Does travel insurance have too many exceptions?

Question: A friend and I purchased a tour from Friendly Planet to Ecuador last July. We booked a round-trip flight on American Airlines from Dallas to Miami to arrive in time to connect to the LAN flight to Quito, Ecuador.

We purchased flight insurance with Access America Insurance for the super-saver flights from Dallas to Miami. In February I received an email from Friendly Planet saying that the tour had been canceled due to too few participants. I was given the choice to receive a refund or to schedule another tour later in the year. I decided to reschedule.

However, Access America denied the claim I made to cover the costs of changing the American Airlines flights, which was $137 for each of us.

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I had spoken to two representatives from Access America explaining what had occurred, and both encouraged me to file the claim since it was not my fault that the trip was canceled. The process was time-consuming.

I have written a letter to Access America asking for a second review. I think Access America insurance is bogus at best since the trip was interrupted because it was never started. What is the purpose of insurance if not to cover the unexpected? — Catherine Markland, Whitney, Texas

Answer: If your insurance policy covered a canceled tour, then Access America should have paid up.

But did it? I checked with the insurance company, and rescheduling a trip because of a lack of participation in a tour isn’t covered. I agree with you that when you buy insurance, you’re left with the impression that you would be protected if something goes wrong on your vacation. But you have to read the fine print.

Most travel insurance policies cover specific situations described in their terms. There are a number of common events, such as illness or injury to an insured, a traveling companion or close family member, plus a list of other health, transportation, accommodation, political and work circumstances, that are covered reasons for canceling or interrupting a trip.

It appears you purchased your policy to cover your airline ticket, through your airline’s site. I’m a little dubious of the insurance offered through airlines, because they can be extremely restrictive. (I’ve heard insurance insiders joke that you have to die in a plane crash or lose a limb in order to make a successful claim, but I’m sure that’s an exaggeration.)

Insurance purchased through an airline is often an afterthought — and optional purchase with your airline ticket. Travel insurance should never be an afterthought. You’re much better off shopping around for the right policy than clicking a button when you’re booking a ticket and then assuming you’ll be covered.

I contacted Access America on your behalf. It reviewed your case and ruled that your tour cancellation wasn’t covered. I’m sorry.

Update: Some of you will recognize this story — it’s based on the very first “case dismissed” post I wrote last year. About a month after I covered Markland’s unsuccessful claim, Friendly Planet decided to reimburse her for her flight, after all.

(Photo: o5com/Flickr)

78 thoughts on “Does travel insurance have too many exceptions?

  1. A full and clear list of what is covered should be a part of the insurance marketing.  I am looking at the box for my new QuickBooks program – there is a clear chart showing me the features of each of their three programs.  I get to decide what I need and see which program to select before I start to read any fine print or pay any money.  I know immediately what I am getting and judge whether it suits my needs.  How about it Insurance Companies??? We might buy the more expensive product if we see what it includes – at least we would know which risks we are deciding to take on for ourselves.    It must cost the insurance money to deny claims too – and if a passenger knew they had selected a limited plan, they would not file for uncovered issues.  Everyone would benefit from an informed consumer. 

    BTW I never buy travel insurance except for an annual premium, catastrophic “rescue me plan” through a professional group.  I figure I will self insure with the saved premiums – so far it has worked.

    1. I know that the company I buy from, TravelGuard, allows you to look at a summary of what’s covered and the legalese before you purchase. They also have multiple policies with different coverages.

      This story reminds me too much of the Allstate cut rate insurance / mayhem commericals. Ultimately you get what you pay for.

      1. I’ll grant that Travel Guard’s site is slightly better than Access America/Allianz’s, but even there, the summary chart for every single plan they sell simply states that Trip Cancellation coverage is “included” (“100% of insured trip cost”).

        If you hover over the small question mark, it elaborates that “The Insurer will pay a benefit, up to the Maximum Limit shown on the Schedule, if an Insured cancels his/her Trip or is unable to continue on his/her Trip due to the Unforeseen events shown in the Description of Coverage.”

        To actually see the Description of Coverage takes multiple clicks (on the smallest, least prominent links on each screen).

        If you are not already familiar with travel insurance and not a champion speed reader, reading and digesting the Description of Coverage (and by implication figuring out what is not covered) takes far longer than the 15-20 minutes that your online airline ticket purchase session would last.

          1. For starters, presenting this on the last screen of an airline ticket purchase — under the time pressure of a browser session that would clearly timeout before one could read and digest all of the fine print — is a shady practice IMHO.

            Beyond that, these sites are generally designed to under-emphasize the complexity of the policies and the exclusions unless you’re very determined to find them.  There is so much spin and marketing about happy customers and saved trips.  There is little or nothing to balance that hype, such as specific examples of any scenarios that would not be covered.

            Ultimately, it’s not surprising that without legal obligations to do otherwise, the insurers are going to present very one-sided sales pitches.  So I’m not sure I have anything to suggest other than minimum legal standards and requirements to explicitly and prominently spell out certain scenarios that are not covered that might not be obvious to a typical inexperienced traveler (or one who lacks the imagination to think of all the scenarios that were ommited).

            BTW, I’ll give Travel Guard some kudos for offering a live agent chat for customers to ask questions and keep a record of the answers.

          2. OMG Michael, if you (like the OP) went to AA’s site you will see this message BEFORE you are offered insurance or to pay for your tickets:
            If you are not ready to purchase your ticket now, you may select HOLD to GUARANTEE your reservation and fare for up to 24 hours.
            There is no gun to your head!

          3. If so, I acknowledge that’s a big improvement.  When did they start doing that (particularly the “and fare” part)?  

            I’ve definitely seen otherwise when I’ve booked my own trips (including very recently on Delta).

          4. Since the  24HR cancellation LAW went in effect last 24/26JAN 2012.

            Also, people can buy travel insurance after they buy a ticket but before they travel.

            The only important thing is they know WHAT APPLIES to them, otherwise they could be wasting money.

            There is NO SUBSTITUTE to reading the policy. I do because I don’t want to waste my money.

          5. There’s a difference between pay now (cancel  w/i 24 hrs) and hold/guarantee (pay w/i 24 hrs).

            Many airlines apparently comply by doing the former… which means you’re led to believe that you’d  have to cancel and re-ticket from scratch   if you decide w/i 24 hrs that you want that  insurance option after all.  

            You and I might know that the policy is still available directly from the insurer (at the same price or better!), but that is not disclosed to the customer AFAICT.

    2.  A full and clear list IS provided.  Every provider will provide at least a decent brochure listing the coverages, and most will also provide the full policy in most states before purchase.

      Travel insurance, like most kinds of insurance, including Auto, Home, Medical, Disability, Drug, Life, etc. are “named perils” policies.  This means that they cover what is listed, and do not cover anything that is not.

      1. Most of the other types of insurance you cite have standards and regulations.

        AFAIK, you can’t sell medical insurance that names hundreds of covered (cherry-picked) procedures but conveniently leaves out “kidney dialysis” or “neck fractures.”

        1.  If you provide medical insurance, you most certainly CAN cherry-pick what you do and do not want to cover with few restrictions.  (For an easy to understand example, this is explicitly how drug formularies work; everything on the list is covered, everything not on it, no matter how important it may be to your health, is not.  An insurer can cover Viagra and not cover chemotherapy or AIDS drugs if they so choose.)

          The ERISA law specifies certain procedures that must be covered by certain employer-provided insurance.  That’s it.  In non-ERISA policies companies can choose to cover (or not cover) pretty much anything they want.

          If you are an insurer and want to refuse to cover Dialysis or Traumatic Spinal Injury in your otherwise-comprehensive policy, there is nothing stopping you.  (I can’t imagine such a policy would sell very well, but it would be legal.)

          Most insurers do mention a list of exclusions (as do travel insurers), but they are certainly not exhaustive.

          Does your auto insurance cover title fraud?  Vomit damage?  Acid rain damage?  Nope.  Does your homeowner insurance cover de-stinking your house if the freezer dies while you are on vacation?  Nope.  Does it usually bother listing such exclusions?  Nope.

          1. I must admit to being skeptical about that first statement.  If that were true you could sell anything health related and call it health insurance.

            Health insurance is one of the most heavily regulated field both federally and on the state level.  Many less reputable business try to sell products that don’t meet the government standards for insurance and use other names

            Admittedly I have not researched the insurance statutes, but I am very very skeptical.

        2. Travel Insurance is regulated by each US State.
          My office is in NYC and New York State requires us to register just to sell travel insurance. I just got an email from Travel Guard reminding me to renew our annual NYS registration by April since ours expire in June.

          Michael_K, you sound like you can do a better job regulating insurance than the New York State Department of Financial Services.

          1. I’ve noticed that when I select “NY” as my residence on travel insurance websites, I generally get a shorter policy document with lots more highlighted disclaimers than if I selected almost any other state.  The price may also be a little higher.  (I suspect consumers would take the trade-offs if they understood them).

            Anyway, the state insurance agencies just do what they can under the law, so I don’t follow where you’re going with your comment.

          2. If the insurance is BOGUS then the State Insurance Commission will shut them down and sue them. Otherwise, it’s a free country- buy or not buy. If you don’t want the policy then don’t buy. If you buy then you agreed to the policy.

          3. Are you against any rules on what can be sold and how it is presented?

            Would you prefer if NY abolished the (apparent) rules that require the insurers to include consumer warnings that other states don’t?  

          4. Nope, NY is tough. You cannot even be an AGENT selling travel insurance here (in NY State) without registration. I like it. Maybe there is less riffraff sellers.

    3. Travel insurance reminds me of medical insurance programs like AFLAC.  It covers you if you get brain cancer on a Tuesday so long as it’s an odd day in a month that doesn’t have an “M” in it.

      Just too many restrictions to be of much help.

    1. That might not have helped her.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Access America would deny her claim since the trip wasn’t cancelled, but merely re-scheduled.

      1. True if the air and tour was placed in the same insurance policy. But, let’s say she only bought air travel insurance when she purchase her ticket, it might work since she can say I don’t like to fly to Miami anymore (assuming she had cancel for any reason coverage).

      2. Why? I thought “any reason” riders covered “I changed my mind and don’t want to go anymore”. Obviously you don’t get a full refund, but you should be able to recover something.

    2. Someone wrote here once at a time when the topic of travel insurance was being dissected, that the difference in cost between the ‘cancel for any reason’ policies and the standard travel/medical insurance policies is not as great as one might assume. 
      Having read all these posts here today and from my own small knowledge of  travel insurance, these ‘cancel for any reason’ policies would seem to be the only ones worth buying.  To clarify this, let me add that choosing these policies would be the better way to go for older travellers, people taking longer cruises and definitely for the risk-averse. 
      (Just learned last week that even though doctors on shipboard are hired by the cruise line, they are considered independent operators and the cruise line is not liable for their actions!)  I was amazed.

  2. I don’t know enough about travel insurance to say either way. I guess you have to read the fine print to make sure you are covered for any type of problem that might occur. In a way I can the airline’s point of view. The flight you were scheduled on is still going. You purchased insurance for the flight not for the tour.  

    1. I don’t buy it.  Its the same as any other reason why you might miss a flight. Say someone got sick, you had jury duty, etc.  “The flight you were sheduled on is still going” but you just aren’t one it.

      If the flight was cancelled, you wouldn’t need insurance because you would get a refund from the airline.

      1. As I said I don’t know a lot about travel insurance. However nothing happened to the traveler. She didn’t cancel the flight she just wanted to change the dates of the flight and did not want to pay the change fee. It seems that the insurance she purchased did not cover change fees. Perhaps if she had to cancel the flight she would have been reimbursed.

    2.  Yes, I forgot that this was merely airline ticket insurance.  Even if his tour operator had gone bankrupt (something that would be a covered reason with most comprehensive policies), it’d never be covered by a ticket-only policy.

    3. And THAT is the problem here.  That’s why we are licensed to sell third party insurance (we sell Travel Guard), which is FAR more comprehsive, and which covers you for a lot more. 

  3. I think he question is misleading and plays on emotions. Of course we would all like insurance to cover absolutely everything, but almost none of us are willing to pay those sorts of premiums. Insurers are free to exclude whatever they want. We’re consumers, and likewise, we can exclude any policy that we don’t want to pay for!

    1. New name Raven, they are now called  Allianz Travel Insurance.
      Business must be so good, they took the name of their (giant) parent company.

      1. I’ve never purchased travel insurance before, so here’s a question: are their policies that cover air, hotel, and tour? And if so, would that type of policy cover the event of a tour getting rescheduled (paying change fees, difference in fare, etc.)?

        1. You can absolutely find one that will cover air, hotel, and tour.  Virtually any of the “standard” plans purchased directly from any of the major providers (as opposed to the travel provider) will cover whichever pre-paid parts of the trip you choose.

          As far as covering the trip being re-scheduled?  It depends on why it’s being re-scheduled.  If it’s being re-scheduled because your dad had a heart attack, that’s usually covered.  If it’s being re-scheduled due to a circumstance like this one… no.

          However, waiting to firm up your hotel and air until after “final payment” (which is when the tour provider usually firms up their commitment to run the tour) will get around that issue easily.  It will still be far enough ahead of your travel dates that you’ll be eligible for the same advance-purchase fares/rates you’d have booking a year in advance.  If the tour operator cancels after they’ve committed, most reputable outfits will cover your change fees, as Friendly Planet did in this instance.

          You can also purchase an Any Reason rider (for additional cost) that will provide a 50-75% refund for, well, Any Reason.

    2. AMEN!  I just had a client come back from a trip, and he had some jewelry stolen.  He filed with his homeowner’s but there was still the $500 deductible.  He only told me later, and I told him to submit a claim to TravelGuard, and include the info about the decuctible — 2 weeks later, he got a check for the $500.00.  So yes, it DOES work – but with a reputable company, and knowing what is and what is not covered! 

  4. I do not believe any insurance (except Any Reason) policies cover trips canceled by the tour operator.

    Why not make alternate arrangements?  Surely Friendly Planet isn’t the only company running tours in Ecuador!

    Side Note to Chris: “(I’ve heard insurance insiders joke that you have to die in a plane crash or lose a limb in order to make a successful claim, but I’m sure that’s an exaggeration.)” For the policies sold from the little self-service kiosk in the airport terminal this is actually usually true. Those are “Accidental Death and Dismemberment” policies, and since they only cover the flight itself, they are practically free money for the companies that sell them, since the claims rate is essentially zero.

  5. If she hadn’t re-scheduled the trip, would she have been covered for the flights?  If so, she should have cancelled the first trip and then re-booked it a week later.  Is that cheating the insurance company?  Probably.  But the company uses loopholes every day to deny claims.  If you can find a loophole that works in your favor, why not?  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  Nice that the tour company stepped up in this case.

  6. I’m pretty much your average consumer and I’ll ask questions in lieu of reading the fine print.  I know, I know, I’m a dream customer to a company like these guys.

    However, I DO get names, dates, whom I talked to, so it’s not just a matter of, “I know it sounds like I’m making this up, but I’m NOT!  Really…”

    However, in spite of my minimal diligence, the usual answer is, “We have no one who works here by that name.”  They have an answer for everything in support of their “No”.

    It’s become an extremely predatory world against the consumer and while I love this column, it’s sad we need someone like Chris to keep the companies honest.

    1. You need to do both, because if you don’t ask the right questions you are still responsible for your purchase. 

        1. OR for a travel agent, who can help you wade through those questions, and ensure you get EXACTLY what you need.  🙂

          1. Best suggestion yet.  On my site, I did an article for travelers and I make the strong suggestion – if a trip’s going to be complicated, get a travel agent.  If insurance is involved, get a travel agent.

            My feeling is, if it takes more than a few minutes online, get a travel agent.  If you have to make a phone call to navigate the website, get a travel agent.

            People don’t realize travel agents are paid on commission, thus, there is either no or low cost to use them.

          2. Exactly!  AND you have an advocate – I go to bat for my clients, and can say I strive to take care of them above and beyone their expecations.  Thanks!

          3. That was a point I made in my article – if you’re standing at an airline counter in a foreign country, a few well-placed International calls or fast e-mails can get it fixed vs. dealing with the travel conglomerate sites where you might or might not get a human who knows what they’re doing.

    2. I think it isn’t a predatory world against the consumer any more than the consumer want to take advantage of a business. 

      The last thing an insurance company wants to do it pay out.  I am not a fan of insurance companies and think we are forced to over insure due to scare tactics or not understand what we already have coverage for and how to utilize it.  Sadly, insurance is a necessary evil in this day and age.

  7. I had Travel Insurance for a cruise, but the tsunami in Japan caused the embarkation point to be changed from Tokyo ot Seoul (incheon).
    The Travel Insurance would not cover it because it said that the natural disaster had to make the place uninhabital. One of the places we were to visit was Hokaido. Wow! did you see the picture? They insurance finally paid after my appeal.

  8. Of course there are too many exceptions, so the question is somewhat off target. It is the reponsibility of the buyer to decide if the exceptions are meaningful to him/her or not. Never assume ANYTHING about travel insurance. If in doubt, call the company.

    1. I agree. Travel Guard has only seven (7) exclusions for Trip Cancellation and Trip Cancellation:

      Benefits will not be provided for any loss resulting (in whole or in part) from:
      (a) travel arrangements canceled by an airline, cruise line, or tour operator, except as provided elsewhere in the plan;
      (b) changes by the Insured, a Family Member, or Traveling Companion, for any reason;
      (c) financial circumstances of the Insured, a Family Member, or a Traveling Companion;
      (d) any government regulation or prohibition; any business or contractual obligations of the Insured, a Family Member, or Traveling Companion, for any reason;
      (e) any business or contractual obligations of the Insured, a
      Family Member, or Traveling Companion, for any reason;
      (f) an event which occurs prior to the Insured’s coverage Effective Date;
      (g) failure of any tour operator, Common Carrier, person or agency to provide the bargained-for travel arrangements.

      Should have been an easy read.
      Note: Pre-Existing Medical Condition Exclusion applies unless you have a waiver.

      1. You can’t understand exclusion (a) until you read 35 pages of legal text and then use your imagination to concoct scenarios that were not mentioned.

        1. Maybe you can’t. But I can.
          I don’t buy Travel Insurance when I don’t think I need it or want it. But if I go on an expensive trip and cannot afford to lose what I paid for, I will buy travel insurance.

          1. I assume that’s because you already read and studied the 35 pages (fewer pages for NY actually).

            I also assume that you weren’t born with that knowledge.

          2. I did read it (the whole policy) BEFORE I bought my travel insurance. Why wouldn’t I? It’s my money I’m spending.

            Is it too much to ask people to read an insurance policy or an instruction manual? Are people that too dumbed down nowadays?

  9. No one is forcing any of you to buy travel insurance. If you don’t like the exclusions, or are too lazy to read them, or cannot understand them; then don’t buy. But I’d like to see someone buy a $5K and up trip and not buy travel insurance only to realize later he needed one.

  10. I think a side note is important here.  If you are looking at booking at tour and wish to handle your air separately, you need to ask if the tour is guaranteed to go or not.  Most tours are not guaranteed and they usually have a cancel period of 30-60 days out.  Many tour companies will not cover your air cancellation like this one did if you handle your own air.  Just an FYI.

    1. Bodega, to the trained eye (of a travel agent) something does not look right with this case. Why is it that only the DFW-MIA ticket had an insurance problem while the MIA-UIO (Quito, Ecuador) apparently did not? Why, was this not ticketed as one itinerary? If so, if the tour was cancelled by the operator, then the OP would not have had any problem (since air would have been part of the tour).

      A research on fares suggests why there was a problem. The tour price includes a fare FROM MIAMI. But if you look at the fare structure of LAN, MIA-UIO can be as cheap at $199 (before tax) R/T. The problem is that DFW-UIO is at least $762 (before tax) from LAN. There is a $563 fare difference per pax! So I think a money-saving move was done by the OP. They decided to buy their own DFW-MIA domestic tickets which can be as low as $302 (before tax) from AA. So in order to save about $250+ per passenger, they did a VERY RISKY MOVE. They UNLINKED their tickets. And, maybe they thought that buying cheap insurance would fix the potential problems. WRONG !!!

      This is not an insurance failure. This is a stupid decision to UNLINK tickets to get to an iffy tour.

      1. It seems to me that they handled their own domestic ticket which usually isn’t something a tour company will cover if they cancel their tour within their stated cancel period.  It also appears that they took out the insurance only on the DFW to MIA ticket.  Change fees are $150, so how do they get $137 per person to submit to the insurance company when they rebooked for the new tour?  Was the new flight less expensive and the residual applied to the change fee?  This isn’t allowed any longer with most carriers.

        1. I noticed that, too, when I read the AA rules this morning. Couldn’t figure out the $137 they noted when $150 is the reissue fee. Maybe this rule did that:


          The tour source lists add on fares (from other US cities) on its website so I assume they could have ticketed the whole thing from DFW. But as I said in my post above the THROUGH fare DFW-UIO was expensive so they probably bought a separate AA domestic ticket from DFW-MIA.

          This case is simply not an insurance company fail. It is an Operator Fail.

    2. AMEN!!!   I either ONLY book guaranteed departures, private tours, or tour only UNTIL they are guaranteed, and then do the air.  And the client is FULLY aware of that when I go over everything with them.

  11. This ain’t that difficult after all.
    I went to and simulated purchasing a super-saver roundtrip ticket DTW-MIA. I got to the end where they offered me travel insurance from Allianz.
    I entered my State as Michigan and then read the policy.

    On the 4th page of the PDF document (pg 7 of brochure) I saw this:

    Canceled services
    Your airline, cruise line, or tour operator or travel supplier stops offering all services for at least 24 consecutive hours where you’re departing, arriving or making a connection because of:
    – a natural disaster
    – severe weather
    Specific requirement
    – Your travel supplier doesn’t offer you a substitute itinerary

    Cmon, do you really need to go to an Ombudsman for something that’s clearly stated in the policy?

  12. “Does travel insurance have too many exceptions?”
    I suppose it depends on whether you’re in the purchase stage or the claims stage. In the claims stage, you’ll think there are too many exceptions, but in the purchase stage, you’re probably wondering why your policy is so expensive.

  13. Ahhh… this article might have been placed to show how nice Friendly Planet is for paying for the OP’s ticket penalties. After all they (tour operator) were responsible for cancelling the tour (not the insurance company).

    Note their post about Chris Elliott in their blog yesterday. Nice video.

    As Chris said “that’s what makes Travel beautiful, anything can happen”.
    That ANYTHING can include your tour getting cancelled because there were not enough participants.

      1. In the second video, the owner of the tour company (appearing with Chris again) said her #1 suggestion to travelers is to buy travel insurance.

        So how in the world can Access America be guilty here. The owner herself SELLS ACCESS AMERICA in their website!

  14. It’s really, REALLY SIMPLE.

    The cheaper the insurance the more restrictions !!!

    & read the policy especially the exclusions. Get the impression, people are so lazy, they don’t even bother reading the basic.

    If in doubt, ask the insurance company BEFORE paying, although, in Australia, there’s a cooling of period with insurance, where they have to refund within a certain time frame, if you want to cancel policy for ANY reason.

    Best thing is to purchase your travel insurance through a travel agent, who knows the basic details & sells insurance very often, so knows the ins & outs.

    Caveat Emptor !!

  15. I remember when a hurricane hit Grand Cayman.  My friend’s accommodations were decimated.  He wanted to cancel…but RBC Insurance tried to say that since the flights were still operating, TFB…go and sleep on the beach.  Only when he threatened to move his company’s banking from them did they reluctantly pay up.  He would have been better off going to an ER, cough and puke, and get a doctor’s note.  Insurance companies encourage dishonesty since they weasle out of legitimate concerns for cancellation

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  17. It is absolutely correct that Catherine Markland and her
    travel companion booked a tour to Ecuador with us and that the departure had to
    be cancelled due to insufficient numbers of participants. This doesn’t happen
    to us very often, but when it does, we give our travelers several options.
    First, we offer to switch them to another departure, which Catherine and her
    companion accepted. However, if she didn’t wish to switch, we would have
    refunded her in full for all the tour payments made to us.


    Catherine made us aware of the fees charged by American
    Airlines to change her domestic flights to her new travel dates, and we
    promptly refunded the amount of the change fees of $137 per person. In
    addition, we send both travelers a coupon for $50 off any future tour we offer,
    as a gesture of goodwill.


    Peggy Goldman

    President, Friendly Planet Travel

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