What’s not covered by travel insurance?

If I’ve seen Claire Richardson’s question once, I’ve seen it a hundred times. Maybe even a thousand times.

“Before I purchase plane tickets, I need to know which company to buy insurance from,” she says. “Is there any other issue I should pay attention to?”

This is the third part of our five-part travel insurance buyer’s guide. We’ve already covered special circumstances and which ones are covered. Today, we’re talking about what’s not covered.

Back to Richardson. Where to buy — that’s an easy question to answer. I list the names of the major travel insurance companies in my frequently asked questions section on travel insurance.

Buy direct. Companies sell insurance policies directly to travelers, usually online. The big players are Allianz Travel Insurance, CSA Travel Protection, and Travel Guard. A full list of other insurance companies worth checking out is on the US Travel Insurance Association’s website.

Buy through your travel company. Many travel companies, including airlines, cruise lines, and tour operators, offer optional insurance directly to consumers. These can be a good deal, but it’s worth shopping around before deciding to buy one of these policies. Also, be careful of tour operators or cruise lines that offer generic protection services. They won’t cover you if the company goes belly-up.

Buy through a travel agent or third party. Your travel agent may offer an insurance policy. (More on buying through an agent in a moment.)

You might also consult an online company that specializes in comparing and evaluating insurance policies, such as Squaremouth, Travel Insurance Review, Trip Insurance Store, and InsureMyTrip.com. These can be useful ways to quickly find the best travel insurance policy.

Related story:   So you have a screen shot of your Expedia booking -- so what?

(Disclosure: A lot of these companies are current or former supporters of this site.)

But when it comes to the other issues to which you should pay attention, the answer isn’t so easy.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: an existing medical condition, sometimes also referred to as pre-existing medical condition.

If you have a bad back, or chronic migraine headaches, or if you are a cancer survivor, you need to know about this. (Even if you disclose it, you may not be covered.) Unless there’s a specific waiver for your condition for an existing medical condition — in other words, unless the policy covers existing medical conditions — it will not. Some policies will cover an existing condition if you purchase the waiver at the same time you buy insurance, but you have to read the fine print.

Don’t take anyone’s word for it. Make sure you have it in writing.

It’s hardly the only special circumstance that travel insurance won’t cover.

Having second thoughts about your trip.
We live in an uncertain world, where terrorism and politics can turn a “safe” destination unsafe overnight. Also, people change their minds. It happens. When it does, you should know that most travel insurance will not cover you for changing your travel plans. (Note: You may be able to get a refund or credit from your airline, hotel or cruise line, so the claim isn’t your only hope of recovering your vacation dollars.)

Bad weather.
If you’re visiting the Caribbean for a little sun and fun or hitting the slopes in the hopes of finding great powder, you should know that insurance will not cover inclement weather. Of course, there’s an assumption made by many travelers that travel insurance protects your entire vacation and anything that might happen that “ruins” it for you. Not so. That doesn’t mean all weather events are not covered. Some policies will cover a flood, fire, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, volcanic eruption, blizzard, or avalanche “due to natural causes.” It’s buried in the small print. Read it before you leave.

Related story:   Why their special "circumstances" are more special than yours

Had a good time — too good of a time.
Not that this would happen to you, but it’s worth noting that travel insurance won’t cover you if you hit the bars hard, get wasted, catch a sexually transmitted disease or get robbed (not necessarily in that order). Travel insurance doesn’t cover any kind of risky or reckless behavior, so any medical expenses associated with recovering from a night of debauchery are on you. Also not covered: Enjoying one or two cocktails and making a foolish timeshare purchase. No travel insurance on earth covers that. If it did, the insurance company would quickly go out of business.

Richardson is right to consider travel insurance before booking her vacation purchase. It’s good to shop around for the right policy, too. But asking about the “other” issues — well, that’s brilliant. If more travelers did that, then travel insurance would be virtually problem-free, both for the companies and their customers.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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