Disaster-Proof Your Vacation With Trip Insurance

Travel insurance can recover some costs when a natural disaster ruins your vacation.

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Last year, plenty of vacation plans were roiled by hurricanes and wildfires. If you’re traveling to an area that could be hit by Mother Nature’s wrath, consider adding travel insurance to your pretrip checklist.

You can usually skip a travel insurance policy for an inexpensive domestic trip. If something goes awry, the financial hit will likely be minimal. But for longer and more-expensive trips, which may be locked down with nonrefundable deposits that are difficult to recoup, insuring your vacation is usually worthwhile.

A comprehensive policy will typically run 5% to 10% of your total trip cost, according to Squaremouth.com, a travel insurance search site. You can get policies that reimburse you for the costs of canceling or cutting short your trip if the weather turns dangerous. Or you may be able to get covered if you need to cancel or interrupt your trip because your own home is destroyed.

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Buy early. If you’re inspired to get travel insurance because news footage shows your destination being battered by storms, you’re probably too late. Travel insurance providers stop providing related coverage to new customers once a hurricane is named or a wildfire or other disaster becomes publicly known.

If you already have coverage and a natural disaster strikes, you can file a claim only if you are prevented from taking or continuing your trip. For example, your outbound flight is delayed a set number of hours (most plans range between six and 48 hours), your booked accommodation is uninhabitable, or your destination has been placed under a mandatory evacuation. Some policies allow you to cancel if a hurricane warning is issued for your destination by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within one or two days of your departure.

If your airline, hotel or excursion offers free changes or a credit rather than a refund, you must turn it down in order to claim reimbursement from your insurance provider.

What about adding a “cancel for any reason” rider? That will increase your premium by about 40%, and you must buy it shortly after you make your initial trip deposit; expect to recover only 50% to 75% of your costs, and there will be other restrictions.

How to find a good policy. Start your search at www.insuremytrip.com or www.squaremouth.com to compare third-party policies. List your prepaid, non­refundable costs, sort the results from least to most expensive, then start at the bottom and work your way up to find the most economical plan with coverage limits you like (we recommend a minimum of $50,000 for medical coverage and $100,000 for medevac). Other commonly covered reasons for canceling or interrupting your trip include serious illness (either you, your traveling partner or a family member), a death in the family or terrorism in your destination city.

Third-party policies are almost always a better deal than trip insurance offered through an airline, which tends to have lower payouts for medical costs and more-restrictive rules for weather-related cancellations. Your credit card may include cancellation and delay insurance as a free perk, but don’t assume you’ll get as much money back if you have to cancel your trip as you would with a third-party policy.

For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card can cover canceled flights and other prepaid expenses such as hotels in the event of severe weather, but instead of medical care you’d get payouts only for accidental death and dismemberment; the Chase Sapphire Reserve includes emergency medical for up to $2,500 and emergency evacuation as well.

Miriam Cross
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Miriam lived in Toronto, Canada, before joining Kiplinger's Personal Finance in November 2012. Prior to that, she freelanced as a fact-checker for several Canadian publications, including Reader's Digest Canada, Style at Home and Air Canada's enRoute. She received a BA from the University of Toronto with a major in English literature and completed a certificate in Magazine and Web Publishing at Ryerson University.