie agenda. Standard plans may exclude certain extreme activities, or won’t cover traveling in high altitude. You’ll need to find a policy that accounts for your specific adventure.

You’re going on a trip of a lifetime.

Travelers spending a significant amount of money on a vacation are good candidates for travel insurance.

“If you’re traveling domestically and you only have a couple-of-hundred-dollar airfare, is it worthwhile to insure that? Probably not,” Cook says. “On the other hand, if you have a $10,000 investment for a husband and wife going on a river cruise, maybe that is something that you want to consider to insure.”

Mueller says that if you’re not willing to lose everything you’ve put down on a vacation, you should “absolutely” invest in travel insurance.

Do you need medical evacuation coverage for your next trip?

You’re anxious about natural disasters.

Travelers headed to a destination known for natural disasters are good candidates for travel insurance.

“One of the perils [covered] in most travel insurance policies is if your destination is uninhabitable because of fire, flood or natural disaster,” Cook says. “That is usually standard, but if [natural disasters are] a concern, make certain the policy that you’re looking at has it.”

Maybe you’re not concerned about natural disasters where you’re traveling, but ones where you live. Cook says some policies offer trip cancellation coverage for people who can no longer travel because of fires, floods or natural disasters that make your own home uninhabitable.

Read more:

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