When it comes to paying extra for travel insurance, we typically err on the side of skipping it. And it’s not because we’re exceedingly confident that all your trips will go exactly as planned—it’s just that unless you’re taking a long, international trip, you can probably get the benefits you need from the credit card you used to purchase your tickets and reservations.
But the coronavirus outbreak has put a wrinkle in that advice. What’s a ticket-holding traveler to do?
“The general uncertainty around the spread of the coronavirus has caused lot of traveler concern,” said Kasara Barto, spokesperson at travel insurance comparison site SquareMouth. The company has seen an uptick in travelers who are still in the process of planning trips, but want to make sure they have protection in case the outbreak derails their plans.
The good news is that many travel companies like air carriers have relaxed their reservation policies. For example, JetBlue announced this week that it would waive flight change and cancellation fees for bookings made between March 6 and March 31, covering travel through September 8. Similarly, American Airlines will waive change fees for nonrefundable fares for flights booked through March 31.
Is your credit card coverage enough?
But say you’re locked into your travel plans and can’t easily make changes or get a refund. Will your credit card’s coverage suffice?
Probably not. If you take a close look at your card’s benefits booklet (or online version), you’ll likely see that your trip cancellation or trip interruption coverage is for “unforeseen” circumstances. The high-profile coronavirus outbreak counts as a foreseen event for travel insurance carriers, who assign specific dates for the outbreak having a potential impact on travel. And that’s likely to overflow into your credit card’s policy, too.
Mastercard World and Visa Infinite cards tend to have the most robust travel insurance benefits, along with some American Express cards. I asked Mastercard and Visa to comment on any benefit restrictions due to the coronavirus, but have not received a response.
In the meantime, I called Chase, through which I have several cards offering travel benefits. The number listed in my card benefits booklet warned me that it was experiencing increased call volume, and that travelers should contact their airfare or hotel first to learn about their rebooking or cancellation options.
When I called the number on the back of my card instead, the representative said that at this time, the trip cancellation insurance for my card does not cover coronavirus-related travel issues; and that they recommend checking with the merchant first about getting a refund.
Is it too late to get separate travel insurance?
Now that coronavirus is a “foreseen” event, you can’t buy insurance coverage that covers it.
Barto said that the date carriers go by for the coronavirus “event” ranges from January 21 and January 27. “Once those dates have passed, you can no longer purchase a standard policy with benefits for coronavirus,” she explained.
While some carriers are still offering medical care or evacuation coverage if you contract the coronavirus while traveling, she said only about one-third of the carriers SquareMouth tracks are still offering this.
If you’re still planning your trip or recently booked, Barto said the only insurance policies SquareMouth is recommending are for coverage that includes “cancel for any reason.”
That insurance coverage allows you to cancel your trip up to just a few days before for truly any reason—including that you just don’t want to go anymore.
Barto said SquareMouth doesn’t usually advise travelers to get a “cancel for any reason” policy as most cancellation reasons are covered by a standard policy.
A standard policy covering trip interruption or cancellation typically costs 7-10% of the trip cost, depending on traveler age and the length of the trip. A policy with “cancel for any reason” coverage costs about 40% more than that.
She shared a sample search for a one-week, $8,000 trip for two travelers over 55. A policy with standard trip cancellation would cost $472, while the “cancel for any reason” upgrade would bump the cost of that policy up to about $660. However, “that will allow the traveler to cancel their trip for any reason, including fear of the coronavirus outbreak, and receive a 75% reimbursement of their trip cost,” Barto explained.
If it’s too late to add this coverage to your travel insurance policy or you’re having a hard time justifying the cost of buying coverage at all, start by reaching out to the company that issued your travel tickets or reservations to determine their latest policies. If you find one that’s being especially strict and you need backup in the event you must cancel, you can talk to your credit card issuer.
Your travel insurance provider may have options, as well. “We’re also seeing from some [insurance] providers that if your trip gets canceled, they will allow travelers to move their policy to a new trip,” Barto said.