A Beginner’s Guide to Travel Insurance

Travel insurance can help cover costs for unexpected events like cancellations, trip delays and medical care.

Elina GellerMar 24, 2021
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Travel insurance is becoming more and more important as people look to book future trips during this uncertain time. Whether you’d like to know more about what type of policy to get or are just new to the concept of travel insurance, we’ll walk you through the basic coverage options, including trip cancellation, trip interruption, travel medical insurance and cancel-for-any-reason coverage.

What is travel insurance?

Trip (or travel) insurance provides coverage for unexpected events that can go wrong before or during your trip, such as inclement weather that prevents you from departing or breaking your leg on a ski trip and needing to fly home early.

According to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, in 2018, roughly 65.8 million people had trip insurance protections, reflecting a 49% increase from 2016. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those numbers are likely to continue to grow.

In addition to being offered on certain premium travel credit cards, many companies offer travel insurance plans, and the policies can vary from state to state, so choosing a plan can be confusing.

As part of NerdWallet’s Best-Of Awards for 2021, we evaluated various travel insurance providers across several states, considering single and long-term trips. Based on our analysis, the World Nomads Explorer Plan was the winner with its robust all-around coverage for pre- and post-departure trip benefits.

What does travel insurance cost?

Based on data from the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, the price of a travel insurance policy usually ranges from 4%-8% of the trip cost. The cost of the policy is usually based on the following factors:

  • Duration and cost of your vacation: The more expensive and longer the trip, the higher the price of the policy.

  • Cost of local medical care: High medical care costs in your destination can increase the cost of travel insurance.

  • Breadth of coverage: Policies that include higher limits and more covered events will be pricier.

  • Your age: Generally, the older you are, the more expensive the policy.

Trip cancellation and trip interruption

Trip cancellation insurance is a pre-departure benefit that covers prepaid, nonrefundable reservations, such as flights, hotels and other bookings as long as the trip is canceled because of an unforeseeable event. The covered amount is usually 100% of the total trip cost. To qualify for coverage, the cancellation must be due to a covered reason (e.g., jury duty, job termination, extreme weather).

Imagine you booked a nonrefundable two-week vacation to Costa Rica for $3,000 ($800 flight, $1,700 hotel and $500 in excursions), and three days before departure, you are injured in a car accident. You spend two days in the hospital and your doctor advises you not to travel. If you’ve purchased a policy that includes trip cancellation coverage, you’ll receive a refund for the entire prepaid amount since accidental injuries that result in medically imposed restrictions certified by a doctor qualify as a covered reason.

Trip interruption coverage, however, is a post-departure benefit that covers prepaid, nonrefundable reservations if a portion of a trip is missed or a traveler has to return home due to an extraordinary circumstance. Similar to trip cancellation, to be covered, the reason must be unforeseen.

Using the same vacation example as above, imagine that you fly to Costa Rica and on the fourth day of your trip, you fall while running, hurt your foot and, as a result, can barely walk. A trip to the hospital for X-rays reveals that you have a fracture and the doctor advises you to stay off your feet. As the pain becomes worse, you decide to fly home. If your travel insurance policy includes trip interruption coverage, you will be reimbursed for the unused portion of your hotel stay, your unused return flight and the new return flight. Depending on the plan, trip interruption coverage may range from 100%-200% of the trip cost, which can be extremely helpful as the cost of a last-minute flight home can be quite pricey.

The important thing to remember about both benefits is that you will only get your money back if you cancel your trip for a covered reason. If you want more flexibility, you’ll want to get familiarized with cancel-for-any-reason coverage, or CFAR.

Cancel for any reason

CFAR coverage allows you to cancel your trip for any reason whatsoever and get a partial refund of your nonrefundable deposit as long as the cancellation occurs at least two days in advance of the trip date. This benefit is an optional add-on that is available when you purchase travel insurance; not all plans offer it.

Say, for example, you’re booking a trip and are worried that when the date gets closer, you may be scared to travel due to COVID-19. In this case, the cancellation will not be considered a covered reason under most standard trip cancellation insurance policies. If you’d like that layer of protection and want the freedom to cancel your trip and get some of your money back, you’ll want to get a policy that offers the CFAR add-on. CFAR reimbursement usually ranges from 50%-75% of the total trip cost, which can be meaningful for an expensive trip.

Travel medical insurance

Standalone travel medical insurance specifically protects you in the event of unexpected injuries or illnesses while you’re abroad. Covered benefits will usually include emergency medical evacuation/repatriation, accidental death and dismemberment and 24-hour assistance. Other trip insurance protections will be limited, and the policy will be cheaper than a comprehensive travel insurance plan because of reduced coverage for other events.

If you already have trip cancellation and interruption coverage through a premium travel credit card, or you’re not worried about insuring your flight or hotel because reservations are refundable, purchasing a standalone travel medical policy could be your best bet.

The bottom line

Knowing you have travel insurance can offer peace of mind in case something goes wrong on an upcoming trip. Travel insurance includes many important benefits and getting acquainted with them can empower you to make the right choice about which coverage type to consider for your next vacation.

How to Maximize Your Rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for: