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A Practical Guide to Buying Travel Insurance

By Jessie Beck

Jun 19, 2020

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It’s far better to buy travel insurance and never use it than to not be covered in an emergency. 

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It’s far better to buy travel insurance and never use it than to not be covered in an emergency. 

Travel insurance could be the difference between a huge medical bill or a modest copay. Use these tips to find the best policy for your trip.

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For many, travel insurance can seem like an unnecessary, additional expense. But if you get stuck in a costly situation—a medical emergency, a canceled trip due to a pandemic, a stolen camera—it suddenly feels like a totally worthwhile investment that saves, not costs, you money.

This was the case for writer Chris Ciolli. After years of traveling without a safety net, she invested in travel insurance on a recent trip during which she was rushed to the hospital at 3 a.m. for a slew of just-in-case tests. She ended up with an underwhelming diagnosis of gastritis, but also a slow trickle of medical bills—a few hundred dollars here, a thousand there—that totaled nearly $6,000. Fortunately, her month-long $185 World Nomads policy covered everything after an initial $80 copay.

But even if you understand the benefits and you’re committed to buying travel insurance, choosing the right policy for your needs—and even knowing what those needs are—can be tricky. To help you choose the best travel insurance for your trip, we’ve consulted a number of travel agents, insurance industry professionals, and lifelong travelers for advice. In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to know, from travel insurance reviews and comparisons to common questions answered, to pick the best policy for your next trip.

What is travel insurance?

Travel insurance is a plan, similar to health or auto insurance, that protects you from expenses incurred during unforeseen mishaps while traveling, such as lost luggage, trip cancellations, or medical emergencies.

Although your current homeowner’s, renter’s, auto, or health insurance may cover you for certain things while traveling, it usually doesn’t cover everything—especially on international trips. A good travel insurance plan will cover the gaps.

Where do you get travel insurance?

Some very basic forms of travel insurance are included if you booked your trip with a credit card such as World MasterCard, Capital One Venture Rewards, and Chase Ink and Sapphire cards. With these plans, you may be covered for some delay, luggage, and travel accident expenses, but it’s usually pretty basic.

You can also purchase it as an add-on while booking flights, cruises, or hotels. These plans are also limited and will only cover you in the event of an unavoidable cancellation due to events such as a natural disaster or a death in your family. “While it may seem less expensive, it may not cover all of the components of your trip,” says Andrew David Harris, vice president and COO of Harris Travel Service.

While both of these are better than nothing, the most comprehensive and best travel insurance policies are sold by providers such as World Nomads, Allianz Global Assistance, Seven Corners, or TravelEx. You can purchase these plans through your travel agent, but it’s often less expensive to book directly with the travel insurance provider or through a comparison website, like Squaremouth.

What does travel insurance cover?

Every traveler and trip is different, which is reflected by the variety of travel insurance plans on the market. No matter what plan or provider you choose, below are some common things travel insurance covers. Experts agree that before you buy, you should absolutely look for specific exclusions in the fine print on potential policies. If you’re unsure about something, reach out. A good insurance company will be responsive and willing to clarify your questions.

Trip cancellation and interruption

Most travel insurance policies will include some form of trip cancellation and interruption coverage to reimburse you for nonrefundable expenses, like a prepaid hotel or plane ticket. Unless you add cancel for any reason (CFAR) insurance to your plan, there will be a limited set of acceptable reasons to claim this. Illness, death of an immediate family member, and weather are commonly accepted reasons.

Trip delays and missed connections

Also common is reimbursement for additional expenses incurred if a trip is delayed and meets criteria set out by the provider. With World Nomads, your flight must be delayed by at least six hours to qualify.

Baggage and personal effects

Most plans will cover the cost of lost or damaged luggage and personal belongings, as well as the cost of purchasing additional items if your luggage is delayed.

Emergency medical and dental care

This covers the cost of medical care when you get sick or have an accident in another country and usually includes medical evacuation. However, travel insurance isn’t a substitute for regular health insurance so nonemergency medical expenses (physicals, anything cosmetic, eye exams) aren’t covered. Childbirth isn’t covered either, even for pregnant travelers who go into labor prematurely.

Shannon O’Donnell, 2013 National Geographic Traveler of the Year and blogger at A Little Adrift, mentions another coverage gap travelers miss: “You’re only covered for what you’re licensed to do back home—if you don’t have a permit for a motorbike and you drive one in Southeast Asia, you might not be covered in an accident.”

Emergency medical evacuation

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This covers the cost of an emergency transfer (in an ambulance or helicopter, for example) from an area with inadequate medical care to the nearest medical center with the services you need. It’s costlier but essential in isolated and politically unstable parts of the world.

Accidental death and dismemberment and repatriation

Phil Sylvester, head of PR and Media Communications for World Nomads, says that “truckloads of coverage for hospital costs and medical repatriation home” are the most important things to look for. “The rest is just window dressing.” A lot of basic plans won’t include this in their coverage, but you can easily add this on with an upgrade to a more premium tier.

Concierge and 24/7 service

Daniel Durazo, director of Marketing and Communications for Allianz Global Assistance, says that “a good policy includes a 24/7 contact line for both medical and travel emergencies.”

Common travel insurance add-ons to consider

A basic plan is usually enough for most travelers, but it may not cover everything you need if you’re older, have pre-existing medical conditions, participate in sports while traveling, book an expensive trip, or travel with expensive gear (such as a high-end camera). If you fall into any of these categories, consider an add-on or upgrade.

Upgrade lost luggage, trip delay, and cancellation amounts

“Standard travel insurance levels cover more modest belongings and lodging,” advises Annette Stellhorn, president and Group Luxury Travel designer at Accent on Travel. If you’re traveling with expensive gear or spending a lot on your trip, consider upgrading to a tier that covers your costs adequately.

Additional coverage for adventure and high-risk travel

Stellhorn also notes that adventure and high-risk travel “require higher benefit amounts for medical evacuation, which can run more than $250,000.” And Judy Perl at Judy Perl Worldwide Travel says that “most insurance companies will not insure high-risk travel at all, with the exception of big companies like First Allied and Travelex.” Even less risky activities and sports may only be covered to a limit—that is, climbing to certain heights and diving to certain depths.

Most sports are only covered up to a certain level of intensity—any higher and you may have to purchase a different tier of insurance. World Nomads, for example, will cover a slew of adventure travel activities and sports, but at an additional cost on top of its basic insurance.

Cancel for any reason (CFAR) insurance

It’s important to read the fine print of any insurance plan because, even if it includes trip cancellation coverage, this often only kicks in under certain circumstances. As many travelers found out recently, trips canceled due to the recent coronavirus pandemic were not covered unless they had a CFAR add-on.

Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-owner and copresident at Valerie Wilson Travel, explains that these plans “only cover 75 percent of trip expenses [and only] if travelers cancel their trips at least 48 hours in advance.”

Does travel insurance cover pandemics?

No. “Once actual events have unfolded, such as the current coronavirus outbreak, they are considered known or foreseeable events and are no longer covered by most travel insurance policies,” says Michelle Baran. The exception is if you chose to upgrade your plan to include a CFAR add-on. During the current coronavirus outbreak, getting the CFAR add-on is definitely a good idea.

What are the best travel insurance policies?

The best travel insurance policy will depend on you and your trip. You’ll want to make sure you have a plan that covers the cost of your entire trip and the activities you want to do and won’t leave you in the dark if you have pre-existing conditions. The following are some of the best travel insurance partners to consider:

World Nomads

Best for: Adventure travel and sports

World Nomads offers affordable travel insurance plans in two different tiers, standard and explorer. Both include many standard protections, like pretrip cancellation, but stand out from other providers with the Explorer plan’s coverage of 200+ adventure travel activities, including shark cage diving and bungee jumping, as well as less extreme activities, like cycling and golf.

Get a quote: worldnomads.com

Allianz

Best for: Older travelers and those with pre-existing conditions.

While Allianz provides great travel insurance for any traveler, it’s especially appropriate for those with pre-existing conditions, since those are covered in every one of its plans. However, its basic coverage only covers up to $500 in lost or damaged baggage, so consider an upgrade if you’re traveling with more expensive equipment.

Get a quote: allianztravelinsurance.com

Seven Corners

Best for: Traveling during the COVID-19 outbreak

Although most travel insurance plans don’t cover travelers in the current coronavirus pandemic without a CFAR add-on, Seven Corners has designed a plan specifically for travelers planning a domestic road trip in the United States, Canada, or Mexico, called Armor. Its Liaison Travel Plus and Wander Frequent Traveler Plus plans also include medical coverage should you need medical attention due to COVID-19. Seven Corners has been providing high-quality travel insurance coverage since 1993 and, pandemic or no, is one of our top choices.

Get a quote: sevencorners.com

GeoBlue

Best for: Medical coverage only

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GeoBlue’s Voyager basic medical coverage is not a comprehensive travel insurance plan that covers a slew of scenarios, but rather just provides travelers with basic medical travel insurance. The deductible is a high $500 but at $19 to $35 per trip, it’s an inexpensive way to protect yourself in case something catastrophic happens. If you feel like you’re adequately covered for travel mishaps like lost luggage or stolen goods by other insurance (like your credit card or homeowner’s insurance), this might be the insurance for you.

Get a quote: geobluetravelinsurance.com

TravelEx

Best for: Traveling with kids

With TravelEx, travelers can choose between a basic or select travel insurance package with options to customize it according to their needs. Both plans cover standard things like trip cancellation and emergency medical services and are an all-around comprehensive option. However, its Travel Select plan also includes free coverage for any children under 17 traveling with you. For families, TravelEx Select is a great money-saving option.

Get a quote: travelexinsurance.com

How much does travel insurance cost?

Complete travel insurance packages can cost as little as $8 per day, but vary depending on the length of the trip, destination(s), and the tier of travel insurance you choose. Some, but not all, travel insurance may also cost more for travelers with pre-existing conditions or older adults.

As a comparison, here are some examples of travel insurance costs for a 45-year-old traveler on a $5,000, one-week trip to Mexico:

  • $98 for an explorer plan with World Nomads
  • $188 for a basic plan with Allianz
  • $214 for a basic plan with AIG
  • $226 for a basic plan with Travelex

While some of these plans may seem expensive, keep in mind that if they provide you the coverage you need, they can be a huge money saver. Insurer World Nomads says that its average claim amount for 2017 was $1,634, and its most expensive claim—a medical evacuation of a child from Sitka, Alaska, to Seattle—was nearly $200,000. Suddenly, that $8 per day makes travel insurance worth it. But, as Michael Holtz, founder and CEO of the travel agency Smart Flyer, says, “People don’t think they need it until they need it.”

How do I buy travel insurance?

You should always buy travel insurance from an official, reputable provider or website, such as purchasing directly through the insurance provider, a travel agent, or a comparison website; these “offer a way to search, compare, and purchase from a wide array of plans,” says Stan Sandberg, cofounder of TravelInsurance.com.

Comparison sites to buy travel insurance include:

Sandberg strongly recommends consumers speak with a licensed agent when they are unsure about benefits. The website elliot.org is another good resource and features a list of reputable travel insurance companies compiled by consumer advocate Christopher Elliott.

When to buy travel insurance

Generally, you should book your travel insurance as soon as you can after booking your flights and hotels. If you’re traveling to a destination affected by hurricanes, book sooner than later, because you can’t buy insurance to cover delays or cancellations related to a storm that already has a name.

People with pre-existing conditions need to take other factors into consideration. Most insurers will only cover expenses related to prior illnesses in very specific circumstances; travelers with pre-existing conditions must book coverage within a specific time frame—usually between 14 and 21 days—following their initial trip reservation, and they must be medically able to travel on the date they purchase the insurance.

Your travel insurance policy period should be for the duration of your trip from door to door (no gaps or shortcuts, please), and cover you for every place you plan to visit, whether it’s in-state, out of state, or international. Some destinations are higher risk than others so insurers don’t offer the same coverage for the same price everywhere.

What does your existing insurance cover while traveling?

While your existing health, auto, renter’s, or homeowner’s insurance may cover a few things while you’re traveling, it likely doesn’t cover everything.

  • Health insurance: Many U.S. healthcare policies, including Medicare, don’t cover travelers on international trips. Some plans will cover you abroad, so check with your provider. If your health insurance only covers you domestically, both the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. State Department recommend purchasing medical travel insurance.
  • Travel insurance: Credit cards can provide limited coverage of some delay, luggage, and travel accident expenses, as well as part of your rental car insurance.
  • Homeowner’s and renter’s insurance: Home contents or rental insurance may cover some lost, stolen, or damaged valuables or even offer a reasonably priced floater policy (an add-on to your regular policy that covers easily moveable property) if you travel with expensive equipment.
  • Auto insurance: Within the United States, your primary auto insurance will almost always cover rental vehicles. There are a few exceptions for domestic rentals, like if your current auto insurance has low coverage limits. International car rentals are a different story. In Mexico, for example, rental car insurance is mandatory, even if you have insurance at home. Always be sure to check local rules before you reserve a rental car.

Tips for filing claims and getting reimbursed

Unlike most domestic health insurance policies, travel insurance doesn’t typically have a deductible. Some inexpensive policies will require you to pay a small, nonrefundable, initial policy excess amount before further costs up to the benefit limit are covered. Many policies work on a reimbursement plan: You pay upfront, save your receipts, and file a claim, then after processing, your insurance company pays you back for covered expenses.

Most policies require you pay nonemergency expenses out of pocket and submit your claim for reimbursement afterward. In a non-life-threatening emergency, call your insurer for instruction if you’re able—it will make the claims process easier, and the insurer may be able to direct you to a hospital or medical center where your care can be billed directly to it.

Hannah Logan, of the blog Eat Sleep Breathe Travel, says this step is especially important because the small print on many policies “reads that calling the contact number [may be] a requirement for coverage.”

No matter what, document everything. Whether it’s lost baggage, a medical expense, or damage to your rental car, gather and keep anything that can help your claims case: your original rental car agreement, receipts, photos, medical paperwork, a copy of your boarding pass.

Buying travel insurance is a little like packing a suitcase—it can seem overwhelming at first, but eventually it becomes a routine and necessary part of every trip. And once it does, you can travel worry-free, calm in the knowledge that you’ve saved yourself from a possible $6,000 mistake.

This article originally appeared online on December 4, 2018; it was updated on June 19, 2020, to include current information.

>>Next: Everything You Need to Know About Getting a New U.S. Passport

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