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COVID-19 Throws Travel Insurance a Curveball

·7 min read
photo of man sitting slumped down among chairs in an airport
photo of man sitting slumped down among chairs in an airport Getty Images

The pandemic has had a huge effect on travel plans, making them feel like more of a gamble than ever before. A new COVID-19 surge somewhere can spell the end of a trip. News or rumors can rattle nerves and scuttle plans.

How do you plan a trip in this environment? Would you lose your money if you’re forced to cancel a trip?

For more and more people, the solution is to buy travel insurance for their trips in the hopes of being reimbursed should they have to change or cancel. But not all travel insurance covers all pandemic-related cancellations.

Knowing possible pitfalls can help you decide what’s best for your wallet, your ability to plan a trip and whether you should buy travel insurance.

Sometimes, travel insurance is mandatory

In some instances, it’s not even a choice. Several countries, including Costa Rica and Egypt, as well as some travel providers, like cruise lines, are requiring travel insurance in one form or another. This can be especially true for unvaccinated travelers. This ensures you won’t become stranded, unable to pay for your medical care, extended stay or evacuation should you contract or be exposed to COVID.

The limitations of standard travel insurance have expanded the appeal of a previously obscure upgrade to standard travel insurance known as “cancel for any reason” (CFAR). This option, while significantly more expensive, is more likely to cover the sort of cancellations that COVID has made commonplace.

According to travel insurance aggregator Squaremouth, Inc., travel insurance policies with a CFAR add-on typically must be purchased within two to three weeks of the first payment towards the covered trip. An exception is that certain policies that cover only cruises offer CFAR at any time before a final payment is made for a trip.

Standard travel insurance limits pandemic claims

Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer for Squaremouth, said CFAR has become the go-to plan for more travelers, “When the pandemic hit, it became really the main piece that could offer any coverage.”

Traditional travel insurance, she explained, doesn’t cover the majority of pandemic-related claims. Moncrief said in a recent review done by Squaremouth, only 30% of such claims were made by people who actually contracted COVID-19 and had to cancel their trips. This is the only type of pandemic claim that would be covered by most standard travel insurance policies. The remaining 70% of claims were for other reasons, including border closures and quarantines, and thus excluded -- though generally would be covered by CFAR.

Overall demand for travel insurance has increased during the pandemic, according to AAA, which says a recent survey found that 31% of U.S. travelers saying they’re more likely to purchase it for their trips planned between now and the end of 2022. A standard travel insurance policy typically adds 5% to 10% to the cost of the trip, according to Mark Friedlander, director of corporate communications for the Insurance Information Institute. Adding CFAR on top of that will raise the cost 40% to 60%. And, depending on the policy, the payout for a CFAR claim can be as low as 50% of the loss, experts said. This marks a decrease from policies before the pandemic, which could reimburse 75% to 90% of the loss.

Moncrief said that prior to the pandemic, her company was “slow to recommend” cancel for any reason because of the expense. Then, it accounted for less than 4% of sales, she said. Now, it’s about 12% of sales, down from a high of 17% in January. AAA advises travelers to consider policies that include a CFAR component.

“Any reason” is not always “any reason”

“As a purchaser of travel insurance, make sure you understand what you are buying and what the policy covers and what the policy does not cover,” Friedlander cautioned. “No policy has 100% of everything.”
Travel insurers have made a number of adjustments in response to the pandemic. At the beginning, Moncrief said, travel policies didn’t cover medical care for pandemic illnesses. But that quickly changed, and now, if a traveler becomes ill with COVID, it’s covered.

By contrast, insurers now demand their customers first seek reimbursement from the travel service provider, such as an airline or cruise company, that cancelled before filing an insurance claim.
Sometimes, she said, an airline might want to give credit rather than reimbursement. She said insurers will encourage travelers to seek reimbursement before considering whether to provide coverage for such an event.

Friedlander noted that different insurance policies will contain different provisions, and “cancel for any reason,” doesn’t necessarily mean “any reason.” He stressed the importance of reading and understanding the provisions of a policy before purchasing it.
Moncrief gave examples of some insurers’ exclusions on CFAR policies:
iTravelInsured Travel LX, TravelSafe Classic and Seven Corners RoundTrip Choice and RoundTrip Basic all have the following language: “This Cancel for Any Reason benefit does not cover the failure of the travel supplier to provide the bargained-for travel arrangements due to cessation of operations for any reason.”

  • Travel Insured International: WorldWide Trip Protector: “This Cancel for Any Reason benefit does not cover penalties associated with any travel arrangements not provided by retail travel supplier or the failure of retail travel supplier to provide the bargained-for travel arrangements due to cessation of operations for any reason.”

An alternative: travel medical insurance

Charlie Leocha, president and cofounder of Travelers United, an advocacy group, said he typically doesn’t buy standard travel insurance unless he’s planning a particularly expensive, all-inclusive trip. “If you’ve got an expensive product, it can be a good deal,” Leocha said. “All insurance is a great deal if you get sick and can’t go on the trip and that’s why you buy it.”

Leocha said he buys travel medical insurance policies each year, which cover up to six trips and up to six weeks per trip. He said his annual policies cost about $260.

These policies cover his medical needs when he is overseas and also cover his return home. For the rest of his travel, he says he self-insures. What that means is he makes arrangements that are reversible. In other words, he mostly buys refundable airline tickets or hotel reservations that can be canceled at the last minute for any reason without paying a penalty.
This can be difficult, he said, because every airline has different rules, particularly when it comes to travel credits. Some airlines require they be used in 90 days, others might give you a year or six months.

Leocha said his organization is working with the Federal Department of Transportation to implement a pandemic rule requiring airlines to all have the same rule so it won’t be so confusing for travelers. “I’ve been pusing like mad to have all the flight credits have the same expiration dates,” he said. “The airlines have been fighting us tooth and nail.”
This paid off for him recently when he was scheduled to go to Spain. A few weeks before the trip, he took a COVID test in preparation for a get-together with friends. When the test came back positive, he needed to postpone his Spain trip.

Because he wasn’t locked in by any of his arrangements, Leocha said, he was able to make the necessary changes and was only out about $50 when everything was said and done.

“Self insurance is one way to do it,” Leocha said. “Probably the most expensive way to do it is get ‘cancel for any reason’ insurance.”

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