Everything You Need to Know About Travel Insurance
When to buy, when not to buy, and what it all means.
Over the course of the six months I spent mapping out a 17-month backpacking trip, my travel companion and I had “find travel insurance” on the to-do list. Spoiler alert: We didn’t get around to actually finding it. We hoped we’d never have to use it, and relied on luck to get us through the trip and back in one piece. This was all pre-pandemic, before you could be stuck sick and in quarantine on the opposite side of the world.
COVID-19 was perhaps one of the most valid reasons to invest in travel insurance, but so are things like malaria and dengue fever, surf accidents, and appendicitis. Flight delays and cancellations—especially at the rate they’re happening these days—also make the investment in travel insurance seem like a worthwhile one.
Now that international travel is back on the table and there are few restrictions in place, travel insurance is on the rise, with sales skyrocketing 122% last year. But not all plans are created equal—or necessary. The biggest names in travel insurance—like Travelex and Allianz—offer comprehensive travel insurance plans, but they’re usually customizable, meaning you can input your travel plans and build coverage a la carte. Here are the main categories to consider when deciding what—if any—coverage you want for your trip.
Medical travel insurance is great for extended stints abroad
Good for you if you’re one of the lucky ones with fantastic health insurance at home, but not all plans will cover you while you’re out of the country. 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 a break with a few things if you’re traveling somewhere with universal health care, but it’s not a given.
Booking a splurge-worthy vacation? Consider trip cancellation insurance
This type of insurance is suited more 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., 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. But for something like flight or baggage delays, your credit card might already include this insurance.
If you’re packing precious cargo, baggage insurance is for you
Sometimes known as personal effects or personal belongings insurance, baggage insurance 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—which will vary by individual policy. If you have homeowners or renters insurance, check your policy—you might find it covers your personal belongings even when they’re not at home. Some credit cards also include this insurance as part of the annual fee. If you don’t have any of that coverage, and if you’re traveling with items that are particularly valuable, such as camera gear, baggage insurance is probably worth it. But if not, you can probably skip it.
Risky conditions ahead? Medical evacuation insurance has your back
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 week with friends in Amsterdam, though, this isn’t really something you need to shell out for.
Adventure travel insurance is perfect for daredevil travelers
Though it’s not a standard offer in a comprehensive plan, one specific area of coverage that’s booming is adventure travel. But “adventure travel” doesn’t have a single definition. It can mean touring somewhere remote, backpacking alone, or traveling somewhere in 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, like recreational scuba diving (but consider getting certified!).
As you search around the adventure insurance market, you’ll see lots of options for mountaineering and hiking insurance, which are two very different things. The former might require medevac rescue insurance, while 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.