TPG’s comprehensive guide to independent travel insurance — including coronavirus coverage
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information since its original publication date of Feb. 24, 2016.
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We’ve begun a new year, but the coronavirus pandemic rages on. As tourism remains closed across most of the world, and countries and cities maintain lockdown mode, thousands of travelers are wondering what to do about rescheduled, canceled and deferred trips.
If your plans have been affected by COVID-19, or you’re concerned about future outbreaks down the road, can an independent travel insurance plan help you recoup your sunk costs? Our comprehensive guide tells you everything you need to know about current restrictions, coverage options, and the potential future of travel insurance.
If you’re familiar with third-party travel insurance plans, the section below offers a highlights summary of everything coronavirus. If you’re just learning about trip protection now, we suggest reading through the rest of the guide below to familiarize yourself with your options for coverage.
Trip insurance and the coronavirus: Here’s what you need to know
We’ll give you the bad news first: Your current insurance plan probably won’t reimburse you for coronavirus-related travel mishaps. This holds true whether your plan is included with your credit card, or was purchased from a third-party underwriter.
Unless specifically stated otherwise, most insurance providers consider COVID-19 to be a “foreseen event,” according to insurance company Squaremouth. Once an event is foreseen, travelers can no longer purchase trip cancellation insurance benefits.
While it’s true that trip insurance covers illness and emergency evacuations, the coronavirus epidemic does not fall under the qualifying criteria unless you personally have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, which falls under the typical clauses on illness.
Travel insurance doesn’t cover cancellations from airlines, restricted country entrance guidelines based on coronavirus-related border closures or many of the new reasons why you might not be able to complete a trip as planned.
Standard plan coverage includes accidental bodily injury; loss of life or sickness; severe weather; terrorist action or hijacking; and jury duty or a court subpoena that cannot be postponed or waived. In other words, if you aren’t sick, you won’t be reimbursed for canceled flights that leave you stranded, hotel bookings you have to abandon or even alternative transportation you have to purchase last-minute.
Some airlines now offer free coronavirus coverage — but even if you qualify, your coverage and benefits are often quite limited.
How many insurance plans offer COVID coverage?
Your insurance options will vary depending on your destination, trip duration and many other factors. However, let’s show you an example in action.
In the screenshot below, you’ll see that a traveler purchasing insurance for a hypothetical two-month stay in Mexico in summer 2021 has 39 plans to choose from.
However, someone looking for COVID-specific coverage would be limited to just five options, per the screenshot below.
Furthermore, costs and coverage vary significantly between the COVID-covered plans. A comprehensive plan will set back the traveler by $635, while a basic plan with emergency coverage for serious COVID issues only costs $63.
So if you’re worried about losing money on a trip due to coronavirus coverage, what should you do?
Haven’t left home yet? Purchase “cancel for any reason” or COVID-specific coverage before you go.
If you’re planning for a trip in the near future, you may still be able to purchase coverage now. But while you can usually purchase basic travel insurance up to 24 hours before departure, most premium add-ons such as “cancel for any reason” coverage must be purchased within a certain number of days from when you made your initial trip payment. Premium vacation plans with “no matter what” refund policies often cost more than 12% of your total trip expenses.
So if you’re feeling brave and decide to book a trip in faith right now, a “cancel for any reason” insurance plan is a good investment to hedge your bets. If you’ve already had a trip planned for some time but haven’t purchased insurance yet, do some research to see if you’re still within the grace period for purchasing a full coverage policy.
With Squaremouth travel insurance, for example, you’ll have to purchase “cancel for any reason” insurance within 14-21 days of making your initial payment on vacation expenses, and you also have to insure 100% of your trip costs in addition to canceling your trip at least 48 hours before departure time to receive a refund of up to 75% of the trip cost.
If you’re only concerned about worst-case scenarios, consider a medical evacuation plan
As of Jan. 26, 2021, travelers entering the U.S. must provide proof that they’re COVID-negative before boarding their international flight into the country. However, a flurry of concerns have arisen in the wake of the order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): What if a traveler is asymptomatic, or the test result is a false positive? Where can tests be found last-minute? If a traveler can’t return home, who foots the bill for unexpected expenses?
Enter companies like COVAC GLOBAL, which offer COVID-positive travelers a way to get home without flouting CDC requirements.
While commercial, private and charter flight passengers are all subject to the health requirements, medical transports are exempt. Thus, COVAC’s insurance policy offers customers the guarantee of a private flight home on a medical transport aircraft, provided the traveler holds a positive PCR test result and shows at least one COVID symptom.
COVAC’s unique plan rates begin as low as $27 per person per day (on the 90-day membership), although travelers must purchase a minimum of 15 days’ coverage at once. But customers can utilize the coverage days however they like: A four-day trip this month would mean 11 days of coverage left over for future travel.
As with other forms of insurance, however, travelers can’t purchase a COVAC plan when they test positive; plans require a 14-day delay between purchase and effective date.
Medjet is another popular evacuation company offering coverage that’s different from typical travel insurance. Travelers who hold Medjet memberships can be transferred to their home hospital of choice, regardless of medical necessity. Even better: Your Medjet membership doesn’t exclude adventure travel, has very few exclusions and no preexisting condition exclusions for travelers under 75 — many of the disqualifications people face when shopping for travel insurance coverage.
What if I’m afraid to travel?
Unfortunately, risk aversion isn’t a covered reason for insurance protection. Even a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alert for your destination won’t be sufficient for most plans to offer financial relief.
Under what situations might I qualify for trip protection?
- If your doctor issues a note stating that you’re medically unfit to fly, this may be sufficient to invoke the “cancel for medical reasons” clause of your policy. Of course, this outcome will vary greatly from insurance provider and policy to doctor and heavily depends on the state of your health. But if you’re immunocompromised and can prove you will suffer high risk from germ exposure, a robust travel insurance policy might help you recoup some of your lost travel costs.
- If you’ve been quarantined for safety precautions but ultimately don’t get sick, your insurance may cover your unexpected costs under the “trip cancellation and interruption” clause on your insurance plan. How can you tell? Your plan will list “quarantine” as a covered reason if so.
Should I just stay at home?
Travel isn’t canceled for 2021. However, restrictions and complexities keep piling up, particularly for travelers hoping to go abroad over the coming months. The pandemic is still raging, and many countries have either closed their borders or implemented daunting entrance requirements for travelers hoping to visit. In fact, even U.S. passport holders will need to provide a negative COVID test before returning home, as of Jan. 26, 2021.
Whether or not you should stay home is a personal decision, to be made with your doctors and with your community in mind. If you are in frequent contact with high-risk individuals, it might behoove you to postpone your trip until it’s safe again.
But whether you stay or you go, travel insurance will help give you peace of mind: If you cancel or postpone, you’ll be able to get your money back. And if you do travel, that plan will help you get home safely and cover your expenses — just in case.
Want to learn more about trip protection? Keep reading our guide to independent travel insurance below.
What is independent travel insurance, and when do I need it?
More than ever, travelers need to be prepared for times when travel plans go awry, like I experienced on a trip to Italy in the summer of 2018 (more on that below).
Yet terms like travel insurance, trip protection and cancellation insurance are often used interchangeably, and it can be difficult to tell if your credit card benefits offer sufficient peace of mind for big or complex trips.
A travel insurance plan buys you peace of mind
In a nutshell, travel insurance protects your financial investment in a trip: If your domestic flight is delayed, a service like Freebird previously could help you get on another flight, sometimes even through another airline. (Unfortunately, Freebird is no longer a current option in 2021 due to the COVID-19 crisis, but it isn’t dead: Capital One now owns the company and technology.)
But you won’t be reimbursed for other consequences of your flight delay; for instance, you usually can’t get your money back for a missed hotel stay resulting from your delayed flight.
Your premium credit card benefits usually offer plenty of protection for your average domestic weekend getaway. But while card benefits vary, many only cover transportation-related cancellation or interruption costs in the event of illness, injury or death.
Furthermore, most credit card-based benefits only cover expenses and activities paid with that particular credit card. Finally, credit card terms and conditions may limit you to a certain number of claims or maximum reimbursement amount within 12 months.
If you’re dizzy from considering all of the exclusions and exceptions, you’re a great candidate for a travel insurance plan.
You can purchase a third-party plan for pretty much any kind of trip, which will cover every aspect of your travel from the transportation and hotel stays to the tours and excursions — even emergency and medical coverage. Or you could purchase a bare-bones plan that just offers catastrophic coverage in the event of something truly disastrous.
At a minimum, a good travel insurance plan should cover your costs in the event of canceled, delayed or interrupted transportation; any medical expenses and emergency evacuations; as well as any costs associated with lost or delayed luggage.
Where should I shop for travel insurance?
Independent travel insurance plans can be purchased from underwriters such as Allianz and WorldNomads, and typically offer coverage that’s more comprehensive than the protection included with your credit card.
You can expect your insurance plan to cost between 4–12% of your total trip expenses, depending on the plan you purchase. So if you spent $1,000 on your next vacation, for example, expect to pay between $40–$120 for a good travel plan, in exchange for your peace of mind.
But not all plans and protection are created equal. Third-party travel insurance plans also differ from the trip protection add-on you can buy through your airline. Airline trip protection typically costs more and covers less than a travel policy purchased through a dedicated underwriter.
Additionally, airline trip protection only covers the flight-related portion of your travel and specifically targets delays or cancellations relevant to natural disasters, or dire circumstances such as a death in the family. Finally, as we saw above, not all plans include COVID coverage, so you’ll need to keep that in mind when shopping your options.
- Will future travel insurance plans include coronavirus protection?
- Not sure where to begin your travel plan search? Check out this helpful cost comparison guide from TPG’s Katie Genter.
I’m a big fan of InsureMyTrip.com, which offers an easy, straightforward way to compare plans, prices, ratings and some other factors side by side. You can either purchase insurance that covers specific trip dates or look into plans that cover various durations — three months, six months, even up to a year.
Usually, the basic requirement is that all coverage kicks in only if you are located more than 100 miles from the home address listed in your plan. You can’t, for instance, misplace your purse between your home and your local coffee shop and claim that as a “travel-related loss.”
Whatever you do, don’t buy the “travel insurance” offered on the airline checkout page when you’re purchasing your next flight. While the plan may be offered through a reputable underwriter such as AIG in the example below, you’ll pay about the same amount for a plan that isn’t offered through the airline — thus maintaining a lot more flexibility to select terms that make sense for you.
Not sure what those terms should be? Keep reading…
What does each category of coverage offer?
Trip cancellation coverage targets any non-refundable portions of your trip, from transportation to excursions and hotel stays.
Most hotels and tour groups have very strict rules regarding last-minute cancellations or missed travel, so you most likely will not be able to get a refund if a canceled or delayed flight prevents you from reaching your destination. If you’ve planned a full, expensive vacation with many moving parts and tight connections, travel insurance is the best way to protect your investment.
Most underwriters offer comprehensive lists of individual excursions and activities they cover in each of your destinations. If you need complete peace of mind, you can opt for pricier “cancel for any reason” or “cancel for work reasons” plans, which will offer the most flexibility.
Trip interruption coverage is very similar to cancellation coverage, differing only in the timeframe within which it kicks in. If you’re already partially through your trip and need to change your itinerary, head home early or reroute your plans, the plan will reimburse you for the unused portion of your trip, as well as additional costs for last-minute travel changes.
Medical expenses can encompass anything from a saline-drip IV for heat exhaustion to serious injuries treated in the emergency room or a hospital overseas, as well as related expenses such as emergency helicopter airlifts. Most health insurance plans in the U.S. don’t cover international incidents or needs that arise, and a travel insurance plan can provide coverage for accidents and illnesses while abroad.
Emergency evacuation coverage can easily save you tens of thousands in out-of-pocket expenses if you need an unexpected helicopter airlift, medically equipped flights home or ambulance transportation to a local hospital.
Lost or delayed luggage, and delayed flights — Many credit cards now offer trip delay protection and lost baggage reimbursement, so this perk is one of the smaller side benefits of purchasing independent travel insurance.
However, an independent travel insurance plan will not only reimburse you for expenses incurred as a result of a flight delay that causes you to miss your connection, but will also cover the cost of affected expenses such as a non-refundable hotel room for the missed night, or an excursion you booked for the day following a missed flight. Most credit card benefits only extend to the baggage and contents themselves.
Additional coverage options
If you need or want more robust insurance for peace of mind, underwriters also offer add-on options for:
- Life insurance
- Hazardous sports
- Rental car collision
- Identity theft
Note that death/dismemberment insurance and rental car coverage are frequently offered with many credit cards, so check your card benefits before purchasing these add-ons to avoid redundant coverage.
When travel insurance plans are a great idea
Still confused by everything? Here are a few scenarios in which travel insurance might make sense for you:
You’re traveling in a group, especially with small children
You may find yourself needing a lot of flexibility for last-minute changes if traveling with your family, or any time you book travel for multiple people at once. A few hundred dollars spent on a good policy can save you thousands in otherwise-sunk costs in the event of an emergency.
When traveling with her niece or nephews overseas, Shannon O’Donnell of A Little Adrift purchased insurance plans that, among other protections, covered travel costs for a back-up guardian in case she became incapacitated for any reason — a scenario that doesn’t typically occur to most travelers.
You need medical protection overseas
If you plan to hike Machu Picchu, backpack your way through Southeast Asia or undertake any other equally adventurous trip, it can be a good idea to look into medical evacuation coverage against the unlikely scenario that you need to be airlifted to a hospital or treated for emergency surgery.
Most credit card benefits don’t offer robust medical expense or evacuation coverage, so if you need that coverage for peace of mind, it’s only a few dollars more for comprehensive travel insurance. Medicare doesn’t offer any international assistance, and U.S.-based private health insurance plans offer little to no coverage for international travel. Countries with universal health care may offer some basic help, but they aren’t obligated to do so, especially if you aren’t a citizen.
You’re planning a complex trip with many moving parts
You might be able to wiggle yourself out of a missed connection snafu. But why bother, if you can buy assurance for a few bucks?
There are a few ways you can purchase insurance, even if you’re planning a long-term trip.
In 2015, Connie Wang quit her job to travel the world for 15 months by stringing together a series of shorter trips across 47 countries and six continents. Instead of purchasing one giant insurance plan for the full year, she purchased individual plans for each leg of her travels through World Nomads as she went. Purchasing insurance this way lessened her upfront travel expenses and simplified the stress of planning each activity months in advance.
However, many travel agents and full-time nomads prefer to purchase annual insurance coverage, such as the year-round plan offered by TravelGuard. With an annual policy, you can book a trip in the next 30 minutes without the additional stress of scrambling for last-minute coverage.
When purchasing travel insurance may be unnecessary
On the flip side, there are plenty of trips where a separate insurance plan would be overkill. Here are a few examples:
You’re traveling on a domestic flight worth $300 or less, and staying with friends or family
Usually, a trip of this cost won’t be worth the additional cost of a travel insurance plan. In this situation, your credit card trip delay protection will most likely prove more than sufficient to cover any expenses incurred as a result of travel delays.
Your trip is refundable
If you book a flight through an airline like Southwest, a travel insurance underwriter may see that the airline issued travel credit for the value of a canceled ticket, and refuse to further reimburse you for your sunk travel costs.
While many of us purchase non-refundable flights these days, this would also be the case if you purchase a fully-refundable premium-cabin flight in cash. For example, an underwriter may ask why you didn’t pursue a refund with the airline directly instead.
You’re traveling on award bookings
Insurance companies will only reimburse your actual spend, not the value of your seat. A round-trip Singapore Suites ticket may be worth $13,000 but when your underwriter sees that you only paid $203 in fees, your financial return on insurance investment will be very low.
Instead, look into your airline’s policies regarding canceled or missed award travel for help. In some cases, you may be eligible for a partial or full refund, although redeposit fees will often apply. Cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card are eligible for compensation on award redemptions.
You rarely plan big, complicated or dangerous trips
Many cards limit protection claims under a certain dollar amount within 12 months. So if you’ve already filed a large insurance claim with your credit card company within the past year, independent travel insurance might be a wise purchase to consider for your next trip.
But if you’re only on the road once or twice a year, those limited protection claims might be sufficient for your needs.
How to find and purchase travel insurance
Katie Warner, CEO of Lucid Routes, recommends travelers price-shop for insurance as soon as they make their initial trip payment so they can take full advantage of the maximum period for cancellation coverage.
The most important first step is to figure out your coverage priorities and identify the most important criteria for your trip. For example, when Shannon O’Donnell purchased a comprehensive plan for her around-the-world trip, she sought out a policy that would cover the cost of an emergency guardian for her 11-year-old niece if anything happened to O’Donnell.
You can determine the key coverages you need by browsing a list and selecting the top two or three; use them as filtering criteria when comparing insurance quotes.
Once you’ve established what you need in an insurance plan, utilize a reputable comparison site such as InsureMyTrip, which includes reviews for every insurance company plan it recommends. You can select the travel and activities for which you need insurance, using drop-down menus on the website to receive an instant quote.
WorldNomads is one of the most popular underwriters among solo world travelers, endorsed by the likes of Lonely Planet and similar backpacker guides. However, you may find that AIG, Nationwide or Allianz offer more competitive prices for your bachelor cruise or family vacation to Disneyland.
How much will travel insurance cost?
Depending on the package you select, expect to pay between 4 to 8% of your total prepaid, non-refundable trip expenses. Basic plans for peace of mind can cost less than 4%, while premium vacation plans that cover just about any conceivable issue can cost more than 12% of your total trip expenses. Travel medical insurance is sold based on the duration of your travels, and can be as low as a few dollars per day.
Note that travel insurance purchases typically do not code as travel on your credit card statement.
All reputable insurance companies will offer a “free-look period” during which you can receive a 100% refund on your premium. This allows you to review the policy you’ve selected and return it for any reason within the period allotted — usually for a small administration fee under $10.
Under normal circumstances, you don’t need to purchase a “cancel for any reason” policy unless you really need the flexibility — you’ll overpay when most accepted reasons are plenty sufficient. Again, however, you’ll want to ensure you have COVID coverage if getting sick while traveling is a concern for you in any way.
You can receive a quote and purchase a policy online in minutes with any credit card. Note that, although you may think travel insurance should count as travel and be eligible for bonus rewards on cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, your earnings will depend on the individual underwriter’s merchant code. When in doubt, expect that the purchase will fall under the insurance category for earnings.
Here’s a sample insurance price comparison I generated for my dream vacation to Antarctica, valued at a total travel cost of $20,000 (dream big, right?).
There’s a drastic difference between the top three quotes I received out of 20 recommendations. InsureMyTrip.com conveniently labeled each plan for me by quality: Superior, Strong Value and Economy.
One of the most popular ways to get to Antarctica is by cruise. However, 2020 was fraught with incident after incident where travelers repeatedly fell ill on board from coronavirus transmitted by infected fellow cruisers.
With these statistics in mind, I might opt for an insurance plan that encompasses COVID-19 medical assistance, just in case I need it. According to InsureMyTrip, the only comprehensive plan with COVID insurance will set me back $1,741 — a large number, but still just 8.7% of my $20,000 hypothetical trip total.
However, I could go to the extreme other end of the spectrum and focus on the worst-case scenario instead by purchasing accidental death coverage. Unfortunately, the average funeral easily costs thousands of dollars, a sum that few families are equipped to pay on short notice.
If I opted to fly down to Antarctica, basic flight insurance for accidental death would cost me just $17 in the unlikely advent that the unthinkable happened to me.
What if I don’t live in the United States?
If you’re a permanent resident somewhere outside of the U.S., you may find that your quoted costs are drastically higher if you use an international address, so make sure you shop around for the best coverage options.
Many U.S.-based companies will not offer the best rates for expatriates. For example, researcher and writer Laine Munir discovered that using her South Korea address for insurance bids generated quotes almost double the cost of the same plans quoted when she used her family’s address in Washington.
How do I make a claim?
Ideally, you’ll never need to make good on your insurance investment. But if you do, here are some easy tips to keep in mind when filing a claim. Best-case scenario, you’ll have your reimbursement back in hand in no time; worst-case scenario, you can avoid the disappointment of a rejected claim.
Here are a couple of the most common reasons why insurance companies might deny your claim — and how to avoid them.
You’re trying to claim coverage on an activity or event that isn’t covered on your plan
Make sure you read the fine print on your contract very carefully, both when you purchase your plan and when you begin filing your claim. Many plans will not insure property losses incurred during bungee jumping, for example — so tuck that smartphone away before you go.
You haven’t filed a claim through your primary insurance yet
Travel insurance is considered secondary insurance, meaning that your underwriters will ask you to reach out to your home insurance or medical insurance provider before paying the difference on your expenses. So in the case of stolen luggage, you’ll have to file a claim with the airline first, and show proof of either denial or resolution before your travel insurance company will pay out your lost items.
Or if you get sick in the U.S. and your health insurance covers you for any domestic doctor visit, you’ll have to file your insurance claim there rather than through your travel insurance company. If you incur additional expenses that aren’t covered by your health insurance, such as an ambulance or medical evacuation, that’s where your travel insurance kicks in.
Your documentation is incomplete or inaccurate
Hang on to your receipts! Your insurance underwriter will require, at minimum, all paperwork related to your property loss or medical expenses, such as a police report or hospital discharge papers. The faster you can get written proof or documentation for an issue, the quicker your claim can be processed.
It’s crucial to remember that travel cancellations must be recommended by a doctor, in writing; unless you purchased a “cancel for any reason” policy, it will not be sufficient to expect reimbursement just because, say, your child developed a cough that you believe is a precursor to bronchitis.
Purchasing travel insurance after an incident has already occurred
I hate to play Captain Obvious here, but travel insurance can’t be purchased after a hurricane has already been named, or after your illness has already set in. Again, this is why it’s important to purchase travel insurance as soon as you’ve made a payment on your trip bookings.
My own success story: How a $200 Travel insurance plan paid for $1,300 of expenses in Italy
I first wrote this guide for The Points Guy in 2016, back when all of the information in this guide was merely theoretical for me. But as I began to travel more, I purchased an annual travel insurance plan in 2018. I believed enough in my research to commit to my investment, although I’d been pretty lucky in my travels for several years.
My faith in travel insurance paid off just four short months later when I left for a three-week trip to Italy in July 2018. Thunderstorms in Chicago delayed my inbound flight, which meant I was rerouted onto another plane with just two hours to spare. As you might imagine, I eventually made it to Venice — but my checked luggage did not — for an additional five days.
Since I was attending a photography workshop, I had packed my suitcase full of fancy dresses for our models to wear, all of which had to be replaced on the spot during the height of peak tourist season. I also ended up having to pay out of pocket for additional basics like extra socks, rain gear and alternative transportation.
Fortunately, I knew I could float my unexpected expenses on my credit cards for a few weeks. And even better, I knew that my travel insurance plan would cover additional expenses associated with my flight delay, including coverage for my alternative transportation within Venice.
While my Chase Sapphire Reserve also includes trip protection, the $500 total coverage for delayed baggage expenses wouldn’t have been sufficient to cover the cost of the clothing I had to purchase for the workshop. And since I wasn’t delayed for more than six hours at any single point, I also wouldn’t have been able to claim credit card insurance coverage for my rebooked transportation.
In contrast to my credit card trip protection, my travel insurance plan covered all of my costs — every last red cent.
As Murphy’s Law would have it, Lufthansa finally delivered my lost luggage to me — but not until the morning after the workshop had ended.
In total, I claimed $1,296.55 in expenses for the five and a half days I spent without my luggage, between the cost of replacement clothing, the formal dresses, a replacement suitcase to carry everything back and forth on the cobblestones of Venice, a canceled Airbnb in Florence and the rebooked water taxi. And if I hadn’t been sharing an Airbnb with friends, my housing costs very well could have added to that total, since I had to stay on in Venice for a couple of extra days to wait for my bag. But my AIG insurance plan covered every penny.
The claims process was complicated and involved, and I had to save all of my Italian receipts and convert euros to U.S. dollars for every line item. But once I finally buckled down and submitted all my paperwork, I received a check within seven business days of final confirmation.
And other than all the extra luggage I ended up having to haul all over the land of pasta, all’s well that ends well, right?
Independent travel insurance isn’t for everyone — or even for every trip. But if you constantly find yourself on the road, or frequently book complicated travel, independent travel insurance may be just what you need to bring your peace of mind with you, everywhere you go.
Additional reporting by Katie Genter, Jordi Lippe-McGraw and Squaremouth.
Featured photo courtesy of Roger Ballard Photography.
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