Travel insurance: Get it right

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

If you’re starting to think of your big summer trip, it’s time to start thinking about travel insurance. Because what you buy and when you buy it is often the difference between a great idea and a waste of money.

What’s important. Although various travel insurance policies cover a lot of contingencies, there are only two risks that could cost you thousands of dollars: trip cancellation or interruption (TCI) and medical. The other stuff can be handy, but it’s peripheral.

Pre-existing conditions. With TCI and medical, the most frequent bone of contention between travelers and insurance companies is the question of pre-existing medical conditions. Most travel insurance policies specifically exclude pre-existing medical conditions as “covered reasons” for canceling or interrupting a trip and for a medical claim. But most insurance companies specifically waive that exclusion provided you buy the insurance within a specified period after you make your first prepayment for the trip. The waiver period is generally a week, 10 days, or two weeks, but a few companies extend it to as much as 30 days. A waiver for the exclusion for pre-existing conditions does not add a penny to the cost of the insurance; it’s just something you have to do soon after you start arranging your trip. But a few caveats are important.

  • With any policy, you must be physically able to travel on the day you buy the insurance. You can’t buy insurance if you’re unable to travel at the time but expect to get better by the time you’re supposed to leave. This limitation applies to any traveler in a family or group covered by the insurance.
  • You must insure the “full value” of the trip. But this requirement is a bit tricky. With some policies, this means the total cost, including refundable components that you can recover or re-use. With others, you must cover only the nonrefundable components of your trip. In any case, the policy may not allow you to cover only a portion of the value; you can’t “round down” the trip cost to squeeze in under a lower insurance price bracket.
  • If you add additional nonrefundable payments later, you must increase the value of coverage, typically within 21 days of the added prepayments.
  • In any case, most policies clearly cover only “unforeseen” circumstances, including some that would normally be considered “covered” reasons

Secondary coverage. Coverage for almost all TCI and many medical policies is secondary. That means the insurance covers only those payments that you can’t first recover from your airline, cruise line, resort, tour operator, or other medical insurance. Moreover, some secondary insurance requires that you pay up front for whatever out-of-pocket expenses you encounter while traveling and subsequently ask the travel insurance company or your regular health insurance for reimbursement. That’s probably not a problem for a quick doctor visit, but if you have to be hospitalized or buy an expensive one-way air ticket, paying the bill could amount to a big hit on your checking account or credit card.

No improvising. Many travel insurance policies cover onsite medical expenses, as well as early return home, but to take advantage of the policy’s coverage, you have to follow the policy’s rules. And that almost always means going through the insurance company’s designated representative before you take on any initiative of your own. If you need to return home early, for example, don’t just go out and buy a new airline ticket or charter a business jet. Instead, inform the insurance representative, who may say, “let me take care of that” rather than authorizing you to go ahead. Money you spend without authorization may not ever be reimbursed.

Because of differences in the fine print, my recommendation is that you compare policies carefully and don’t blindly take whatever your airline, cruise line or tour operator suggests. Most of the big online travel insurance agencies publish elaborate side-by-side comparisons of different policies, including,,,,, and

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website.)

Tribune Content Agency — February 2, 2016


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