Travel Insurance: How to Prepare for the Unexpected on Vacation

Lost luggage, cancelled flights, bad weather — we’ve all hit snags during a vacation. Here’s how you can be a savvy, prepared traveler the next time your trip takes an unexpected turn.

No one packs their bags for a trip expecting a disaster. But let’s face it: the most carefully made vacation plans can be foiled by unforeseen events, such as epic snowstorms, misplaced luggage or a stomach bug.

However, I’ve learned through my share of less-than-ideal vacation experiences how to weather unfortunate travel circumstances. Here’s how you can successfully roll with the punches, too.

Our Cautionary Tale

Our Christmas vacation years ago on Spain’s Costa del Sol is still family lore, mostly due to the sheer number of things that went wrong. What should have been a sunny, relaxing 10-day stay on the Mediterranean coast — drinking Spanish wine and enjoying fresh seafood alfresco — turned into a traveler’s nightmare.

Our trip began with a blizzard that shut down most East Coast airports, cancelling hundreds of flights (including ours) and sending waves of ruined itineraries rippling across the globe. When my family finally arrived in Málaga after 36 hours of stressful travel time, we discovered the airline had lost both my brothers’ suitcases (which did not arrive at the destination until two weeks later.) Unsure whether the airline would cover the cost of new clothes, my brothers spent most the vacation borrowing my dad’s clothes, even though none of them wear the same size. I will admit the clothes swapping made for some giggle-worthy family photos.

But that’s not all: we also experienced Spain’s rainiest winter in the last 40 years (which resulted in cancelled outdoor activities), my brother got the flu and I lost my credit card.

My father still interprets this experience as a cautionary tale of why one should stay home during the winter holidays. But I’ve since realized the value of a simple travel insurance package. It wouldn’t have changed the weather or delivered our luggage, but it would have covered some of the expenses and helped us vacation with less stress.

A Positive Experience with Travel Insurance

Having learned from my Spanish vacation, I now purchase travel insurance specifically for each trip. It insures my travels for anywhere from a few days to a few months for an affordable price. Depending on the plan, insurance might cover either some or all of the cost of cancelled flights, lost luggage, severe weather, medical expenses and even emergency evacuation. Travel insurance for my family’s Christmas trip could have paid for a hotel during our delayed flight, new clothes for my brothers, and even the cost of cancelled activities.

It came in handy during what was supposed to be a quick weekend trip to London in 2010 with a friend. While I was there, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, sending up ash that disrupted flights all over Europe. Our flights were cancelled and the airline told us that flight paths would not clear for a couple of days. Initially we were dismayed, but we decided to make the best of the situation. After all, there are worse places to be stranded. Fortunately, our bosses were understanding and allowed us extra days off from work.

My travel insurance plan covered expenses for a hotel, transportation and meals up to a certain dollar amount. So my friend and I booked a night’s stay, grabbed a wonderful Italian dinner and snagged last minute tickets to see a musical. The next day we killed some time strolling through a museum, then took a train to the airport. Insurance covered everything besides the show and museum.

Since that experience, travel insurance has become a must for me, especially on international trips. The way I see it, I work too hard and spend too much time planning my travels for an unforeseen event to ruin my precious time away.

Quick Tips:

When purchasing travel insurance, read the fine print. Plans vary on what and how much they cover depending on the company and your package. It helps to know what you can count on before you get into a stressful situation.

How to Become a Travel Pro

In addition to travel insurance, planning ahead can help avert a travel disaster. Here are a handful things you can do to ensure smooth sailing.

  • Know your airline’s lost luggage policy. Lost luggage happens, and under certain circumstances, the airline will reimburse you for the cost of replacement clothes during your trip. Know the policy, the replacement limits and always keep your receipts!
  • If you’ve checked your luggage, be smart about your carry-on and pack a change of clothes and basic toiletries. That way, if your checked bags go missing, you can still put on clean clothes and brush your teeth.
  • If possible, plan to have at least one day between the end of your trip and when you need to go back to work or school. This will act as a buffer in case travel plans go awry.
  • Tell your credit card company you’re traveling so they can monitor for fraudulent activity. If you travel often, get a travel-focused card that features trip insurance benefits.
  • Bring basic medicines on international trips, especially if you have a sensitive stomach. I always pack Imodium, Pepto-Bismol, ibuprofen and allergy medicines; I never know when I’ll get hit with a bug, and navigating the healthcare system and pharmacies in foreign countries can be confusing.

While we all hope we’ll never need to fall back on our contingency plans, preparing for the unexpected can make the difference between a disaster and a great travel story.

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Melanie W. is a writer living Denver, Colorado.