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Travel 101: Read This Before You Buy Trip Insurance

By Daniel Bortz
September 12, 2018
Palm trees in hurricane
Mike_Kiev / Dreamstime
The right insurance policy may be the best money-saving tool that Budget Travelers have.

Do you need travel insurance?

When a natural disaster strikes—such as the hurricanes, floods, mud slides, and wildfires that have hit the U.S. in recent years—travel arrangements get disrupted across the country. Airports shut down. Highways close. Sadly, now is a good time to get up to speed on travel insurance.

When you’re traveling, it’s important to have the proper protection in case something goes wrong, like a flight cancellation, lost luggage, or medical emergency. Yet only 21% of Americans purchase travel insurance, according to a study from The Points Guy. Why? “When people are planning a trip, they don’t plan for the unexpected,” says John Cook, founder of QuoteWright.com, a travel insurance comparison site. “They don’t think about the risks that are associated with travel.”

Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United, agrees: “People don’t think twice about buying car insurance or homeowner’s insurance, but a lot of people just overlook travel insurance,” he says.

Another reason people don’t purchase travel insurance is because “it can be a complicated topic, which can make the product less accessible for a lot of people,” says Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com, a U.S. travel insurance provider

Granted, travel insurance isn’t right for everyone. Whether you should purchase it will ultimately depend on the type of trip you’re planning, what type of coverage you need, and how much you’re willing to spend.

Here’s what you need to know before you purchase travel insurance.

There are two types of travel insurance

You have “named peril” policies and “cancel for any reason” policies. A named peril policy only offers coverage for certain events, or “perils,” such as a cancelled flight, lost luggage, or death in the family prior to the trip. Each policy spells out exactly what’s covered and what’s not (these are called “exclusions”), says Cook.

The second type of travel insurance is a “cancel for any reason” policy, which is exactly like it sounds—the insurance company will pay you a percentage of any nonrefundable travel expenses regardless of why you cancel your trip. Naturally, this extra coverage costs more; Cook says it can add up to another 50% of the cost of the insurance policy. But be aware you won’t get reimbursed for the full costs of your trip. “Generally, you get $0.75 on the dollar,” Cook says, “but there’s a blackout period of two days before your departure during which you can’t cancel for any reason.” Therefore, you still need to be diligent and find out what your “cancel for any reason” insurance plan would cover.

Planning an international trip? Buy medical coverage

Most health insurance policies, including Medicare, don’t offer medical coverage when you’re traveling outside the U.S., which is why Elliott strongly recommends buying medical coverage. Typically, covered medical expenses are costs incurred for necessary services and supplies, such as a doctor’s visit, prescription drugs, or hospital stay, but coverage will depend on the type of policy you buy. One thing you want to make sure you get is coverage for an emergency medical evacuation, since it can cost you “well over $100,000 if you don’t have coverage,” Cook says. “It’s especially important if you’re going on a rock-climbing trip or something adventurous,” he adds.

You may already be covered

Some credit cards offer trip cancellation, medical, and/or baggage insurance if you pay for the trip with the card. For example, if your travel is interrupted or canceled due to injury, sickness, severe weather or other conditions, you can be reimbursed for prepaid travel expenses such as flights and hotel rooms for up to $10,000 per trip with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. However, some credit cards only offer “very basic coverage,” says Cook, so be careful when evaluating what coverage your credit card company provides.

Typically, there’s a limit for expenses incurred from flight cancellation

If your flight gets cancelled, your travel insurance company will normally provide for lodging arrangements, meals, and transportation to and from the airport so that you're not stuck in an airport waiting for your next flight. (That’s assuming the airline doesn’t pay for these costs.) But policies have coverage limits. “With most policies, you get up to $150 a day per person,” Cook says. (Read: you better review your policy before you check into the Four Seasons!)

Keep your receipts

Let’s say your luggage gets lost or stolen. If you purchased baggage coverage, you’ll most likely have to pay for essential items (e.g., clothes, toiletries) out of pocket and then submit a claim to the insurance company when you get home. However, you’ll need to submit receipts to get reimbursed. “If it’s under $100, you [typically] just email the receipts and the company will transfer the money to your debit card or cut you a check,” Elliott says. “It’s a fast process.” If it’s a large claim though, you may have to submit the paperwork by mail and it could take several days for the insurance company to process the claim.

The moral: before you leave for your trip, make sure you have enough cash with you (or on your debit card) to pay for essential items.

Why travel insurance costs vary

Cook says travel insurance prices are based on three factors: your age, the cost of your trip (generally in $500 increments), and the length of your trip if you’re traveling for more than 30 days. Hence, the same travel insurance policy (assuming it has medical coverage) could cost a 70-year-old person more than it would a millennial, since older people have more health risks. In general, however, travel insurance costs 5% to 7% of the price of the vacation, says the Insurance Information Institute, so a $5,000 trip would cost roughly $250 to $350 to insure.

Travel a lot? Consider buying an annual policy

If you’re a frequent business traveler or take more than two vacations a year, it may be worth purchasing an annual travel insurance plan, Elliott says. Most annual plans offer a year's worth of protection for medical, property, and trip costs. You can use a website like QuoteWright.com, TravelInsurance.com, or SquareMouth.com to compare policies.

Of course, you always want to read the fine print—and don’t simply sign up for the cheapest policy. As Sandberg says, “travelers need to find the right plan, at the right price for them.” 

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Travel Tips

Take Control of Weather-Related Flight Delays and Cancellations

Nobody wants their vacation delayed before it even starts. But bad weather can sometimes keep planes grounded. Worse, some airlines—and sometimes even hotels and rental-car companies—will invoke bad weather, or "Acts of God" as an excuse for cancellations that may actually be due to mechanical problems or other mishaps. Why would an airline blame the weather for a delay or cancellation? Airlines are not legally obligated to provide travelers with lodging or meals if a delay or cancellation is due to weather. But you are not powerless in these situations. Here, The Air Traveler's Take-Control Cheat Sheet: RESEARCH WEATHER AND CONTINGENCY PLANS  In the days before you fly, check a reliable source such as The Weather Channel for weather forecasts for your departing airport, any connecting stops, and your destination. Also, as a precaution, keep a list of hotels at each of those airports (an app such as Hotel Tonight can put this info at your fingertips). Oh, and stock up on chocolate bars for your carry-on bag (more on that later). STAY INFORMED  Check on your flight before you leave the house or on your way to the airport. For most people, the nastiest thing about a flight delay or cancellation is that punch-in-the-gut moment when you're standing in front of an airport monitor learning that your vacation is not going to start on time. Use TripAdvisor's GateGuru app to check weather conditions and flight schedules before you get to the airport. (And make sure you've got chocolate in your carry-on!) YOU'LL GET BETTER SERVICE IF YOU'RE NICE  If your flight is cancelled or delayed, immediately call the airline's reservations number or visit a gate agent. Whoever you speak with, treat them like your new Travel BFF—sure, you're stressed, but a friendly, calm approach (and a complimentary chocolate bar!) may go a long way. Be the customer who isn't throwing a tantrum! Ask to be booked on the next available flight. If you are worried about missing a connecting flight, tell them—airlines can sometimes offer special services to connecting passengers. If no flights are available, politely ask for a hotel and meal voucher—no, they are not obligated to give them to you, but just might anyway because you were as sweet as the chocolate you offered them. BE A LITTLE NOSY  Some travelers like to ask—politely—whether the delay is purely due to weather or perhaps a "combination of weather and other factors." If your airline rep admits that some other factor, such as mechanical problems, is at play, repeat your polite request for hotel and meal vouchers. (But please don't invoke the legendary "Rule 240," which some travelers believe obligates airlines to book them on the next available flight, or a flight on a competing airline. A holdover from the days when airlines where more heavily regulated, Rule 240 won't mean much to most airline personnel these days.) If you are fairly certain that weather was unfairly cited as the cause of a flight delay or cancellation, you can hire a forensic meteorologist to match your flight data with weather conditions and make the case that you are owed compensation for hotel and meals. ASK FOR A "DISTRESSED TRAVELER" RATE  If, despite your best efforts, you are stuck checking into a hotel while you wait for a hurricane, blizzard, or volcanic ash to blow over, ask the hotel if they offer a "distressed traveler" rate. The Hotel Tonight app specializes in last-minute bookings and can really help in these emergency situations. BE INSURANCE-SAVVY  We get asked all the time if travel insurance can protect you from weather-related cancellations. We recommend that you carefully review conventional travel insurance policies due to their high prices and relatively low reimbursement rates. But if you are booking a package tour or cruise, you can often purchase an affordable policy that allows you to cancel for any reason at any time. And if you're traveling anywhere remotely off the grid, appropriate insurance for medical evacuation should be on your list.PACK YOUR CARRY-ON FOR AN EMERGENCY We recommend always packing a carry-on with “emergency” items, but it is especially important when weather threatens your travel plans. Keep a change of clothes, a jacket, and all medication you might need in your carry-on. A sleeping mask and ear plugs are also valuable items to carry with you - they don’t take up much weight, but they are solid gold to have if  you need to catch some zzz’s at the airport.

Travel Tips

Psst! Studying Abroad Might Help You Land a Job

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Travel Tips

How to Find Shoulder Season Bargains for Fall

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Travel TipsFamily

Read This Before Your Kid Flies Solo

As a child, I looked forward to flying alone from Florida to New York for the summer. It meant a few blissful weeks spent with cousins I rarely saw, and precious time with my grandparents, who I knew would be waiting for me at the gate. This year, I put my own children, ages 6 and 9, on a plane by themselves to see their grandparents. Getting them on the two-hour flight was relatively easy; waiting for them to land took a bigger toll on my nerves. But they arrived safely, and yours will too. Here’s what to expect when your child is flying alone domestically: WHO’S A “MINOR”? Airlines generally consider a minor to be between the ages of 5 and 14. Some airlines, like Southwest and Alaska, cap the age at 12, but you can request and pay for unaccompanied minor status for your older child regardless. SOLO FLIGHTS FOR KIDS ARE PRICIER That solo flight is not cheap. Every airline adds a surcharge. Some are relatively small: Southwest charges $50 per flight, per child, or $100 round trip. JetBlue’s program costs $100 per child, per flight, or $200 round trip. EACH AIRLINE HAS A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT POLICY You will book the flight differently on all airlines. Delta is unique in that you book the flight by phone using their Unaccompanied Minor phone line, which adds a level of comfort knowing there is a dedicated support staff for your questions. Most other airlines allow you to book the flight online; you just indicate the child is flying alone when prompted for the status of the passenger (adult or child) or when prompted for the passenger’s birthday. AIRLINES DO THEIR BEST TO KEEP YOUR KID SAFE You tell the airline in advance who will be dropping off and picking up your child, and ticketing agents ID the designated adult on both ends to let them through security and to the gate. (Unfortunately, they often only let one adult through.) The airlines will also give your child a bracelet or lanyard to indicate they’re unaccompanied, along with an envelope with their flight details. The flight crew typically places unaccompanied minors in the front of the plane to keep an eye on them, but prepare your child to be on his or her own during the flight and to go to by alone to the bathroom or ask for help if needed. A WELL-PACKED CARRY-ON WILL KEEP YOUR KID HAPPY Pack books and games to keep your child occupied and happy, and if you’re sending them with a tablet, charge it and/or pack a charged external battery. Buy food at the airport in case there is no substantial meal on the flight. Be sure to point out where they should place their envelope with all of their flight details, and include a list of important phone numbers just in case. And show them what’s in their carry-on before you say goodbye. BE PREPARED FOR A LONG TRAVEL DAY It will take a lot of time. You and the adult on the other end will be meeting your child at the gate, which means you’ll have to go through security both times. On the departure end, you’ll arrive at least an hour before just as if you were flying and you’ll need to stay until the plane is in the air, so don’t expect a quick goodbye. On the arrival end, allow at least 30 minutes to park and get to the gate, more if you’re in a major airport. CHECK THE FLIGHT ARRIVAL BOARD OFTEN Arrival gates change, and you could be waiting at the wrong one when your child deplanes. SOME INTERNATIONAL AND CONNECTING FLIGHTS DON’T ALLOW SOLO KIDS Each airline treats these cases a bit differently, so read each airline’s FAQs carefully. DON’T DOWNPLAY THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT OF SAYING GOODBYE Letting your child fly alone might be harder than you imagined. My daughter clung to me before her flight, my son didn’t even wave goodbye. And until they landed safely, my stomach was in knots because my most precious cargo was out of my hands, high in the air. It can be terrifying if you think of it this way. So try not to. Send them to the family members they rarely see. You’ll be forging lasting memories—and an early sense of independence. LEARN MORE Visit each of the major U.S. airlines’ websites for more information on their unaccompanied minor programs.

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