Travel insurance takes worry off the itinerary

Travel insurance deserves strong consideration in today's tourism climate, despite incomprehensible forms and policies, not to mention the additional cost.

Standard policies cover trip cancellation and interruption; lost, stolen and delayed baggage; medical expenses and transportation; and 24/7 travel assistance. You can enhance coverage with add-ons.

"It's probably more important for people to buy travel insurance today than it was a couple of years ago," said John W. Cook, president of, an online brokerage firm where consumers can comparison shop and purchase a policy. Two reasons:

•As they reduce and stretch schedules, airlines have more flight delays that affect trip connections, such as causing people to miss cruise departures. Weather and air-traffic-control factors can further complicate travel.

• With today's financial turmoil, people are looking for ways to protect the value of their trip in more ways than one. What happens, Cook asked, if a person has paid for a vacation that is canceled for work reasons? Several insurance firms, he said, now offer coverage that allows you to cancel for job reasons without losing all of your money. Another option lets you cancel for any reason but not without restrictions and a financial penalty.

And there's always an accident.

When Chicagoan Marilyn Gombiner, 79, her husband and their son's family went to Spain last December for an 18-day vacation, the plan was to visit Madrid, a rented farmhouse outside Grenada and then Barcelona. As she has done for 15 years, Gombiner bought travel insurance. A few days into their farmhouse stay, Gombiner said, she missed a step, fell and broke her leg. Her son immediately contacted the insurance carrier, Travel Guard, based in Mineral Point, Wis., to make emergency arrangements.

Gombiner was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Grenada for surgery. Then, she said, Travel Guard changed the family's return air tickets. They flew home with an accompanying nurse via Madrid and London without additional charges. In Chicago she was transported from O'Hare to her local hospital. The cost of the Gombiner's travel insurance: $258. Without it, she said, the accident would have cost a fortune.

It's not just accidents that cause travel grief. A recent study conducted for the U.S. Travel Insurance Association said many consumers "mistakenly" believe the airlines will help them in cases of trip delays, delayed baggage and other problems. The study reminds consumers that most airlines have limited refund policies for canceled or delayed flights, lack standard reimbursement policies for lost, damaged and delayed baggage, and offer no emergency travel assistance.

Before you buy travel insurance, assess your risk tolerance and what elements of coverage most attract you, Cook said. "Also, know what your own personal insurance covers."

What often concerns older travelers, such as Gombiner, is medical coverage. If you are over 65, you are covered by Medicare but not outside the U.S. except in limited situations, Cook said. Certain Medicare supplements have limited foreign coverage, so primary medical coverage--what you buy directly from the travel insurance company--is important.

Here are other things you need to know:

•Sources--The top three travel insurance companies, according to Cook, are Travel Guard (; 800-826-4919), Access America (; 800-284-8300) and CSA (; 800-711-1197).

•Shopping for a policy--By comparison shopping on or, you can get a clear picture of what you need or want and how much it costs. Also check out the A.M. Best financial ratings of the companies on

•Pre-existing medical conditions--Some companies offer a waiver of certain pre-existing conditions, defined differently by each company, at no additional cost if you buy the insurance within 14 to 30 days (varying by company) of your initial trip payment. While the time period is the major requirement, you also must insure the trip to its full pre-paid value and be capable of travel when you buy the insurance. The pre-existing waiver allows you to cancel your trip should your condition flare up during or before your trip. The waiver not only applies to the travelers but to family members not traveling with them. For example, if you had to attend to a parent with a medical emergency caused by a covered pre-existing condition, you could cancel your trip.

•Refunds--If canceling a trip for any reason, you must have bought the cancel-for-any-reason option within 14 to 21 days after your initial trip payment. Time frames vary by company. But you have to cancel at least 48 hours before departure.

Generally, an insurance plan costs 5 percent to 7 percent of the total trip price, a Travel Guard spokesman said.