"Ask the Expert": How Do I Find the Right Travel Insurance for Our Long-Awaited Vacation?

With oil spewing in the Gulf, and ash clouding the skies over Europe, travelers are understandably worried about natural events or disasters spoiling their summer vacations. One reader asks for help in choosing the right travel insurance policy.

Q: My wife and I are planning a long-put-off holiday, but I’m worried that a natural disaster, or health crisis, or some other calamity will interrupt our vacation. What travel insurance coverage should we choose?

A: With oil spewing in the Gulf, and ash clouding the skies over Europe, your concerns about a natural event or disaster spoiling your vacation are understandable.

You can easily purchase travel insurance by clicking a button on travel websites such as Expedia.com, Travelovity.com and Orbitz.com, but shop around first. Your first stop should be your own credit-card issuer — many card companies provide some type of limited travel insurance, such a reimbursement for lost baggage or car-rental insurance coverage.

For peace of mind, however, consider a more comprehensive travel insurance policy to cover you for the unexpected. You can find policy quotes, and detailed breakdowns on coverage, at comparison-shopping websites such as InsureMyTrip.com and Squaremouth.com. Premiums vary by the level of coverage, but generally you’ll pay between 5 percent and 8 percent of the cost of your trip.

Typical policies will cover travel cancellations, disruptions and delays, or certain personal property losses you may suffer during your trip. The key to choosing the right policy is to understand what’s not covered. For example, if you have a pre-existing condition, you may not be covered in the event of a related illness. Also, insurance may cover costs related to trip cancellations, but non-refundable airfare is generally just that — non-refundable. Take the time to read the policy, and ask questions about coverage exclusions or limitations so you know what’s covered before you buy.

Also invest the time to make sure the company you’re dealing with is reputable. You can find current financial-security ratings for insurance firms at insurance-ratings agency A.M. Best. If the insurer has a weak rating — or no ranking at all – on A.M. Best, run, don’t walk. You can also check the U.S. Travel Insurance Association website to make sure your agent is legit.

If you’ve already purchased a policy and you’re unhappy with the coverage, there may still be time to cancel. Legitimate travel insurance companies offer a grace period for you to review your policy and return it for a refund if you’re not satisfied.

Finally, if you or your traveling companion suffer a health emergency that is likely to result in filing a claim, make sure a separate, non-related physician is consulted at the time of the incident. And, as with any travel-related incident, make sure you keep careful documentation to support your claim.