Travel protection: Insurance or Assistance?

We talk a lot about travel insurance these days. In a travel world affected by everything from weather-related events to political unrest, more people buy travel insurance these days than ever before. Even the most anti-insurance people we know are taking a second look now as travel insurance seems to be a good bet to at least consider. But other than coverage, what you have to do to file a claim and the cost of it all, little thought is given to any assistance a travel insurance company might give in an emergency situation. If that sounds like you, it might be time to look at the whole business of travel protection differently.

There’s travel insurance and then there is travel assistance. They are two entirely different animals and you should know the difference.
“While many companies provide support in case of an emergency, it is important for travelers to know what kind of assistance is available when planning ahead” says On Call International, a company that specializes in worldwide medical evacuations, medical assistance and security services.

Travel insurance, like any insurance, covers monetary damages. It compensates the traveler for costs of unforeseen emergencies while traveling. Most policies cover the following, but travelers should always check with their provider, as all policies are different.

  • Replacement of lost luggage
  • Reimbursement of non-refundable tickets in the event that a trip has to be cancelled
  • Costs incurred due to missed connections in the event of a delayed or overcrowded flight
  • Coverage of expenses due to cancellations caused by weather, sudden illness or death, jury duty, emergency military duty, and bankruptcy of airline or cruise line prior to departure
  • Inclusion of travel assistance services
  • Reimbursement of expenses due to medical emergencies. This includes the cost of doctor visits, medication, and if needed, medical evacuation.

With most travel insurance plans, you incur the expense then get reimbursed later.

With travel assistance, travelers have support and assistance immediately in case of an emergency. Providers typically offer services to help members in need of assistance for trips a given number of miles away from home, usually 50 or 100:

  • Emergency medical evacuation and repatriation to the hospital of the member’s choice
  • Immediate help with travel arrangements for member, travel companion and family in the case of a medical emergency
  • Prescription replacement assistance if lost or forgotten while traveling
  • Worldwide medical, dental, pharmacy and legal referrals
  • Assistance with emergency travel funds, cash advances and credit card replacement
  • Delayed baggage tracking
  • Language translation, embassy and consular relations, and lost document replacement assistance
  • Legal assistance, including bail bond
  • Return of deceased remains, in the unfortunate occurrence of death while traveling.

Planing on hiking through Europe after college? This could be for you. Your parents might really like this as a way to give them some peace of mind. They may say “You’re young, go have a ball, take a year and see the world!” but believe me, they will lie awake at night worrying about you.

In perfect health and see absolutely no reason for travel insurance? This could be for you. Sure, accidents do happen but that’s the old insurance game. Odds are highly stacked in favor of accidents NOT happening which is how insurance companies stay in business.

Are you a road warrior who seems to always be traveling? This could be for you. Annual memberships are available through companies like On Call International.

Just a short trip, cruise or vacation to a major tourist destination? Not so much but probably still worth a look. Single trip coverage starts at $55.

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Travel insurance is popular, coverage not so much

Call it hedging a bet, playing it safe or now just part of the deal, more people are buying travel insurance than ever before, and they have some good reasons. Earthquakes, floods, ash clouds, civil and political unrest along with snowstorms, fear of pirates and scary things that go bump in the night all seem to play into making what was commonly a “no” decision a “yes, absolutely” when it comes to buying travel insurance. Buying travel insurance is popular but coverage varies and knowing the details of your policy is important.

“2010 certainly raised people’s awareness of the value of travel insurance,” Dean Sivley, chief executive of the travel insurance company Travel Guard told the New York Times. “Yes, more people are booking travel insurance. But yes, we also paid out more claims in 2010 than would be typical. Hopefully, we won’t have a lot more years like 2010.”

In the past, travel agents hated to mention the topic of travel insurance, viewed as an unnecessary expense or a way for them to “run up the bill.” Now, travel insurance is commonly added automatically if for no other reason than to save time down the line as few have it removed.

But having travel insurance and being covered are two entirely different matters it seems. Many of the feared reasons for cancellations are not covered as some find out the hard way.

“Many people assume that their cheap travel insurance will cover them against every eventuality, but this isn’t the case.” says Patrick Chong Managing Director of Journey’s Travel who operates a commercial travel insurance website, Insuremore in the UK. “There are plenty of exclusions in the average document, and one of the most well known but least understood of these is the “acts of God” exclusion.”

Acts of God include Hurricanes and tempests, Lightning storms, Floods, Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Those may or may not be covered but what about civil unrest, political and terrorism events that disrupt travel ?

“While acts of God is one of the most well known exclusion clauses, in today’s international climate, terrorism is also a common exclusion. Much like natural disasters, if you incur costs or your holiday is canceled because of terrorism, your travel insurance may well be invalid. If terrorism is a potential hazard for your destination of choice, check that your worldwide travel insurance will cover you against acts of terrorism – some insurers do provide this kind of protection, but many do not.”

So it’s buyer beware when it comes to travel insurance and just having it should not give travelers the confidence that they are covered in all situations. Check with a travel insurance agent and ask specific “What if?” questions, In the U.S. most states require those agents to be licensed. Be sure yours is.

Best bet: Call the travel insurance company directly to check coverage and deal with a firm that is highly rated. provides editorial reviews, customer reviews, guides, and articles that help you decide which travel insurance to buy for your trip.

Flickr photo by Andrew Steinmetz

Canceled flights: Don’t let them make you miss the cruise

If your plans for an upcoming cruise include flying to the port in the next few days, odds are your flight could be delayed. With the massive storm crippling travel throughout the US and canceling thousands of flights, service could be disrupted for several days. What hurts is knowing that at the end of the day you could be in sunny Florida or some other fair-weather area, if you can only get there. Savvy travelers know a few golden rules of doing a cruise vacation in the Winter that can increase the odds of making it to the port and keep you confident of your travel plans should a storm develop.

Buy travel insurance and know how to use it. Travel insurance on flights only is cheap but just one step towards what you need. The problem here is not that you are unable to make the flight, but that you might miss the ship. Carefully consider your insurance options. The best option is not always the cruise line insurance. Every insurance company has a toll-free 800-number to call with your “What if?” questions. Do that. Make sure you understand what happens if you miss the the ship and what your options are. In most cases, travel insurance reimburses you for covered expenses. You will need to have funds available to cover those expenses as they occur. If you thought ahead and bought travel insurance, you might be covered as many policies include protection against flight delays. Finding another flight might be a different story altogether though.Have a back-up plan. A good idea when flying during a time when flight delays are likely is to have backup flights already planned. It’s easy enough to do too. If you book your own airfare, make note of those other fights that didn’t seem quite so convenient compared to the flights you selected when you bought them. Later on, if your flight is delayed or canceled, those you passed on the first time may look really good.

Fly in the day before. This is a good idea no matter when you fly and from where. It gives you a huge cushion of time to absorb flight delays or cancellations. Consider the time of year you are flying too. Wise cruise passengers traveling this week might have arrived at their embarkation city two or more days in advance if their schedules could swing it. Doing that also puts what can be a long travel day behind you and allows you to wake refreshed and ready to board the ship. That first day on any ship can be a long one. Get the most out of it by being fully energized before boarding.

Know the route, driving. As a last resort, a long drive to the port, made longer by bad weather is another option. I know of cruise passengers who drove from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Miami last year, 23 hours straight through, when all flights were cancelled without any sign of relief until after their ship would have sailed away. These are hearty people who just would not accept “No cruise for you” in any shape or form.

Cruise Travel Insurance: Behind the Scams

The cruise lines lead us to believe that if we buy travel insurance from them that we are covered in case we need to cancel our vacation. We believe we will get our money back. The message is clear: Buying travel insurance is a good idea and we can easily add that on to our booking. We hear that and think “I’ll play it safe and get the insurance in case something comes up and I can’t go.” But there is a lot more to travel insurance than we might realize at first glance and having it does not always mean we get our money back.

Reality check

First of all, the cruise lines are in the cruise business, not the insurance business. There are no self-insured cruise lines that we could find. It does not take much clicking around on a cruise line website to get you headed on over to BerkleyCare, the company that handles insurance for many cruise lines.

Next. make no mistake about it: Travel insurance is a big money-maker for cruise lines. It’s also a big money-maker for travel agents who commonly get a higher percentage commission from some travel insurance options they might sell than they get on the cruise.

Where you buy it matters

Actually, your first stop on travel insurance should be your personal insurance agent, the guy who handles your auto, home, health or life insurance. That trusted source might also sell travel insurance or have a trustworthy recommendation for you. The insurance game is real snake pit: There are “agents” out there to get you.

Many cruise passengers choose to buy travel insurance separately from their cruise fare, from a third-party source. The idea here is that if the cruise line goes out of business, I have coverage from a different source. Travelguard is a big player in that game. Insuremytrip is another that compares several insurance companies and can be cost effective. Annual travel insurance, covering whatever you might choose to do, in addition to cruise vacations, is also an option.

Be careful with third-party plans though. This is a place where shady travel insurance sales people hide in wait. Nothing against your travel agent but they too might not be the best source of third-party insurance either. In most states people who sell insurance are required to be licensed to sell it so ask to see that license if considering a buy at the travel agency.Price, not so much coverage, is the most likely scam

For basic cancellation and medical insurance, prices among cruise lines vary a lot. Carnival’s Vacation Protection Plan, for example, costs $109 for a guest spending $1000 on their cruise.

Royal Caribbean’s CruiseCare insurance costs $59 for almost the same $1000 coverage. Cancel for a covered reason and Royal Caribbean will waive the non-refundable cancellation provision of your cruise ticket contract and pay you in cash the value of the unused portion of your prepaid cruise vacation. Cancel for “any other reason” and they don’t give you cash back but you may be eligible for a future cruise credit of up to 75% of the non-refundable, prepaid cruise vacation cost.

Princess Cruises has similar coverage with the price of insurance based on a percentage of what you paid for the cruise. They also bump up the future cruise credit option when canceling for any reason to 100% of the otherwise non-refundable prepaid vacation cost with their Platinum plan.

But coverage is important too

We most frequently think of travel insurance as something to help if we have to cancel our vacation. But cancellation is just half the story.

Medical benefits while on your vacation are included too and also vary. Developing a serious illness while on vacation can often be avoided by taking some precautions before leaving. But accidents do happen and medical coverage can be important to have. Also, covering pre-existing medical conditions is a factor to consider if a member of your immediate family, like an aging parent, has them. You may be in perfect health but if the illness of a close relative could cause you to cancel your cruise, you need coverage for that. If dad heading to the great beyond would not alter your plans, forget I said that.

While cruise lines base the price of insurance on only the cost of your cruise, third-party sources commonly base the price on the cost of your cruise and your age. Younger people get off easy, older people pay through the nose. Seniors are often better off price-wise with the cruise line plans but third-party sources often offer more plans and options than the one-size-fits-all cruise line plans have.

So what to do?

The best bet is to get with a licensed professional insurance agent to make the right choice on travel insurance. But hardly anyone does that. You probably won’t either. So here’s a list of questions to ask different sources then compare answers:

  1. How much is the basic coverage? (basic cancelation and medical coverage)
  2. How much medical and medical evacuation coverage is included? (Like what is the limit)
  3. Does it have “cancel for any reason” coverage? Do I get cash back or future cruise credit if I cancel for any reason?
  4. How do I file a claim?
  5. What documentation will be required if I need to file a claim?
  6. What is the normal processing time for a claim?

Passengers are clearly in the drivers seat as to which travel insurance to buy. Like other cruise line claims and programs that some call scams, this might not be one at all if you take the time to explore available options.

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Flickr photo by TheTruthAbout

5 frank cruise tips the cruise line won’t tell you

Here are some important cruise vacation tips you might not find on any other list. The cruise lines won’t tell you these. A good travel agent might but it would not be negligent of them to keep these tips to themselves. Only the most trusted of friends will let you in on these tips, if they know about them.

  1. Bring your own toilet paper– might as well just get this out of the way right up front. The cruise lines do a great job of feeding you, pampering you, and taking you to multiple destinations while you only have to unpack once. Providing plush, soft toilet paper is not one of their selling points.
  2. Be careful flossing- or just skip it unless you’re on a really long cruise. Either that or bring along some Superglue if you have anything other than original teeth in your head. Crowns, bridgework, fillings, all love to jump out of your mouth at sea. Yes, the ship’s medical center can help but that brings us to number 3
  3. It is going to cost more than you thought– this is nothing to be scared of but to say a cruise is totally “all-inclusive” is stretching it a bit. OK, a lot. While we have done cruises and not spent any money on-board (OK, one cruise and it was tough) We have also spent more than the total price of the cruise,on board, for extras not included in the price. Passing up on-board spending can mean losing out on some rich experiences through shore excursions, spa treatments and other things that cost extra. And buy travel insurance; it should cover that trip to the medical center.
  4. Travel Insurance has you covered- eventually– Travel Insurance at sea is not like medical insurance at home where you make a co-pay at the doctors office and you’re done. The cruise line medical center is a fully-equipped hospital and they want their money at the time service is rendered. Later, you’ll file a claim with the travel insurance company and get reimbursed for covered charges. Bonus tip: get documentation on everything you spend money on that might be turned in later to the travel insurance company for reimbursement. You’ll jump through fewer hoops to get reimbursed down the road.
  5. Be good, they can kick you off– Cruise lines, more specifically, the Captain (aka “master of the vessel”) has the right to put you off the ship at the next port without a refund or way back home if you misbehave. That could mean being rowdy in a bar, arguing with a casino dealer or smuggling drugs back on the ship from some lovely island in the Caribbean.

Flickrphoto by derekGavey