I'm where no one wants to be on vacation — the emergency room.
I scratched my cornea — terribly painful, but not life-threatening, though it certainly managed to derail my plans. While my family heads off the next day, I have no recourse but to lay quiet with a patch over my eye, oblivious to the gorgeous mountain view in Vail, Colo.
But at least the incident hasn't derailed my budget, thanks to travel insurance. I hate to tell you this wasn't the first time I found myself in the ER on a vacation where travel insurance more than paid for itself (travel insurance typically costs 4 to 8 percent of the trip) in out-of-pocket expenses.
You might think travel insurance is for those taking a cruise or an exotic vacation, but according to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, a growing number of families agree with me. Some 120 million people have insured themselves against travel-related loss — up 35 percent in recent years.
I've come to believe it is a good investment whenever and wherever you travel with your family — and that includes your college and high school kids heading off on spring break with their friends. Some policies cover kids and teens free. (Check out the Travel Guard Gold policy and those from AccessAmerica.)
Many credit cards and homeowner's policies don't cover everything you might need and health insurance plans may not provide direct payment to foreign hospitals. (In my case, the Colorado hospital billed the travel insurance company directly.) They may also have deductibles and won't cover the cost of emergency medical transportation (yes, travel insurance paid for an ambulance after a ski injury.) Many travel insurance policies don't require deductibles.
Consider the recent tsunami disaster in Japan, which initially sidetracked travel to Hawaii. Maybe you had a trip to Egypt planned — or were stuck in Egypt at the height of the unrest.
"Travel insurance has an immediate benefit for assistance like flight rebookings or for those in the affected area by having someone on their side to help, from getting in contact with family members to medical referrals and access to air ambulance and medical providers," said Carol Mueller, a spokesman for Travel Guard, a worldwide leader in travel insurance, who noted calls were up 30 percent in the wake of the Japan disaster.
Last winter, thousands of travelers, including members of my family, found their trips disrupted because of snow. While the airlines refunded flights, some — like the young women I met in the interminable line at JFK International Airport in New York — found themselves significantly out of pocket for multi-day tours on the West Coast that they couldn't get to in time. Others I met were stuck for several days of hotel bills they hadn't anticipated because they couldn't get a flight home. Travel insurance could have helped defray those costs.
What if your mother-in-law gets sick and you can't take the trip or have to come home early? What if your child gets an ear infection while you are traveling and can't fly home? What if your spouse or your dad gets sick and you can't leave for the cruise or all-inclusive resort you've paid for? What if your connecting flight gets canceled and you are stuck overnight? What if your flight is delayed and you miss your cruise ship? What if an asthma attack, high fever or broken arm lands you in the ER — in a foreign country? What if your passport gets stolen? (Yes, also me. And the travel insurance covered the cost to replace it.)
"The odds that something will complicate or possibly derail a family trip has become the norm rather than the exception," observes Jim Grace, CEO of www.insuremytrip.com, the leading consumer-oriented website that enables you to compare policies from around the world.
But how do you choose the right policy? Grace explains, the most popular travel insurance is a Package Policy that offers broad protection, including coverage for trip cancellation, interruption, lost baggage (yes, that's happened to us too) and most important, medical and emergency evacuation that could run you thousands of dollars. The $40 to $80 you'd spend to insure a $1,000 trip would seem like small potatoes if you face an emergency.
If your high school and college kids will be traveling, check out policies like those from World Nomads (I just bought one for an upcoming trip to Australia) that are focused on the independent and adventurous traveler and cover activities such as skiing and rafting and is flexible enough to allow changes when their plans do. These policies can be less expensive in part because they are offered totally online and focus on the key aspects of the coverage travelers need, rather than "items we feel are not relevant to our travelers," said Christopher Noble, World Nomads' general manager.
There is travel safety information as well (the latest on Japan, how do you prepare a travel medical kit) and the ability to share your travel stories on their travel blog. I also like that each traveler can donate $2 or more to a community development project around the world. So far, they have raised more than $1 million and funded 65 projects in 20 countries. (If you have an aspiring travel journalist in your gang who is 18, check out their travel writing contest. The winner will get a reporting trip to Turkey.)
Whatever policy you buy, just make sure to read the fine print, suggests Linda Kundell, a spokesman for the U.S. Travel Insurance Association. "People need to be aware of what is covered and what is not covered," she said. For example, if you have paid for a cruise, can you cancel for any reason? Are you covered if you get in an accident with the rental car? Are you covered if your baggage is delayed (typically it has to be delayed 24 hours). Are the kids covered free? (It may be one child per insured adult.) Are you covered for meals if your flight is delayed? Are you covered if bad weather delays you? Are you covered in the case of a natural disaster? Review the policy carefully before you purchase.
Hopefully, you won't need to file a claim. In that case, you've just paid for peace of mind. And that's worth a lot.
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