You can't take all the risk out of travel in these uncertain times, but you can reduce the financial risk by buying insurance.
Not everyone needs travel insurance. If you're in good health and plan a moderately priced trip within the U.S., you're probably in this category.
Definitions of "moderately priced" vary, of course. To determine your comfort level, ask yourself how much you can afford to lose without causing significant financial pain.
Weigh that against the insurance premium, which is typically 4% to 8% of the trip cost.
On the other hand, if your health is shaky and you've invested thousands on a trip with a company that requires substantial deposits and imposes heavy penalties for late cancellations, insurance may be a good idea.
Travel insurance is almost as varied as the situations it may cover. A policy may stipulate only medical emergencies or only trip interruption and cancellation. Or it may cover all these situations, plus baggage loss and more. Read the policy carefully to see what you're getting.
Medical insurance may pay for emergency medical care during your trip or emergency transport or both. Some policies may not cover preexisting medical conditions. Typically, there are limits on how much you can collect; make sure they're realistic for your situation.
Trip cancellation and interruption insurance is designed to cover losses if certain emergencies force you to cancel or cut short a trip. Such emergencies may include serious illness or injury affecting you or a family member, a natural disaster, a jury duty summons, a labor strike, a terrorist attack or an array of other circumstances.
Such policies generally don't cover one of the most common reasons for canceling a trip: your job. If your employer changes your schedule and requires you to work when you were expecting to vacation or if a client suddenly moves up a deadline for a project, you probably won't be able to collect from your policy.
If your trip is canceled or interrupted because your airline, cruise line or tour operator goes under, you may or may not be covered. Look for "financial default," "supplier default" or a similar clause in your policy. Make sure the company you're traveling with is covered. Some insurers have lists of companies they will -- and will not -- insure.
Some cruise lines and tour operators have begun to offer "cancel-for-any-reason" waiver programs for their trips. These programs, which may allow you to cancel as late as the day of departure, can be useful if you think your travel plans may change. But they generally do not pay if you need to cancel or are stranded en route because the cruise line or tour operator goes out of business.
A useful way to compare some of the major plans is to visit http://www.tripinsurance.net, operated by InsureMyTrip.com. But the only authoritative source is the insurer itself.
Some major companies selling travel insurance:
Access America: (866) 807-3982, http://www.accessamerica.com.
CSA Travel Protection: (800) 873-9855, http://www.travelsecure.com.
Global Alert Travel Protection: (800) 423-3632, http://www.tripinsurance.com; sold through M.H. Ross Travel Insurance Services in Northridge.
Globalcare Insurance Services Inc.: (800) 821-2488, http://www.globalcare-cocco.com.
International S.O.S. Assistance Inc: (800) 523-8930, http://www.internationalsos.com (medical care).
Travel Insurance Services: (800) 937-1387, http://www.travelinsure.com.
Travel Guard International: (800) 826-4919, http://www.travel-guard.com.
Travel Insured International: (800) 243-3174, http://www.travelinsured.com.
Travel Assistance International: (800) 821-2828, http://www.travelassistance.com; sold through Specialty Risk International Inc.