Question: A San Diego reader booked tickets for himself and his family for a vacation in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, a Caribbean resort known for its beaches and golf courses. Tickets booked, airline reservations made and ... wait, what's this virus called chikungunya? It is, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, a mosquito-borne illness that causes "fever and joint pain" and has recently spread to the Caribbean. There is "no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat" it, the CDC says; it's rarely fatal, but it is painful. The reader was reluctant to take a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old to a place where the virus has been reported. With plans already made, what were the chances he could change his destination without financial penalty?
Answer: Not great. The hotel was understanding and refunded his money, but the airline — despite two calls and pleading with two agents — was not. No refund and no waiver of change fees. He ended up paying $1,075 to change the airline tickets to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
As discussed in the June 1 On the Spot column ("Grounded by Global Unrest?" www.lat.ms/1kqsqhN), which addressed issues raised when life at your destination turns upside down, getting a refund for an airline ticket isn't easy. When news events are on your side (gigantic snowstorm, for instance), getting change fees waived can be easy because everyone knows there's a problem.
But when it's something that could happen or might happen, you're at the mercy of airlines and other travel providers.
And that's when people start wishing they had bought travel insurance.
In some cases, though, they shouldn't rue that choice (or non-choice) either, because most travel insurance doesn't protect you from what might happen, only from what has happened (or is happening). And even then, it doesn't always cover you.
To get reimbursed, the reason for your cancellation must be a "covered reason," said Megan Singh of Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison site. Worrying about a disease isn't usually one of those.
If you decide you don't want to go, you're stuck for the cost of the trip, Singh said. "Not wanting to go is never going to be a covered reason," she said about most insurance. "Make sure that concern is listed."
Also make sure to read the list of policy exclusions. Like the insurance you buy to protect an airline ticket, these broader policies — which may cover accommodations, for instance — may hold some surprises about what is excluded. Pregnancy, for instance, is often listed as a "we're-not-paying" reason. Getting arrested as a reason to cancel a trip also may not be covered, although if you are arrested, presumably you have bigger troubles than just trip insurance.
The one bright spot in the insurance issue is this: There is cancel-for-any-reason insurance, which covers cold feet, fight with spouse, death of pet — really, just about anything. It is what it says it is: You can cancel for any reason, and it's a good thing to have if the reason is one that's not covered by standard insurance.
There are two downsides to this insurance: It's more expensive than a standard policy, and you don't get back the full amount.
I looked at a couple of policies for a family vacation we're taking this year. My search through Squaremouth — it's an insurance aggregator that offers a variety of policies that you can compare — turned up 41 policies that ranged from $497 to $1,215. Some of those policies covered job loss and rental car damage, for instance; others did not.
Of the initial batch of policies, 15 included cancel-for-any-reason coverage. These cost $517 to $1,215. One of the differences in the price is the time frame of the purchase. For the least expensive, I needed to buy within seven days of the initial payment; with the most expensive, I had 30 days. There are other differences too, and you'll need to study each one to see how those fit (or don't) into your needs. SquareMouth offers filters on its website so you can include what's important to you.
The common factor in both the high- and lower-cost policies: If you're using the cancel-for-any-reason part of the policy, you'll get back only 75% of the trip's cost.
Do the extra cost and the 25% you won't get back make such a policy worth it? If you're traveling with people who are apt to flake, probably. If you're risk-averse, quite probably. If you can't afford to lose the entire cost of the vacation, very probably. But most of the evaluation rests with you, your traveling companions and the coverage of the policy you're considering.
And fate. That's the wild card in such equations. Sometimes I think fate toys with us and our plans just to get a chuckle. Your job is to consider how much you're willing to pay to have the last laugh.