I bought travel insurance. Am I covered in a coronavirus outbreak? Maybe not

An employee distributes disinfectant to customers, all wearing surgical-style face masks, at the entrance to a supermarket in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic.
An employee distributes disinfectant to customers at the entrance to a supermarket in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic.
(Associated Press)

You were supposed to be going to China, but coronavirus has scared you and you want to cancel. “I have travel insurance,” you say to yourself. “No problem.”

Not so fast. Even if you have travel insurance, you may not be covered.

The standard wisdom about travel insurance: It covers what has happened to you, not what might happen to you.

Here is a Q&A on what’s covered, what’s not, it in light of the novel coronavirus outbreak detected in December in Wuhan. The World Health Organization declared it a public health emergency of international concern. And the U.S. Department of State has raised the threat level to 4 for China: Do not travel. “Travelers should be prepared for travel restrictions to be put into effect with little or no advance notice,” the newest warning said. “Commercial carriers have reduced or suspended routes to and from China.”

Travelers who have booked trips or are considering them now face difficult questions, partly because their health and safety could be at risk and partly because their investment in a vacation may be threatened. Here’s what we know:

Question: Are such outbreaks as coronavirus covered by regular travel policies?


Answer: Doubtful. “Unfortunately, there is limited cancellation coverage [for coronavirus] under most standard travel insurance policies,” Kasara Barto of, a travel insurance comparison site, said in an email. “Virus outbreaks do not fall under the standard cancellation reasons on most travel insurance.”

Q. But didn’t the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell travelers they should “avoid non-essential travel” to China?

A. Yes, but in terms of insurance, Squaremouth noted, travelers “are not prevented from” going.

Q. Doesn’t the State Department say you should not travel to China, especially Wuhan, the center of the coronavirus outbreak?

A. The State Department raised its threat warning, saying you should not travel to China. Previously the threat level was a 3, which means “reconsider,” except for Wuhan, which was a 4 (do not travel).

Q. The World Health Organization said the outbreak is an international health emergency. Does that change the dynamics of insurance coverage?

A. No, insurance experts say, because now coronavirus is not unexpected. The risk is there and not a surprise.

Q. But what if everything I want to see is closed?

A. Too bad. Even if big attractions are closed and visiting them was to have been a big part of your trip, you still aren’t covered. “While the closure of portions of the Great Wall of China, Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai Disneyland may be an inconvenience to travelers, it isn’t enough to trigger cancellation benefits,” Squaremouth said.

Q. What if my flight was canceled and I had prepaid, nonrefundable plans, such as hotels or day trips? Do I get money back?

A. Maybe. Many airlines are cutting back or canceling service in the face of this outbreak. (Some airlines are refunding money; others are giving a credit or waiving change fees.) Regardless, canceled service means other prepaid plans would fall by the wayside. But there may be good news in this.

“Comprehensive travel insurance plans can cover prepaid, nonrefundable expenses such as hotels, tours, flights, etc.,” Meghan Walch, product manager for InsureMyTrip, which also lets you compare policies, said in an email.

“When purchasing a policy, the total of those costs would need to be insured in order to receive reimbursement if canceling for a covered reason.”

Q. What if I have insurance and get sick with coronavirus?

A. The good news about coverage in that case is bad news for you: If you contract coronavirus before you travel or while you’re traveling, your care probably will be covered if you have standard travel insurance. The key word is “probably.”

Q. Why probably?

A. Many insurers set a deadline — a date before which you might be covered but after which you won’t be. In other words, if your insurer says you’re not covered if you bought your policy after a certain date, take that to heart.

That’s because coronavirus is now a “foreseen circumstance” — that is, people now know about it.

If you bought insurance, note that the cutoff date for when this outbreak became a “foreseen circumstance” will vary by provider so it’s important to know the “buy by” date that was or is being offered.

Q. Is there anything I can do to be covered for a trip I wanted to make but now am not sure about?

A. There is one kind of travel insurance that can help: cancel-for-any-reason insurance. It means what it says: If you decide you don’t want to risk (fill in the blank for anything that you consider problematic) or you just don’t think the trip sounds fun anymore, if you have CFAR, it should have you covered.

Q. Really?

A. It is true, but be aware that CFAR has some downsides. Your reimbursement generally will not cover your total trip costs, and the premium probably will cost more — sometimes much more — than a standard travel insurance policy.

Q. Is there another option?

A. Not really. “If your concern is canceling your trip due to fear of traveling and potentially contracting the coronavirus, then … CFAR is the only way to protect your prepaid, non-refundable trip cost,” Walch of InsureMyTrip said.

Q. What else should I consider when contemplating a trip anywhere coronavirus is present?

A. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there is no prevention for this type of coronavirus. Absent that, it suggests washing your hands and keeping them away from your eyes, nose and mouth; avoiding sick people; staying home if you’re unwell; covering your nose and mouth with a tissue if you sneeze; and making sure you disinfect anything you or people around you have touched.

Symptoms of coronavirus include fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the CDC. You may experience those symptoms as soon as two days after you’re exposed and as long as two weeks later.

Q. What are my chances of being infected with coronavirus?

A. That depends a little on where you are. “I would say there’s always a risk of developing an infection when you’re traveling internationally,” said Dr. Robert Winters, an infectious disease specialist in Santa Monica. “I would avoid China, but I would not change my plans for any other part of the world.”

But, Winters noted, the rapid increase in the number of cases reported suggests the potential for a pandemic. One of the issues, Winters said, is that someone may be asymptomatic but still able to transmit the disease.

He echoes the CDC’s hand-washing advice and also suggests packing a face mask, hand sanitizer and disposable gloves, just in case.

Q. Does that face mask really help?

A. Its value may not be what you think it is. Surgical masks are porous and germs are tiny. The real value, said Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and regional medical director of International SOS, a medical and security assistance company, is that you can’t touch your mouth and nose as easily, which means you might be less likely to pick up a germ.

Q. So what do doctors say? Should I go on my trip?

A. No easy answers here. It’s a serious illness and a growing problem. Also, Quigley said, viruses can mutate. Like a hurricane, they may gather strength over time. And such diseases often put the young, the old and the immunocompromised at greater risk.

In the end, though, it’s not their job to tell you whether to go, both said. Only you can decide on the risk level. Gather information about the disease and think carefully about your choices. You may not catch coronavirus, but you could be caught in a quarantine. (The good news is that if you have trip interruption insurance, that could mean your delay is covered.) Let your brain and your heart play an equal role in the decision.