There’s no shortage of expert tips for buying travel insurance online. But where’s a pro when you really need one?
That’s what Mike Mehta wanted to know when he contacted me recently. “Is travel insurance worth buying?” he asked. “Do you have any recommendations for reasonably priced travel insurance providers?”
And then I remembered a recent conversation I had with Zubair Jeewanjee, who runs the California travel insurance technology company G1G Travel. Even though travel insurance companies offer similar products, he says, “travel insurance is not all the same.”
Why you need travel insurance advice
In fact, you can buy travel insurance almost anywhere these days — directly online from a travel insurance company, from a travel agency, even while you’re booking a flight or hotel — but Jeewanjee says travelers are often disappointed when they find out what happens after the sale and they have to file a claim.
“That’s when they discover they’re on their own,” he says.
Americans spend $2.8 billion on travel insurance a year, according to the US Travel Insurance Association, a trade association. “Misspend” may be a more accurate word. By thoughtlessly throwing money at the first travel insurance policy that comes along, they may be signing up for worthless coverage.
With the busy summer travel season just ahead, how do you ensure that you’re buying insurance from a reliable source? I have a list of trusted insurance websites in this recent story. But what should you buy? What do the travel experts say — and what, specifically, should you look for?
What are the expert tips for buying travel insurance?
I asked travel insurance experts for their thoughts on how to buy the best travel insurance. Here’s what they told me:
Make sure you’re not already insured
“One potential mistake people can make when purchasing a travel insurance policy is that you could potentially end up buying a policy that has some duplication of benefits with what you already have,” says Joel Ohman, founder of InsuranceProviders.com, an insurance site. He advises you to review the benefits you already have with any of your other current insurance policies, credit cards, and membership programs. Actually, any legitimate agent will tell you to check your other policies before buying another one. Otherwise, you could buy too much insurance.
Look for a guarantee
That’s Jeewanjee’s advice. For example, G1G offers a service guarantee that promises its policies will meet a high standard. Its quality assurance process includes an analysis of a company’s BBB report, customer reviews, claims payout ratio, reinsurers credit history, and other benchmarks. “We help our customers throughout the whole process of purchasing a travel insurance plan from start to finish, and what we do makes the process easy,” he says.
Make sure it’s real insurance
It isn’t always, says Shylar Bredewold, CEO of Odyssean Travel, an online travel agency. “I’ve seen some very decent cruise protection plans,” he says. “But these should not be confused with insurance and often come with disclaimers stating that they are indeed distinct from a coverage policy.” Bredewold says the difference between “protection” and “insurance” has been a hot topic in the insurance industry lately. (Technically, “protection” isn’t an insurance product.) “Travel professionals continue to be vigilant in what they recommend to clients, even when we trust the supplier,” he adds.
Read the paperwork carefully
That’s what Justin Tysdal recommends. First, always read the benefits and then the “exclusions and limitations” in the policy. “Although something might first appear to be covered in the policy, there could be an exclusion that eliminates the coverage,” explains Tysdal, CEO of Seven Corners, a travel insurance company. “Coverage may show in the schedule of benefits, but it may be eliminated based on a Travel Advisory that [the State Department issues] for a level 3 or 4. Most advisories at level 3 or 4 will exclude certain benefits from coverage.” Tysdal also recommends checking on the company offering the policy. Make sure it’s underwritten by a reputable insurance company with an “excellent” rating with A.M. Best, an agency that rates insurance companies based on financial stability.
Timing is everything
“One of the most important factors when buying travel insurance that many first-time purchasers don’t understand is around the timing of the purchase,” says Christine Buggy, vice president of marketing at Travelex Insurance. “Purchase a travel protection plan as soon as you’ve made your initial trip deposit to ensure you have coverage.” Buggy says if you have a pre-existing medical condition, many travel insurance companies may waive the exclusion for pre-existing conditions. You just have to buy travel insurance within a designated time frame — usually within 21 days of your initial trip deposit.
Travel agents offer expert tips for buying travel insurance
I also asked travel agents for their travel insurance advice. And here’s where things got interesting. Remember Jeewanjee’s comment about travel insurance not being the same? If there’s a common thread in the agents’ travel insurance advice, it echoes what he says. You have to look closely.
“It’s pretty easy to compare policies based on the amount of the benefits,” says Laura Patterson, a travel advisor for Brownell Travel, a Virtuoso member agency. “But there’s more to it than the dollar figure.”
For example, consider the baggage delay coverage on two competing plans. One provides reimbursement for personal articles and expenses for a baggage delay of 12 hours or longer. The other plan doesn’t reimburse you unless it’s a 24-hour delay.
“This is significant if you arrive, but your luggage doesn’t,” she says. Suppose you’re attending a wedding. On a plan with coverage kicking in after a 12-hour delay, you’ll have time to shop for a suitable outfit, and peace of mind knowing that reasonable expenses will be reimbursed up to the benefit amount.
“But if the coverage is not in force until 24 hours after arrival, and the bags remain missing, the ceremony could very well be over before coverage is in effect, and you’ll end up paying for that purchase of new clothing necessary for the big event,” she says.
Deanna Maccario, the Asia program director with Audley Travel, a travel agency, says she also looks for a coverage plan that offers primary, rather than secondary, coverage.
“This means that, in the case of a claim needing to be made, the client would not need to get declined by their primary insurance provider back home before having the option of submitting a claim to their travel insurance provider,” she explains. “With primary coverage, they can immediately apply to the travel insurance provider which exponentially speeds up the claims process.”
Advocating for every customer
There’s something Maccario and Patterson have in common. If one of their clients’ claims goes sideways, they’re there to help. (And believe me, claims do go sideways, a fact I discover almost every day on my nonprofit consumer advocacy site). Their expert travel insurance advice is: Buy it from someone you trust — not just the right travel insurance company, but the right agent.
How do you find good travel insurance companies? Well, let’s just say the good ones have a reputation. Typing in the name of the company and “reviews” into your favorite search engine will show you which ones to do business with, and which ones to avoid.
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher’s articles here.