The Iceland volcano boosts awareness of travel insurance

If and when you need it

May 02, 2010|By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

Visions of the Iceland volcano spewing ash into the air and weary, grounded travelers waiting it out at airports are causing more people to consider travel insurance.

Insurers and agents say queries about policies to protect against flight cancellations and delays are sky- high.

InsureMyTrip.com, which compares and sells policies, received its second-highest number of calls during the week of April 19th, days after Eyjafjallajokull erupted. (The busiest week for the 10-year-old site was after the swine flu outbreak in August.)

But do you need travel insurance, which can cost 4 percent to 8 percent of the trip price? That's an extra $100 to $200 on a $2,500 vacation.

"The travel insurance companies would sure like you to think you need to go on a trip with their product," says Christopher Elliott, reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler. "That's not true at all."

You don't need travel insurance if you're traveling within the United States. You likely won't need it if you're healthy and taking a short trip abroad to a country with good medical care. And you should always review existing insurance and credit card benefits to make sure you aren't already protected for travel mishaps.

Travel insurance makes sense if you're spending thousands of dollars on a dream vacation and you either can't afford to lose the money or fear you will miss one of your many connections.

Buy a travel policy that provides medical coverage and evacuations if you're headed to remote areas or places where high-quality health care isn't widely available. Even if you're not going to an exotic locale, consider a policy if your health insurance won't cover you overseas and you're concerned about potential medical bills.

About 30 percent of travelers buy insurance, triple the figure before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, says Jim Grace, president of the US Travel Insurance Association. Most insurers view the volcano eruption as a natural disaster or weather problem and are covering travelers whose trips were canceled or interrupted, he says.

"These type of events is what travel insurance covers," Grace says.

Of course, if you want insurance because you're worried Eyjafjallajokull will disrupt a future trip, you're too late. The volcano is considered a foreseeable event, so insurers won't cover it if a policy was purchased after mid-April. Grace says the majority of insurers will cover policyholders if a different Icelandic volcano acts up.

Travel policies typically reimburse you for nonrefundable expenses incurred as a result of a trip gone awry. Many offer protection if you cancel because of an illness or injury and will cover you if travel is interrupted or connections missed. They often provide health care coverage and medical evacuation. Some policies got you covered if you lost a job and no longer can afford the trip.

Before plunking down money for a policy, make sure it doesn't duplicate existing coverage.

Airlines, for instance, will reimburse you up to $3,300 for lost luggage in a domestic flight. Limits on international flights vary with currency fluctuations.

Your homeowner's policy might reimburse you for lost luggage, although you might not want to make a claim if it causes premiums to shoot up or your insurer to drop you later, experts advise.

A credit card may offer travel perks when used to book travel. Some high-end credit cards, for example, will insure lost or stolen luggage, certain medical expenses, car rentals and trip cancellations or pay a death benefit if you die.

Check your health insurance to see if it will cover you outside the country. Medicare, the program for those 65 and older, generally doesn't; but some supplemental Medicare policies do, travel experts say.

If you decide you want travel insurance, buy it within seven to 21 days of putting down your initial deposit to get the maximum coverage, Grace says. If you buy later, pre-existing health conditions, terrorists acts or the bankruptcy of your tour operator won't be covered.

Shop around. Compare policies online at sites such as Squaremouth.com and InsureMyTrip.

Read the terms carefully. Policies can sound the same but have significantly different limits or exclusions.

"There are always loopholes, and people don't read the policy," says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. For instance, if you cancel a trip because you're sick but don't see a doctor, the insurance won't pay, he says.

Call the insurer if you're not sure whether your concerns would be covered, Hobica says.

You might not need comprehensive coverage. But travel experts agree that if you are venturing into exotic locales, you should consider medical evacuation coverage.

"The last thing you want to do is be stuck in a Third World country with a serious medical condition," says National Geographic's Elliott.

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