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Does travel insurance cover pandemics?

March 29, 2021
7 min read
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More than a quarter of the population of the U.S. has received at least one COVID-19 vaccination as of this week, and all those shots in arms seem to be directly correlating to a surge in travel.

In fact, the number of passengers in U.S. airports reached their highest numbers in more than a year last week according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Whether you’re vaccinated or not, concerns about new strains of the coronavirus are high, so it’s not surprising to hear that inquiries about travel insurance have also hit their highest level since the pandemic began, according to InsureMyTrip.

However, “there is a big misconception about what travel insurance does — and doesn't — cover,” said Meghan Walch, pandemic travel insurance expert for InsureMyTrip. In the company’s latest poll of travel insurance agents, the vast majority of questions (a whopping 97%) from would-be travelers are regarding how travel insurance may or may not cover COVID-19 related travel concerns.

So, does your travel insurance cover a pandemic? Here’s everything you need to know.

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Why travel insurance usually doesn't cover epidemics and pandemics

In general terms, regular travel insurance policies cover the “unknowns” — for example, an accident you couldn’t have anticipated in advance, such as falling while you were hiking and breaking your leg — and not losses caused directly or indirectly by known or foreseeable events (in this case, an epidemic complete with government travel advisories).

Similar to a weather event, once something becomes "known" it may not be a covered reason for cancellation if a traveler purchases insurance after that date.

In other words, if you purchased travel after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, you’ve entered “known” territory, the same as deciding to fly into the eye of a hurricane.

Related: Avoiding outbreaks isn’t covered by most travel insurance

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What travel insurance normally covers

“Essentially, travel insurance covers unexpected events during your travels and pre-departure starting the effective date of your policy,” said Christina Tunnah, general manager of the Americas of travel insurance company World Nomads.

According to Tunnah, regular travel insurance breaks down into three main categories:

  • The protection of your pocketbook (investment in flights, delays, interruption, cancellation)
  • The protection of yourself (emergency medical and evacuation)
  • The protection of your belongings (delayed and lost bags, theft)

Many credit cards also offer travel protection. Covered situations, maximum coverage amounts and eligible expenses vary across the cards that offer this benefit. Covered situations typically include accidental bodily injury; loss of life or sickness; severe weather; terrorist action or hijacking and jury duty or a court subpoena that can't be postponed or waived.

Related: The best credit cards with complimentary travel protection

Are some insurers covering COVID-19?

Not all the news on the COVID-19 insurance front is negative. According to Walch, many traditional travel insurance policies will cover your COVID-19 related travel concerns if you meet regular guidelines.

Examples of COVID-19 coverage in traditional plans include:

  • If you must visit a doctor or hospital during a trip due to a COVID-19 illness
  • If you get sick with COVID-19 and must cancel a trip
  • If a physician orders you to quarantine before a trip
  • If you lost a job during the coronavirus pandemic by no fault of your own

In addition, some plans are now offering higher travel delay limits in order to help with additional accommodation expenses due to a covered quarantine, adds Walch.

And, there are also some individual insurers that are simply covering COVID-19 outright. For example, World Nomads’ plans cover the diagnosis of COVID-19 the same as any other illness with benefits that could include emergency medical care, emergency medical evacuation, trip delay and trip interruption coverage if you contract COVID-19 while traveling.

How to find a plan that covers COVID-19

First of all, you should look in the exclusion section to see if pandemics or epidemics are mentioned. If so, you’ll need to shop around for a different policy, said Tunnah.

Even though travel insurance companies may offer COVID-19 sickness coverage, they typically don’t offer benefits for every circumstance.

“Every policy is different, so you’ll want to get a good grasp of a plan’s coverage before you purchase it,” Tunnah explained. Some of the questions you should ask yourself are: Does the plan cover emergency medical and evacuation expenses if I contract COVID-19? What are covered reasons for cancellation? What if my trip is delayed or interrupted because of a COVID-19 event?

If you’re getting confused from reading the legal jargon of a policy, you can contact the customer service department of your travel insurance company, Tunnah advised. Representatives should be able to provide plain English explanations of coverage and help you identify a plan that meets your specific trip needs.

To see multiple options in one place, InsureMyTrip has a COVID-19 coverage tool that allows you to compare different policies.

Here’s what you should be looking for according to the company:

  • Trip cancellation coverage: While traditional trip cancellation does not allow a traveler to cancel a trip due to COVID-19 fears, it may cover a traveler in the event they get sick from COVID-19 and must cancel a trip.
  • Trip interruption coverage: In the event a traveler gets sick from COVID-19 and the trip is interrupted, this coverage may apply.
  • Cancel for any reason coverage: If eligible, this protection allows travelers the option to cancel a trip due to concerns over COVID-19, whereas traditional trip cancellation coverage does not (see below for more details).

Cancel for any reason insurance could be your best option

Cancel for any reason, also known as CFAR in the insurance industry, is an add-on to certain traditional trip insurance policies.

While travel insurance policies can offer a range of inclusions (think: medical evacuation, trip cancellation due to foreign or domestic terrorism or rental car damage) not every eventuality is included in all insurance policies. For example, some trip insurance plans cover employment layoffs while others do not. Some policies may have robust emergency medical coverage while competitors don’t. That’s why it’s so important for you to select a plan that meets your specific needs for each trip.

One commonality among insurance policies? A long lists of exclusions. That’s where a CFAR policy comes into play.

"InsureMyTrip strongly recommends travelers strongly consider a CFAR upgrade," said Walch. This upgrade offers the most trip cancellation flexibility and is the only option available to cover "fear of travel" (traditional travel insurance does not offer cancellation coverage for “fear of travel,” whether related to COVID-19 or not).

If eligibility requirements are met, reimbursement is typically up to 70% of the pre-paid, nonrefundable trip cost. “Just be aware that this add-on will increase the cost of the plan," Walch advised.

Some countries are requiring mandatory insurance for entry

Even in pre-pandemic times, many countries required travelers to have personal medical insurance to visit (although you weren’t necessarily required to provide proof). Now, with pandemic concerns, some countries are instituting mandatory COVID-19 insurance for entry.

The Bahamas is one example. Travel health insurance is required for all incoming visitors and the cost for the mandatory insurance is included in the price of the Travel Health Visa all tourists are required to apply for before entry. Aruba is another example where COVID-19 insurance is purchased onsite at arrival and mandatory for entry.

Note that these insurance coverage policies just are for medical coverage, so travelers will still need additional coverage to cover non-health-related expenses such as travel delays or lost baggage.

Bottom line

If you’re planning on traveling during a pandemic, don’t assume that your usual travel insurance will cover you. Be sure to compare different insurance policies. and strongly consider Cancel For Any Reason insurance if you want to make sure your trip costs are covered.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.