The eruptions from Hawaii's Mount Kilauea in early May filled screens around the world with nightmarish visions of burning lava and noxious fumes, sending potential vacationers scrambling to check their travel insurance policies to see how they could cancel their flights and hotel accommodations to the Aloha State without getting burned financially. Many may have assumed an active volcano spewing lava at their vacation spot would be covered by their travel insurance, and they could get reimbursed for their travel expenses with no muss or fuss.
But the mere presence of volcanoes—along with hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters—doesn't give you an automatic refund on your transportation and lodging costs under most policies. Unless the natural disaster prevents transportation to your destination or makes it completely uninhabitable—think of the New Orleans Lower 9th Ward during Hurricane Katrina—then you probably are stuck with the bill. Just because an impending storm will turn your beach vacation into spending a week indoors playing Uno doesn't mean you can cancel the trip, unless you spring for a more-expensive policy that allows you to abandon the trip for literally any reason.
It's just one example of how travel insurance is both one of the most widely available and widely misunderstood types of insurance you can purchase. Read on to discover what a typical policy covers and whether it makes sense for you this summer as you plan your well-deserved vacation.
What Do These Policies Actually Cover?
When people buy travel insurance, they typically are looking to protect against the possibility they'll have to cancel the trip at the last minute and still get stuck with the bills. To remedy this problem, travel insurance offers trip cancellation policies of all shapes and sizes to worried customers.
Trip cancellation is the part of the policy that allows you to recover all of the nonrefundable payments you made when booking the trip, namely airline tickets and hotel accommodations. Sounds pretty great, right? And it is, so long as the reason you cancel your trip falls under your policy's covered reasons.
"The trip cancellation insurance will protect you from loss before you depart," says Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com. "Some plans have a complete laundry list of reasons of what is covered. Other plans may have a shorter list."
Typical covered reasons include:
- An unexpected illness striking you or even your travel partner that renders you unfit for travel, as determined by a licensed physician
- A natural disaster that renders your destination uninhabitable or inaccessible
- The hospitalization or death of a family member
- Your passport is lost or stolen
Notice the reasons listed here tend to be of an unexpected, catastrophic nature. Canceling your trip to Coachella because you found out Kanye was hospitalized for being Kanye and will no longer perform won't qualify as a reason under most trip cancellation policies. Even an act of terrorism isn't a guarantee that you'll get your money back should you cancel your trip.
However, if you're willing to pay the price, you can upgrade a standard trip cancellation policy to a cancel-for-any-reason policy. As you might guess from the name, these policies allow you to put the kibosh on the trip for any reason and—depending on the policy—you will get anywhere from 50% to 75% of the nonrefundable costs back. Usually people purchase these policies when they are traveling abroad and feel some apprehension about the destination country's political stability, as incidences of civil unrest aren't covered by standard travel cancellation.
Because of its generous scope of coverage, cancel-for-any-reason policies require you to insure the entire trip—not just the portion that makes you nervous—and to purchase the insurance no later than 30 days after you make the initial deposits for your journey.
That means if you used a credit card to book an airplane ticket last year for a trip to Seoul this summer, you can't buy a cancel-for-any-reason policy a week before your vacation because you think South Korea may get a little radioactive in the near future. And as mentioned, you have to pay extra for cancel-for-any-reason policies—an extra 30% to 40% of what the policy would cost without the upgrade.
To Your Health
The other main reason people pony up for travel insurance is worrying about access to health care on the trip. You may assume whatever health insurance you currently have will cover you if you get sick or injured on your vacation, but plenty of people have received a nasty shock when that clinic in Paris or Los Angeles or wherever demands they pay a hefty medical bill out of pocket, leaving them to battle it out with their primary health insurers after the fact.
While many primary health insurance policies cover emergency medical care when you are out of network, you still likely will have to pay the local health care provider upfront and then get reimbursed by your health insurance afterward. And seniors on Medicare aren't covered at all when traveling outside of the United States, leaving them at the mercy of potentially crippling medical costs.
Travel insurance policies often include medical coverage, so if you get sick or injured on vacation, they deal directly with local health care providers so you don't have to pay out of pocket. Many of these policies also help pay for your evacuation back to the United States if your illness or injury requires you to return home for emergency medical care. Getting this kind of insurance is a great idea if you decide to go whitewater rafting or skiing in a country where the local standard of health care may be lacking compared to what you're used to in the U.S..
Because the cost of these policies don't have anything to do with travel accommodations and aren't pegged to the cost of your trip, they tend to be much cheaper than travel cancellation plans. A plan for a 40-year-old making a two-week trip to France, for example, can cost as little as $14 for coverage up to $20,000, which includes physician fees, hospital charges and dental fees.
How to Buy
The good news is that if you're only interested in medical insurance abroad, plenty of plans exist that will cater to your needs. But if you want the benefits of trip cancellation policies, you most likely will have to purchase a plan that has it bundled together with medical, which you may not feel you need if you are traveling within the United States. The upshot is that policies providing medical care don't raise the price of a plan nearly as much as policies concerning travel accommodations, so you shouldn't feel as if you're wasting a ton of money with these plans.
Depending on how comprehensive the plan is (whether it includes trip cancellation, medical and other types of coverage), the age of the travelers it covers, and the total trip cost, you can expect to pay between 4% to 10% of the trip's cost for your insurance. In other words, a vacation that costs you $5,000 in airline tickets and hotel rooms can be covered for about $500 if the plan is on the expensive side.
If you are fortunate enough to be the holder of a premium credit card and used that card to pay for travel arrangements, you may also want to check to see if your card covers you in the same way a travel insurance policy would. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card covers trip cancellation up to $10,000, but you need to check with your card provider about what exactly constitutes a covered reason, the same as you would with any travel insurance policy you are looking to buy.
While not prohibitively expensive, the price of some travel insurance policies is more than pocket change. If the trip is a short one or if you feel confident the traveling will be smooth sailing (either literally or figuratively) think long and hard before buying a policy. However, a month-long journey throughout Europe or a safari in the heart of Africa may warrant a policy, if only for the peace of mind it will provide you.