Don’t do this! 3 insurance claims mistakes new travelers make

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By Christopher Elliott

If there’s a busy season for travel insurance claims, this is probably it. Summer vacations are over, some prematurely. Hundreds of thousands of claims are working their way through the system.

Not all of them will be successful. Take John Heath’s case. He had to cancel a recent trip to London because of a sick relative, and contacted me for help on a claim. “I am not sure how this works,” he told me.

A quick check of his itinerary revealed he thought he’d bought travel insurance, but hadn’t actually. Oops.

Here’s my complete guide to buying travel insurance.

Which brings us to mistake number one: Make sure you actually have a policy. If you don’t, you’ll be leaning on your airline, cruise line, hotel or tour operator for a refund to which you may not be entitled.

The US Travel Insurance Association publishes a helpful claims guide for policyholders. You can also go to your travel insurance company’s site for additional information (here’s the Allianz Travel Insurance page). But there’s more:

Not reading the fine print

Let’s stay with reading comprehension skills for a minute. “In helping clients with buying travel insurance, the main issue across the board is that they don’t read the fine print,” says Ben Johnstone, who runs a full service travel agency that sells travel packages for Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. “And they think they are covered.” Of course, this is almost as bad as thinking you have a policy, when you don’t. It’s thinking you have a policy that says something, but doesn’t. Most travel insurance policies have named exclusions. Know yours before you file; otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels with your next insurance claim.

Making a claim for an event that’s not covered

Some claims are made that should never be made. For example, say you get into a bar fight and end up in the hospital. “Intoxication is not a covered reason,” says Phil Sylvester, a travel safety expert at World Nomads. “Travel insurance is designed to protect against the unforeseen and unexpected perils that can present themselves while traveling. And while sipping a few piña coladas seems to be as much a part of vacationing as swimming and sightseeing, if you injure yourself as a result of being intoxicated, your travel insurance policy will not cover you.” Ditto for being under the influence of drugs. People file a claim, but they shouldn’t bother.

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Failing to keep your receipts

“One big problem is not having the paperwork,” says Andy Abramson, a frequent business traveler who runs a communication firm in Los Angeles. And that’s especially true if you’ve been in an accident. “Make sure you have the bill and accident report. Keep all the paperwork — and expect to have to tell the story a few times,” he says. If he sounds like he’s repeating himself, he is, and with good reason. Claims adjusters are obsessed with recordkeeping. If you can’t verify your purchases, your claim is as good as lost. Keep those receipts!

How to avoid these claims mistakes? Assume nothing.

“Be informed,” says Carol Mueller, vice president of marketing at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. “Speak with your travel professional, call your travel insurance company directly and visit their website to get your questions answered.” (Related: AAA homeowners insurance trouble: They never told me I had to fix the roof!)

That’s advice anyone can take, including this frequent traveler. I remember when my new computers were stolen out of my car a few years ago. No worries, I told my kids — we have an annual travel insurance policy that will cover us. Which would have been true if I’d been more than 50 miles from my home. Turns out my homeowner’s policy covered us, so the story had a happy ending, but it was an important lesson learned: know your policy. Even if you think you know your policy, read it.

Errors can lead to major delays in processing your travel insurance claim, although it’s not always your fault, as I note in this story.

Heath, the traveler to London, was also lucky. His tour operator allowed him to reschedule the trip with no penalties — a generous offer. Countless others lose part or all of their trips when they make claims mistakes, all of which are completely avoidable.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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