When do you need travel insurance? Plus how to get it

Spoiler: You need it before something goes wrong

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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Do you need travel insurance?

When planning a trip, you’re most often fantasizing about white sandy beaches or strolling through cobblestone streets on the way to an interesting museum...not picturing all the many emergencies or unforeseen circumstances that could prevent you from getting there.

While travel insurance is often offered to you as embedded in the process of booking a flight or hotel, many of us don’t want to add to our trip cost by buying an insurance policy. A recent survey by Personal Finance Insider found that only 38% of people reported buying travel insurance for a trip[1].

But should you buy travel insurance? What exactly does it cover? In this guide, we’re looking at some of the reasons travel insurance exists and what you can expect from a travel insurance policy.

What is travel insurance?

Travel insurance protects you from financial risks occurring from unexpected and unforeseen circumstances while traveling. Depending on the type of policy, the insurance company can help cover medical expenses, trip cancellation fees, lost or stolen items, missed flights and other related costs.

Travel insurance also offers liability protection if you are responsible for causing harm to another person or their property while on your journey. By investing in travel insurance, you can have peace of mind knowing that you will be covered in case something goes wrong during your travels.

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What are different types of travel insurance?

There are many different types of travel insurance that offer different coverages and protections. A comprehensive travel insurance policy will likely contain a number of these insurance products.

Here are a few of the things that can go wrong and which travel insurance plan could save the day for you.

What if I can’t go on my trip because I get sick?

This concern is perhaps more frequent after the coronavirus pandemic took hold and reminded people of the fragility of travel plans. Trip cancellation coverage offers reimbursement for when you have to cancel nonrefundable expenses before departure for a covered reason. Expenses could include flights, rental car costs, hotels, cruises and hotel accommodations. The most common covered reasons include unforeseen illness, injury or death related to the traveler or their immediate family members, bad weather, a natural disaster or terrorism.

What if I’m on my trip and get word a relative has passed away back home?

Trip interruption insurance is similar to trip cancellation insurance except that it applies after the trip is underway to expenses related to the unused portion of the trip. It would cover you in cases where you would need to leave your trip early for a covered reason.

What about waivers?

Many cruises and tours offer waivers that may seem to provide some of the same coverage as trip cancellation insurance; however, waivers might not refund your money if you cancel shortly before or after departure. Waivers are not actually a form of insurance policy.

What if my flight home is cancelled by weather?

Slightly different from trip interruption coverage, trip delay insurance would kick in if you were delayed (by say a flight cancellation) while on your trip and needed to cover hotel or food expenses until you can make it back home.

What if I changed my mind about Bali because of something my astrologer said?

Cancel for any reason coverage (CFAR) is usually an optional add-on insurance benefit to a policy that allows you (as the name suggests) to cancel plans regardless of the reason. This can give you greater flexibility when making travel plans and not having to worry about exclusions. That said, these add-ons generally only provide partial reimbursement for trips canceled last-minute for a reason not covered in the comprehensive policy.

What if my luggage is lost?

Another coverage often included in travel insurance coverage is lost luggage insurance which reimburses you for lost, stolen or damaged items during your trip. Depending on the policy, you might be able to be reimbursed for some expenses, for example having to buy new clothes or toiletries, even if you only experience a baggage delay.

Does home insurance cover luggage?

Sometimes your homeowners insurance or renters insurance policies might cover your personal belongings even when you’re traveling. Before paying for lost luggage insurance, it’s worth looking to see if you already have these coverages elsewhere.

What if I get sick while I’m on vacation?

No one wants to think about needing health insurance while enjoying international travel, but the reality is you’re actually more likely to get sick while traveling due to exposure to new things, more interaction with people in close proximity and a weakened immune system[2]. If you’re in the U.S., your primary insurance plan or Medicare will be little help in the way of travel protection if you’re leaving the country.

Travel medical coverage can support your health care needs while abroad and even cover family members who are traveling with you. Expats or those undertaking frequent business travel can look into medical insurance policies intended for longterm travelers.

What if I have a medical emergency and have to be air-lifted out?

Emergency medical assistance coverage can help you if you have a medical emergency while traveling. There are also coverages if you need emergency evacuation for a covered reason, whether that’s needing medical care or related to a natural disaster or terrorism. Medical evacuation could include bringing you to the nearest hospital or even flying you home.

What if I die while on my trip?

This one is more for your family and loved ones to worry about, but in the unfortunate event you don’t make it home from your trip, if you have accidental death and dismemberment as part of your trip insurance, your beneficiaries can receive a lump sum payment from the insurance provider. You may also be entitled to payment if you lose a hand, foot, limb etc. as outlined in your policy.

What if I need help finding a lawyer in the middle of the night?

Some travel insurance companies also provide assistance services that can help you find medical services, lawyers or more basic travel assistance like providing information and even helping you rebook cancelled flights. They can also provide travel tips you might expect from a travel agent or concierge like restaurant referrals and reservations. It’s worth looking into the fine print of your policy to see what assistance services it provides.

What if you crash your rental car?

There is data that shows car accidents are more common during holidays[3]. And it makes sense that might be more likely to get into a crash when you’re on unfamiliar roads and aren’t confident about where you’re going. You may purchase a rental car insurance policy when you rent your car, but it’s also worth checking if your normal car insurance will cover rental car damage. You will still need to pay your deductible if filing a claim through your car insurance.

Getting a travel insurance policy

If you want peace of mind about any of the above, it’s easy to get a travel insurance policy that has the coverages and protections you want.

The first thing to do is determine what protections you may already have. Some credit cards offer trip cancellation coverage if you booked with that card. And some home and rental insurance policies will cover your belongings when traveling. And, as mentioned, your car insurance may potentially cover you in a rental.

Once you know what you have, you can see about choosing a policy that covers what you don’t. You can research the best travel insurance policies on travel insurance comparison sites (similar to what The Zebra does for home and auto). You will also often find offers for travel insurance embedded in the process of booking a flight or hotel from a travel website. The key is to really dig into the fine print of what is covered in these policies.

We hope none of the above scenarios happen to you on your next vacation, but it’s always a good idea to be prepared.