When you fantasize about your “once in a lifetime trip to X” getting travel insurance doesn’t usually top your to-do list. I get that. The allure of adventure and the mystique of travel are all about throwing caution to the wind, baring your teeth at the indifferent universe and flinging yourself into the chaotic maw of happenstance and serendipity, right?
Actually, no it’s not. That’s an awful way to travel. Put down your copy of Hunter S. Thompson and pay attention.
Travel Insurance is Important
Getting robbed and stranded in a foreign country isn’t awesome—it’s stupid. Breaking your leg in Thailand with 300 baht in your wallet and no one to help you isn’t the beginning of a “legendary,” travel story. It’s the beginning of someone else’s travel story about “some guy” they met at a full moon party that died of an infection. Don’t be the star of someone else’s scary travel story because you’re too cheap to pony up for travel insurance.
Not having a backup plan won’t make you more likely to push your boundaries, it just puts you at risk for a terrible trip (at best), or life-threatening experience. Things go wrong when you travel. Sh*t happens. And while it’s important to keep your wits about you and problem solve the inevitable pitfalls that occur on the road, one of your best arrows in your adventure quiver is travel insurance.
Travel insurance is a low cost security blanket that covers you if the worst happens. And while coverage can vary, fraudsters exist, and insurance is, by its very nature, shady as heck, getting the bare minimum travel insurance is worth it. Really.
*Steps off soapbox* So, here’s your buyer’s guide to travel insurance. Find out what travel insurance is, what it covers (and what it doesn’t), how much travel insurance costs, how to buy it, tips and tricks for getting budget travel insurance, and understanding some of the confusing clauses and fine print you’ll see in all kinds of plans.
What Does Travel Insurance Cover?
Travel insurance means different things to different people. Most people think of travel insurance as medical coverage. Others, as trip cancellation protection. Still more use it to protect their expensive gear and equipment while they’re on the road. All of these people are right. And while I think medical coverage is the most important element of travel insurance, it’s important to understand what you’re paying for when you get travel insurance.
Travel insurance typically breaks down into three broad areas of coverage:
- Medical—Your body
- Property—Your stuff
- Travel—Your trip expenses
Even though we fixate on the medical side of travel insurance—and it can be the most costly emergency expense if something goes wrong abroad—you’re far more likely to use your insurance (aka “make a claim”) for lost or stolen items or trip interruptions.
People lose stuff. Schedules change. Keep that in mind before you purchase a platinum medical insurance package that doesn’t cover your DSLR.
2 Types of Travel Insurance Coverage
Despite all the fancy branding, travel insurance typically falls into either basic or premium coverage. Companies add a lot of bells and whistles—like 24-hour support lines—but the difference is almost always a bigger monetary limit for damage to your gear and trip interruption reimbursement, and additional medical coverage limits—$100,000 vs. $1,000,000 for example.
Basic Travel Insurance Coverage
Basic coverage obviously varies, but typically basic travel insurance covers at least:
- $1,000 Baggage
- $2,000 Trip cancellation
- $1,000 Trip interruption
- $50,000 Medical care
- $50,000 Medical evac
Basic plans usually don’t cover:
- Rental car insurance
- Missed connections
- Delayed baggage
- Pre-existing conditions
No matter what they call it—’Luxe, Preferred, Platinum—premium coverage offers all the protection of basic plans, with increased limits for nearly every category. If you want “good” premium coverage look for numbers in these ranges:
- $3,000 Baggage
- $10,000 Trip cancellation
- $10,000 Trip interruption
- $1,000 Missed connection
- $100,000 Medical care
- $500,000 Medical evac
- $50,000 Dental
- $35,000 Rental car collision waiver
Policy wording is tough to nail down, but the biggest difference between upgrades is usually your trip cost. This (estimated number) is the search filter box that will definitely affect your quoted rate.
Surprisingly, honesty helps when you’re choosing insurance. Think about how much your gear is actually worth (not what you paid for it five years ago). An old laptop is actually worth $100, even if it was $1399 back in the day. A point and shoot camera might not even be worth that much, even though it retailed for $450. If you go through item by item, you might discover that you really don’t need premium coverage. That’ll save you money.
If you’re a hostel backpacker with a rail pass (i.e. no rental car), basic coverage is almost always the way to go. You don’t need to pay extra to insure things you don’t have. Unless… you’re an adrenaline junky.
If you’re a Miley Cyrus wrecking ball and the odds are even money you’re gonna break your arm front flipping off a bridge, maybe get the top of the line coverage. It all comes back to the old adage—”Know thyself” (or thy stuff).
Certain countries, sports, and activities are rarely covered even under the best insurance. Rock climbing in Thailand? Probably covered (but expensive). Skydiving. Eh. Maybe not. Scuba? Sometimes. World Nomads has a premium adventure package covering a TON of stuff, but they’re the exception to the rule.
Travel Insurance Revies: How Much Does it Cost?
Price is where most travelers start—and end—their travel insurance search, so let’s just dive right into it. Bottom line: Travel insurance is surprisingly important, (and actually mandatory if you’re applying for a work, or holiday visa, or studying abroad).
Expect to spend about $6/day for a short trip (less than 2 weeks), and about $2/day for longer trips (1 month+) for travel insurance coverage. Not bad for something that covers accidents, cancellations, theft, and more.
The secret to buying travel insurance is shopping around (it’s tedious, but worth it), and customizing coverage for your adventure.
Best Budget Travel Insurance Options
I crunched the numbers for a 30-year old taking a two week trip that costs around $3000. Here are the best prices and breakdowns of coverage ranges. The list goes from cheapest to most expensive:
GeoBlue (Medical Coverage Only)
Single Trip Voyager Basic: $19.80
Single Trip Voyager Full: $34
The Difference Between Basic & Full Medical Coverage: Deductibles
At $19, Voyager basic medical coverage (the cheapest option) covers your medical expenses up to $50,000 and comes with a $500 deductible. This “break glass in case of emergency” type of coverage is great for covering your butt, but odds are you aren’t going to exceed that $500 deductible (unless something goes really wrong).
This is basically a $20 piece of paper that says if you need a helicopter to air lift you to the hospital, you’re only going to have to pay $500 bucks. Not great, but way better than nothing.
For just another $1/day you can get full medical coverage up to one million bucks, with $0 deductible. Opt for the upgrade. The price of a pizza can save you thousands if you have an accident.
The Difference Between Standard, Preferred, & Premium
Basic doesn’t cover: pre-existing conditions, rental cars, or accidental death and dismemberment. So don’t die. But other than that, it’s actually pretty comprehensive coverage.
Plus Side: All plans include dental in the medical coverage (up to $50,000), which is a big deal if you chip your tooth on a Red Bull can. Also, they have a new “Identity theft” resolution, which honestly probably means nothing, but it feels good.
The Difference Between Basic, Classic, & Trip+: Baggage
Emergency medical coverage with Allianz has gone way up since I last looked at their rates. $50,000 is now the base coverage, going all the way up to $1,000,000. The key number here now isn’t medical, but lost luggage.
Baggage loss/damage is on the low side ($500, $1,000, and $2,000). If you travel with a laptop, DSLR, etc. the Basic package might not give you any real coverage. Also, Basic coverage doesn’t provide reimbursement for missed connections, and travel delay coverage is low ($300).
I’d upgrade this plan to premium without a second thought.
Plus Side: Pre-existing conditions are covered on every plan.
The Difference Between Standard & Explorer
The medical coverage is the same ($100,000) and trip cancellation is pretty similar (Standard: $2,500 / Explorer: $10,000). The biggest difference is how much gear is covered.
Standard covers $1000 of gear, while Explorer goes up to $3000. Again, if you have expensive camera gear or a laptop, it’s worth upgrading to the Explorer plan. Also, pre-existing conditions aren’t covered on either plan, and standard doesn’t include rental car coverage.
Plus Side: World Nomads is known for it’s adventure sports coverage. Explorer covers 100+ activities like: skydiving, base jumping, and even shark cage diving. So that’s sweet. Standard covers almost as many including, climbing and canoeing. Both plans also include dental—but only $750, which is better than nothing.
HTH Travel (TripProtector Coverage)
A (hypothetical) 30-year old traveler with an estimated trip cost of $3,000 (2 week trip with flights, accommodation, and expenses), can expect to pay about $20/day, which is pretty reasonable for everything you get with this insurance.
The Difference Between Coverage: Standard Tiers
The biggest differences between the three levels is a jump in total medical coverage (75k, 250k, 500k) and lost luggage reimbursement ($750, $1,000, $2,000). If you’re traveling with a lot of expensive camera gear (and who isn’t these days) or a tricked out portable digital nomad setup with an expensive computer, get the Preferred Travel Insurance.
It might seem small, but the jump from $750 to $2,000 for lost or damaged items is actually far more significant than the 75k – 500k medical insurance bump. You’re more likely to break your camera, than your leg, and $75,000 is already pretty hefty medical insurance.
There are a few more subtle differences between the levels if you want to get granular. You can add “cancel any time trip” cancellation to Preferred coverage for an extra $75, but each plan already has a built in trip cancellation sliding scale ($5,000 up to $50,000). Economy doesn’t have “missed connection” reimbursement, and only Preferred provides car rental insurance coverage, so you’ll need to see which works best for you.
Plus Side: Each option includes more than 100% reimbursement (125%, 150%, and 200%) for “trip interruption” which is pretty great. That basically means, that HTH understands that missing out an activity is about more than just the money out of pocket—it’s about putting a price on missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So if you miss that African safari, you might actually make a little money to numb the sting.
Travel Insurance Fine Print: “Per Article Limit”
As a writer, videographer, and digital nomad, I carry a lot of expensive gear with me when I travel. DSLR camera, microphones, GoPro (with all the gadgets), laptop, external HD—the list goes on. If my bag is lost in transit (I always fly carry on, so that’s not gonna happen), or I get robbed, I want to know that I’ll get some money back for my livelihood.
That’s why I always choose travel insurance with coverage up to $3,000.
Typically, most “Basic” packages have a claim limit of $1,000, which just isn’t enough for all my fancy pants stuff. But it all depends on you. If you’re a t-shirt and paperback traveler, skip the spinning rims and stick with basic coverage. The medical coverage is usually about the same ($50,000-$100,000)
Per Article Limit: You Sneaky, Bastard
If you do opt for more coverage, make sure you watch out for one insidious insurance term:
Per Article Limit.
I can’t stress this enough: Baggage loss/damage sections are super complicated and at the same time brutally specific. Know your policy.
A low per article limit—say, $100—on your policy means that even though your gear may be covered up to $5,000 (a very high limit), you can only claim $100 for each lost or stolen item.
- $1,500 MacBook Pro? $100
- $2,500 Canon 5D Mark III: $100
Per article limits are absolute crap, and I’d hesitate to buy coverage that sets out to nickle and dime you.
Cancellation, Interruption, and Missed Connection
Travel is a fickle mistress, eh? Which is why we love her. *French man in a beret smokes cigarette* Planes are late, cabs get lost, and mules wander off. If you’re inexperienced enough to plan the entire trip in advance, make sure you get trip interruption coverage.
The right travel insurance can reimburse you thousands of dollars for prepaid accommodation and travel, but only if you know the difference between these three important terms:
- Trip Cancellation
- Trip Interruption
- Missed Connection
“Cancellation” occurs before you travel, and usually involves sickness, injury, death of a loved one, or inclement weather, or natural disasters (your Fiji hotel gets hit by a hurricane).
A good cancellation policy ($10,000) is why some people buy their insurance months in advance. However, if you’re looking to save money, and have flexible travel dates, you can get low (or no) coverage in this section without it affecting your trip at all, because once you leave, this section becomes irrelevant.
This is when your trip hits a snag during your trip. It’s the most likely type of hassle. The rule of thumb here is to cover at least a week of travel that you’ve already prepaid for. $2,000-$3,000 is standard for basic plans, and quickly escalates for premium packages. It all depends on how fancy you are.
- Two-week European backpacking trip: low interruption coverage
- Worldwide RTW 5-star Honeymoon Package: maximum coverage
This one is super tricky, so read the fine print. Often times the only reimbursement is for cruises, with some air travel thrown in. Seriously. Cruises are apparently elusive. I should know—I used to work on one.
Usually a missed connection claim only works if the reason you miss your flight/cruise is because of bad weather. So if you oversleep, you’re probably S.O.L.
Travel Insurance Through a Credit Card
Something a lot of people don’t know is that you probably already have travel insurance. Rolled into your credit card.
About 15% of credit cards have built in travel insurance (aka trip interruption insurance), so call your credit card company and check. I know. I just said “call” in 2018. But this is one of the times that phone number on the back of your card comes in handy.
Chase has one of the best credit card travel insurance plans, with Sapphire members getting trip cancellation and interruption insurance for “severe weather.” It’s not great, but it’s something. You can even get up to $10,000 back per trip for “prepaid, non-refundable travel expenses, like flights, tours, and hotels.”
Bonus: If your flight is delayed more than 12 hours, or requires an overnight stay at a hotel, Chase will pay for meals and lodging of up to $500 per passenger. Which is awesome.
Citi provides trip cancellation and interruption protection for severe illness or weather-related reasons and non-refundable expenses may be reimbursed, including change fees. You can even get back up to $5,000 for “non-refundable trip expenses” if you bought the trip with the Citi card.
One possibility is to buy travel insurance through American Express—just like the other travel insurance providers. Basic coverage starts at $59 for our hypothetical 30-year old on a 2-week trip.
The plan isn’t awesome (baggage coverage is only $250), but it includes decent medical and dental coverage, and American Express offers trip cancellation insurance (if you bought your trip with your card) for bad weather, natural disasters, and if you or a family member are unexpectedly and seriously sick or injured.
Bonus: Labor disputes that affect travel services are covered so get this coverage if you go to France. Seriously though.
How to Buy the Best Travel Insurance Ever
Everyone needs different insurance. There is no catch-all package. So, the best way to buy travel insurance that actually covers you (and your stuff)—for an affordable price—is to decide what’s most important. Prioritize one thing.
If medical coverage—hospital bills, medical evac, zero deductible, etc.—is all that matters, get a well-reviewed insurance package with at least $250,000 in coverage. There are plenty of options.
Fear for Your Gear
If you work on the road (like me), and your gear is your life, find a plan with no Per Article Limits and high Baggage Loss/Theft coverage ($3,000-$5,000). Then you can swing your camera over your shoulder and hike out to the middle of nowhere with a bounce in your step.
If you’ve pre-booked your entire trip, and some of the connections are tight, or you’ve been reading a lot about monsoon season and you’re starting to freak out, make sure you have an iron clad Trip Cancellation clause (some companies reimburse you for more than 100% of your trip if weather ruins things), as well as Trip Interruption.
Taking a cruise? Make sure you’re covered by a Missed Connection clause for the value of your cruise.
Don’t Insure Your Entire Trip
Warning: This is a “break glass in case of emergency” kind of hack and isn’t for the faint of heart, but a great way to save money is to only insure half of your trip. Let me finish.
Often times I travel with a one-way ticket, and very uncertain travel plans. I like to have the flexibility to stay put, go somewhere spur of the moment, or even call it a day and head home. I’ve headed out for what was originally a 3-month trip, only to have it go all wrong and be back home after a month. I’ve also had the same trip extend into a two-year RTW romp.
Sounds like I need insurance, right? I do. But not for the entire trip. The last thing you want is to pay for insurance you don’t use.
Split the Cost
In a hypothetical trip I might stay on for an additional month to hike the Camino de Santiago in Spain. That’s a totally different trip than drinking vermouth in Tuscany. It requires different medical coverage, less gear coverage (you don’t hike with expensive laptops), and possibly extreme coverage for mountain climbing and medical evac. etc.
So, instead of paying for two months of very expensive comprehensive coverage, I insure my first month of travel with basic coverage, then either extend while I’m in Italy sunning myself with the click of a button, or I re-up with a new provider, or expand on my existing coverage.
Here’s an insider travel secret from the pros: Travel Insurance companies want you to buy more coverage.
Extend Coverage As You Go
Extending your coverage if your trip goes long, is easy to do and they’ll practically drool if you say you want to up your protection mid-trip. World Nomads even sends you an email reminder when your travel insurance is a week away from expiring. It’s awesome. The one thing you can’t do is downgrade.
If penny pinching is a huge concern, or you haven’t nailed down your budget and the thought of spending tons of cash up front bums you out, get basic coverage for the first leg of your trip and see how it goes.
Try before you buy. You can always get more.
TL;DR Insurance is Important
Travel insurance is just a part of how we travel. Everyone travels like the Little Mermaid now—a smartphone worth hundreds of dollars, cameras worth even more, laptops, hard drives, and gizmos. Everyone is a rock climber now (which is awesome), and everyone’s plans fall through from time to time.
Don’t travel in fear that something might go wrong, because, spoiler: it totally will. If you have travel insurance—with the right kind of coverage for your trip—you won’t have to sweat the small (or big) things, and you can go back to thinking about what a freaking wonderful, exciting world we live in.
- Get medical coverage over $250,000
- Keep the deductible low. $0 is great if you can get it
- Baggage Loss/Theft coverage of $3,000 is ideal
- Know your per article limit
- Understand the difference between trip cancellation and interruption
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