Government travel alerts and health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic have caused a spate of travelers to rush to cancel trips. While airlines such as JetBlue and Delta are waiving cancellation fees or change fees, some travelers are learning the hard way that they can't get refunds — even if they paid for travel insurance.
"This is one of those cases where people need to read the fine print," Erik Josowitz, an insurance analyst at InsuranceQuotes.com, told NBC News. "It's certainly worth looking at what are the acceptable reasons for making a claim against that insurance and understanding what it does and does not cover."
Epidemics are usually not included in standard travel insurance coverage, Josowitz said. Most travel companies won't refund travelers who cancel trips because they are worried about contracting a virus — no matter how novel, he added.
The fine print left travelers such as Nate Edwards in a lurch. Edwards, based in Dallas, bought a flight with American Airlines to Singapore in December to accompany his wife to an annual work conference in February. He paid an extra $178 to insure it through Allianz Global Assistance. When his wife's company canceled the trip because of the coronavirus, he got on the phone to get his $2,400 flight reimbursed through Allianz. But it was denied because the policy does not cover epidemics.
"I was frustrated at that point," he said. "What was the purpose of even purchasing the insurance?"
Allianz has since made some temporary changes to its policies in response to the virus. The company announced Monday that, for a limited time, it will accommodate claims for trip cancellations and emergency medical care for travelers who become ill with the coronavirus. It will also accept insurance claims for customers traveling to China, South Korea and the Lombardy and Veneto regions of Italy. Still, Edwards' flight is not covered.
"Right now, I'm just fighting tooth and nail," he said. "If it was a couple hundred dollars, it wouldn't affect me that much. But $2,400 of my hard-earned money?"
Other travel insurance companies have taken a more ambiguous stance on refunds. Nancy Fuentes, a full-time student at Florida International University, couldn't get out of a flight she booked on Expedia from Paris to Rome even though the State Department had issued a level-three travel alert in Italy. She and a friend planned a European vacation in the fall and paid $70 for Travel Guard trip insurance on their flight to cover unexpected events.
Her claim was quickly denied. The insurance company refused to offer a refund because the flights had not been canceled by the airline. She and the friend paid a $300 cancellation fee and about $700 for their new flights back home to the U.S.
"I basically would have had to travel to Italy, get the coronavirus and I probably would've gotten a refund," Fuentes said. "Why even offer insurance?"
Travel Guard did not respond to NBC News' request for comment. But the company states on a page dated March 10 that its policy does not cover cancellations because of "concern or fear of travel associated with sickness, epidemic or pandemic, including coronavirus."
Travelers' grievances come at a time when the travel industry has been crushed by the epidemic. The International Air Transport Association said last week that the airline industry could lose as much as $113 billion this year because of the virus. Cruise line, hotel company and airline shares have all been down by double digits in the past two weeks.
Sales of cancel-for-any-reason insurance jumped 275 percent in January and February compared to the same time last year.
Amid such an unpredictable travel environment, consumers may consider buying an additional benefit called cancel-for-any-reason coverage, which typically reimburses 75 percent of the trip costs, said Julie Loffredi, an editor with InsureMyTrip, a travel insurance comparison site.
"That is the only option for folks looking to cancel their trip out of fear or concern of the virus who want to get their money back," she said.
Travelers are catching on. Since Jan. 21, insurance companies have seen a 245 percent spike in policies that include a "cancel for any reason" benefit, according to InsureMyTrip.
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But with such high demand for full trip coverage, some companies are limiting their supplies. April Travel Protection saw its sales of cancel-for-any-reason insurance jump 275 percent in January and February compared to the same time last year, CEO Jason Schreier said.
Last week, however, the company stopped offering the add-on because its underwriters said it was not meant to cover such a concentrated risk among travelers.
"The overwhelming response from travelers is something we've never seen before," Loffredi said. "We're in a window of uncertainty, and travelers are scrambling to understand their options. This thing is changing day by day."