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How to Pick the Right Travel Insurance

Here’s how to cut through the jargon and get the plan that’s right for you

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Concerned about lost or delayed baggage, a canceled trip or sickness? Travel insurance may be for you.
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The idea of buying travel insurance is simple enough: Once you’ve shelled out thousands of dollars for your special trip, you don’t want to lose money if you have to cancel. Or you don’t want to pay thousands more if you have a mid-trip medical emergency.

Although purchasing travel insurance can be complicated, experts say it’s helpful when you do it right. If you look at these policies, you’ll understand why Robert Hunter, insurance director emeritus for the Consumer Federation of America, says virtually no one reads them. There are enough riders, waivers, exceptions, limitations and disqualifying events to baffle even the most expert interpreter of foreign-language train schedules. “The terminology is confusing,” Hunter says. “People can’t understand what the policies mean.”

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How do you figure out whether you need travel insurance, what coverage you need and what to look out for when you buy it? This Q&A guide will help you choose coverage — should you decide to buy any at all.

Do I need travel insurance?

For starters, if you’re traveling abroad, ask your health insurer if it covers international medical bills. If not, you want to buy a travel policy that includes travel health coverage. (With rare exceptions, traditional Medicare doesn’t cover health problems when you’re traveling outside the U.S., but some Medicare Advantage and Medigap plans do.) Matt Kepnes, of nomadicmatt.com, a travel website, recommends $100,000 in emergency medical coverage and at least $300,000 in coverage for a medical evacuation.

“I never travel abroad without travel insurance,” he says. “I’ve had bags lost and stolen, my camera broke, my eardrum popped while diving, and I’ve even been mugged and stabbed. While you’re likely going to be fine 99 percent of the time, the risk just isn’t worth it. Moreover, emergency evacuations can cost upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The past is not prologue, and it’s important to have coverage in case anything happens.”

Is travel insurance worth it?

Seasoned travelers know that regardless of how well you plan, and even if you packed for any type of weather, life happens.

Meghan Walch, director of product for InsureMyTrip.com, says she hopes you never have to use travel insurance, but without it, you might be out a lot of money.   

“Travel insurance is not one-size-fits-all and may not be necessary or ‘worth it’ for every trip,” Walch says. She suggests considering your trip and your travel partners to determine whether you need to buy insurance.

Essentially, if you’re worried about the unforeseen “ifs,” it’s better to err on the side of caution.    

What if I break my leg two days before my trip?

A last-minute unforeseen health emergency that prevents you from traveling should be covered by trip cancellation insurance. To figure out how much coverage you should purchase, add up all your nonrefundable expenses for such things as airline tickets, cruise cost, tours and prepaid excursions. You’ll need to buy coverage for 100 percent of these costs to be eligible for certain benefits such as the preexisting condition waiver.

To collect, you’ll need a note from your doctor certifying that you are unable to travel and including the details of your diagnosis or injury.

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Are there any special considerations for older travelers?

Although this is not always the case, older travelers are more likely to have a preexisting medical condition. “Coverage for preexisting medical conditions can typically be included in a travel insurance policy at no additional premium, as long as the policy is purchased shortly after booking the trip (typically 14 to 21 days post-booking),” says Megan Moncrief, president of squaremouth.com, an online travel-insurance comparison site. “If an older traveler is concerned about an existing condition, they should purchase the policy as soon as possible upon booking a trip.”

If COVID-19 taught travelers anything, it’s that flights or entire trips can be canceled without notice. Although the airlines reimbursed travelers during COVID, there’s no guarantee they’ll do so today. Moncrief says to take that into consideration when considering travel insurance. “While the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the benefits — and in some cases, requirements — to travel with insurance, several of the benefits included within most plans are perhaps even more relevant today.”

If my widowed mother has a medical emergency while I’m traveling, am I covered if I drop everything and head home?

An event that causes your trip to be cut short falls under trip interruption coverage. One common scenario Moncrief cites: the serious illness or unexpected death of a close relative such as a mother, brother or child. To make a claim in this situation, you’ll need a doctor’s note to get reimbursed. And your relative has to have been medically fit at the time you bought the insurance (which, again, you must buy on a timely basis).

I’d like to go on a Caribbean cruise this fall. What if it’s canceled because of a hurricane? Or what if my flight to Miami is delayed and I miss the boat?

A cruise called off as a hurricane barrels toward Florida would indeed be covered by trip cancellation insurance, assuming you bought it before the hurricane was forecast. Some policies provide “cruise only” missed connection coverage that will pay for flying you to the next destination port if you miss the boat because of flight delays.

Check a policy’s wording carefully: You might not be covered for a delayed flight if your plane’s scheduled arrival falls too close to your ship’s departure. If a cruise is rerouted, not canceled, to avoid a storm, you probably won’t get any reimbursement. Some plans may let you cancel if your destination is subject to a hurricane warning close to your departure date.

What if I’m worried about all of the above, plus pickpockets?

Comprehensive travel insurance policies are designed to cover a wide range of risks, from trip cancellation and interruption to travel delay, baggage protection, medical issues, emergency evacuation and 24-hour assistance. Some policies will even reimburse you a set amount toward the cost of a new passport. A standard comprehensive policy can add 4 to 10 percent to the cost of your trip.

More Buying Tips

Comparison shop … Cruise lines, group trip operators and airlines all offer add-on trip insurance when you buy your tickets. But it typically isn’t a good deal, says Robert Hunter, who suggests contacting insurers directly for details on prices and coverage.

… but don’t dawdle. There are numerous insurance benefits that are available only if you buy coverage shortly after you make your first trip payment — including any nonrefundable deposits. As you make additional nonrefundable payments, you can usually increase the amount of your coverage.

Know your needs … Insurable trip cost is not the same as total trip cost. Prepaid, nonrefundable costs are typically covered, as are expenses that you will be billed for if you cancel your trip. Tickets purchased with frequent-flier miles aren’t covered, though taxes and related fees might be.

… but don’t overbuy. Are you taking a cheap flight to Chile and staying with friends? Instead of paying for a comprehensive policy that includes cancellation and interruption coverage, you can probably pay less for a policy that covers medical issues only. For lost luggage, you may have sufficient coverage on your homeowners policy or the credit card you use to book your trip.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 9, 2019. It has been updated to reflect new information.

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