Note: The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted existing and future travel plans, and turned greater attention to trip insurance. Read our take on specific information concerning travel insurance and COVID-19, or see our comprehensive guide to managing your finances during COVID-19.
You’ve planned your travel, found a flight, and can’t wait to book the trip on the airline’s website. But right before you hit the payment button, you have one seemingly simple question to answer: Do you want to add travel insurance?
It’s a booking option that has stumped many a traveler. You may think you need it, but what does that airline insurance even cover? And would it be better to purchase separate travel insurance from an independent company instead? Here, we’ll help you break down that decision and figure out which one is right for you.
Airline travel insurance
For starters, every airline’s travel protection coverage is different. Some airlines, like Southwest, don’t offer any sort of trip protection for purchase with regular flights, but they do have an insurance option for Southwest Vacations.
United, on the other hand, offers full travel insurance through a partnership with AIG, while British Airways offers protection with Allianz. So be aware that while you may purchase insurance through the airline, your policy is likely underwritten by a third-party insurer.
Airlines offer a wide variety of travel insurance policies with varying benefits, so ensure you read the fine print to understand your specific coverage. Here are some examples:
Trip cancellation or interruption, meaning you’ll get a refund of whatever you have paid (up to a certain amount) if you have to cancel or postpone your trip due to a covered reason.
Reimbursement for lost or delayed baggage.
Emergency medical coverage and/or assistance while traveling.
And coverage isn’t the only thing that can vary; so does price. One airline might sell a policy for less than $15, while others may be more than five times that amount. This is another instance in which it’s critical to compare the details of what you’re actually getting. Here are two example policies we found for sale via United and Alaska:
A few cons to consider
One potential downside of purchasing travel insurance through your airline is that you only have the option of that airline’s partner provider — which may not be your first choice, or may not offer the coverage you want or need.
United, for example, offers protection through AIG, which covers 100% of your trip cost if you have to cancel travel plans. British Airways, on the other hand, offers a plan through Allianz that only covers up to $1,000 for trip cancellation and protection (often less than the cost of a single international flight).
When booking travel protection or insurance through an airline, you usually won’t have the option to fully customize your plan. For example, if you’ll be participating in activities that aren’t approved by some plans (like bouldering, ballooning or even some volunteer work), you may not be able to upgrade to a plan that covers riskier activities.
However, if you’re not expecting to need any special coverage (though some would argue that you never expect to need it), clicking that box on the checkout page while booking your flight is often an easy and inexpensive option. Just make sure to read the fine print so you know exactly what’s covered and what’s not to avoid disappointment if you ever have to make a claim.
» Learn more: What to do if you get sick while traveling overseas
Independent travel insurance
Independent travel insurance, on the other hand, gives you the ability to shop around and choose a plan that’s right for you.
Using a comparison portal like SquareMouth (a NerdWallet partner) or an independent insurance agent will ensure you get coverage tailored to your trip and will allow you to select plans based on price or features.
For example, if packing important or valuable materials in your checked luggage, you may want a plan that has a higher baggage loss reimbursement. If traveling to a country where there’s a higher risk of contracting malaria or another disease, you may want insurance that offers more overseas medical coverage or medical evacuation. And hand-selecting the exact coverage you want or need is something you can only do if you shop around outside any coverage your airline offers.
» Learn more: How to find the best travel insurance
Which one is right for you?
Which option is right for you comes down to what type of coverage you need and how complex your travel plans are. If you’re taking a quick domestic trip to visit friends and family in a familiar destination and don’t plan to participate in any risky activities, airline-provided travel insurance may be enough protection for you.
On the other hand, if you’re planning the trip of a lifetime with multiple destinations, opportunities for volunteer work, participation in what some companies consider dangerous activities or travel to regions with limited medical care and higher chances of getting sick, it may be wise to consider independent insurance.
Remember that if your trip involves multiple airlines, car rental companies, accommodations and activities, it may be easier to deal with one independent insurance company that will cover your whole trip.
Also, you may already have a credit card that comes with some travel protections if you use the card to purchase your trip. Check the fine print to see what protections your card might offer.
Whatever you choose, travel safe.
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:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card