How do I use my travel insurance policy?

Editor’s note: This is part four in a series of posts about travel insurance sponsored by Access America. Here’s part one, part two and part three.

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Congratulations, you’re the owner of a shiny new travel insurance policy. Now what?

Conventional wisdom says you wait until something goes wrong and then file a claim. But there’s a little more to it.

Your travel insurance company wants to hear from you – needs to hear from you – if you want to be a successful user of a travel insurance policy.

When to contact your insurance company:

If your policy is wrong. If you see something on your policy that is incorrect, like a misspelled name, date of birth, dates of travel or anything else that is inaccurate, contact your insurance company immediately to get it fixed. Inaccurate information can delay your claim.

When something changes. If any of the circumstances under which you purchased your policy have changed – say your travel dates have shifted several times, you’ve added costs or travel suppliers to your trip or you’ve moved – then it’s best to let the company know.

When something unexpected happens. Many travel insurance customers are unaware that their policies cover items like trip interruption or that they provide policyholders with assistance when something goes wrong. So when something happens while you’re traveling that you didn’t expect, get in touch with your insurance company through the emergency number that they provide. You never know; you might be covered.

If you have a question about your policy. It’s better to ask about your policy and what it does, and doesn’t cover, before it becomes an issue. For example, say your policy covers a trip if you lose your job. If you think a pink slip is coming, this might be a good time to inquire about what’s covered.

Timing is important. Read your policy when you receive it and call if you have questions. Many travel insurance companies offer a “free look” period (normally 10 days) for all of its insurance policies. If, after reviewing your policy, you decide that it doesn’t meet your needs, you can cancel it, as long as you haven’t departed on your trip, and receive a full refund.

Should you write to your insurance company or call?

Most travelers feel that picking up the phone is more convenient, but that’s an instinct you should resist. It may be easier, but having an answer in writing – usually by email – is far more useful. It also creates a necessary paper trail that you can refer to if you should ever have to make a claim. If you must call, be sure to get the name of the person you spoke with. Most insurance companies record their customer service calls.

How about your travel agent or insurance agent? They’re not off the hook after your policy has been sold. Many states require agents to be licensed, and if an agent has sold you a policy with promises of coverage, and the insurance didn’t cover you, then you need to take that up with the agent. (More on disputes in the next section.)

While a travel agent or insurance agent can act as an advocate when your claim has been denied – bear in mind, though, that there may be some privacy restrictions that limit your agent from getting involved – you should never rely on them for authoritative information about coverage. In fact, a good agent will insist that you review your policy for yourself before buying.

But always go directly to the primary source: your insurance company. In the event of a dispute, it’s the insurance company’s coverage promises made through its policy – not those of your agent – that matters.

If you receive a letter from your insurance company, review it thoroughly and call the company if you have questions.

Believe it or not, travel insurance companies want to hear from you before, during and after your trip. Why? They are as keen as you are to avoid some of the claim horror stories that you might have read, and the only way to do that is to keep an ongoing dialog with their customers.

It’s the travelers that purchase a policy as an afterthought – clicking a button after they’ve booked an airline ticket or hotel – and then forget about their insurance until they have a problem, that are the most problematic. They’ve probably made an uninformed purchasing decision and a boatload of assumptions that they shouldn’t have.

Buying travel insurance is as important as your selection of airline, cruise line, car rental company or hotel. Becoming a power user of your policy is just as important.

Next up: What to do if you have to make a claim.

(Photo: Matt B Enton/Flickr Creative Commons)