Travel Insurance: When to Buy, When to Not Buy

How "adventurous" a trip were you planning here? | Jay Sprogell/Thrillist
How "adventurous" a trip were you planning here? | Jay Sprogell/Thrillist

For the six months my travel buddy and I spent planning our 17-month backpacking trip, we really meant to get around to finding travel insurance. We did not. For the whole trip, we just kinda hoped we’d keep getting lucky and not need it. Luck is an immensely stupid thing to plan around. In our defense, so is a lot of travel insurance. Yet more Americans are purchasing travel insurance for trips this year than they were in 2018, and it’s good to at least understand what your options are. 

The biggest names in travel insurance -- like Travelex and Allianz -- will offer comprehensive travel insurance plans. These plans vary by provider in terms of what exactly they offer coverage for, but they’re usually customizable, meaning you can input your travel plans and build your coverage a la carte. Here are the main categories you’re probably going to be looking at when deciding what -- if any -- coverage you want for your trip.
MORE: Solo travel is overrated and you're not missing anything

Medical travel insurance

You want it if: You’re gonna be abroad for a while
Congrats if you have regular health insurance here at home, but it will likely be of very little use to you if you’re traveling abroad. That week in Italy you’re taking with your regular vacation days doesn’t quite call for this, but, as medical travel insurance is basically the substitute version of your health insurance at home, you probably want to give this some consideration if you’re planning a trip that’ll last a few months or more. You might get lucky with a few things if you’re traveling some place with universal health care, but it’s not a given. So if you have the means, you should at least consider picking some up, yes.

Trip cancellation insurance

You want it if: You’re taking that honeymoon cruise you’ve been saving up for
This type of insurance is most worthwhile for people whose trip involves some sort of organized tour or package, as opposed to doing everything independently. Skip it if you’re backpacking, but look into it if you’re going on a pricey cruise. Trip cancellation insurance covers you if either party -- i.e., either you or the cruise line, travel company, etc. -- has to cancel. So if the company you made your reservation with suddenly goes out of business, you get the cost refunded. If you miss your flight and can’t make your tour in time, you get the cost refunded. If you get sick during the trip and have to leave early, you might also have some of those costs covered; it just depends on the specifics of your situation and of the plan you purchased. 

There are inclusions for trip interruptions and trip delays, not just outright cancellations: If your trip is interrupted for any reason, you should be able to get the prepaid reservations you’ll no longer be able to use refunded. Read the fine print, since you’re going to the trouble of getting this insurance in the first place. 

Baggage insurance

You want it if: You have nice things!
Baggage insurance is just what you’d think it is! This is sometimes known as personal affects or personal belongings insurance, and it covers you if your baggage is lost, stolen, or damaged during the course of your trip, or in some cases if your baggage is super delayed in getting to you. That is, up to a limit -- say, $1,000 -- that will vary by individual policy. If you have homeowners or renters insurance, check your fine print -- you might find that those policies cover your personal belongings even when they’re not at home. If you don’t have any of that coverage, and if you’re traveling with items that are particularly valuable, like camera gear, baggage insurance might be worth your while. But if not, you can probably skip it.
MORE: Where does lost airline luggage go?

Medical evacuation insurance

You want it if: You’re headed somewhere a bit geographically or politically risky
This covers not just physical emergencies, like breaking your leg while mountaineering, but anything else that might necessitate emergency evacuation, like extreme weather or terror threats. It might mean getting you from a remote location to a city center with more medical resources, or it might mean getting you all the way home. For your average cruise or ski trip or week with your friends in Amsterdam, though, this isn’t really something you need to shell out for.
MORE: 3 things to know if you get hurt abroad

Bonus: adventure travel insurance 

You want it if: You’re headed into the mountains … during winter …  alone … 
Though it’s not a standard offer in a comprehensive plan, one specific area of coverage that’s mushrooming is adventure travel, which makes sense, because adventure travel itself is rapidly becoming a bigger and bigger thing. But “adventure travel” doesn’t have one single definition. It can mean touring somewhere remote, or backpacking alone, or just traveling somewhere that has nature. Or maybe you’re pursuing physical activities like caving, or doing stuff that sounds dangerous but isn’t really, like swimming with sharks, or hiking a mountain by yourself even though you have no hiking experience and a poor sense of direction. 

If the adventure in question involves something that’s physically challenging, but in proximity to lots of other people -- like hiking Machu Picchu -- you probably don't need adventure travel insurance. Same with activities that come with a certain amount of inherent risk, along the lines of recreational scuba diving (but consider getting certified! it’ll be fun!). 

As you poke around the adventure insurance market you’ll see lots of options for mountaineering and hiking insurance especially, which are… two very different things. The former might require medevac rescue insurance, so if you’ll be in a scenario like that you should look into it. The latter is basically walking, but uphill. Long answer to a short question: If you’re not alone and not doing something that requires specialized gear, you can probably skip the special insurance.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Next Flight Out for more travel coverage, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.