Is travel insurance necessary?
February 2, 2010 10:11 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I are taking a month-long trip from the U.S. to France and Italy later this year. Do we need travel insurance? If so, how much and what kind? Where do we find it? We have medical insurance that applies abroad, so we're mainly worried about cancellation insurance in case some sort of disaster strikes before the trip. Is it possible to buy travel insurance without medical insurance? We've never done anything like this before, and have no clue about "best practices". What can you tell us?
posted by jdroth to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
First, don't worry. The medical insurance aspects are relatively zero in the European Union.

Second, think about what travel insurance will do for you. Is there coverage for cancellation of flights or hotels? What about luggage and common theft?

Most credit cards will protect you from the theft aspect as there is a maximum liability associated to the cardholder as a crime victim. Flight and hotel insurance is offered by the carrier, however trying to collect may be more difficult than running down a purse snatcher on a busy Paris street.

Acts of God, are the hardest the find insurance for. Disclaimers abound and lets face it, France hasn't been a tsunami or earthquake epicentre.

What I would suggest is searching for a standard travel insurance that covers theft or more to the point loss of property. There are many options and quite frankly, probably your credit card does more good than lining insurance agents pockets.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 10:21 AM on February 2, 2010

If you can afford the trip, you don't need travel insurance. Recall that insurance only makes sense to cover expenses you can't afford. If you don't think you can afford the trip, perhaps you should reconsider your interest in it.

So, the answer is a resounding "no."
posted by saeculorum at 10:31 AM on February 2, 2010

From what I've seen other people go through, it's not necessary and it's sometimes more hassle than you'd think. My family took a 10-week trip to London over the summer and we were fine without any travel insurance, even though we had to come home early. The airline (Delta, in this case) was very helpful in finding us tickets that didn't have an extra fee attached (we still had to pay the change fee, but that cost was less than the cost of staying the extra 2 weeks in London).
posted by cooker girl at 10:33 AM on February 2, 2010

saeculorum had got it: only insure the things you can't afford to replace.
posted by Hoenikker at 10:59 AM on February 2, 2010

My opinion is that travel insurance is only worth it if you need the medical insurance. In that case, the other aspects are nice extras that you still probably won't ever use.

Claiming against travel insurance is not super-easy, and won't be worth the time unless the expenses are quite large, and then they will probably fight you, and demand documentation of something that is impossible, or point out that the policy required notification within 72 hours, which you failed to give, etc. Last time I purchased travel insurance (for medical insurance reasons) I read the entire policy (which was quite hard to get, actually), and noticed how cunningly they excluded claims from so many cases that would actually be likely.
posted by grouse at 11:08 AM on February 2, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips so far. I'm aware of the general principles of insurance (just wrote a chapter on the subject for a personal finance book!), but not their applications to travel. We can absolutely afford the trip -- that's not an issue. But what happens if something goes wrong and we have to cancel? I think that's what we want to insure against: possible catastrophes.

For example, I have a friend who had scheduled a trip to London last year. Just before he left, he got sick and was unable to travel. But because he didn't have travel insurance, he was out the cost of travel and lodging. We're talking thousands of dollars here, which we can afford, but which we don't want to just throw away if something goes wrong. Does that make sense?
posted by jdroth at 11:09 AM on February 2, 2010

Well, sure. But how likely is that to happen, realistically? And where was he staying that he couldn't cancel at least 24 hours in advance? You might have to eat the cost of one or possibly two days of a reservation you didn't use, but every hotel we used in London had far more generous cancellation policies than any hotel we've used in the States.

And if you don't use the travel insurance, wouldn't you be out that money? I know it's a smaller amount but it's not insignificant. Every airline I've used has ticket change policies and I'd wager the ticket change fee will be less than travel insurance.

What are the change fees associated with your tickets? What are the cancellation policies of the hotels you're using? Get that information and see if the insurance seems like a better deal. If it is, and it'll make you less anxious, get it.
posted by cooker girl at 11:14 AM on February 2, 2010

I'd think about it in terms of probability. Which is most likely to happen:

a) You don't get travel insurance. Catastrophe! You're out the cost of the trip.
b) You don't get travel insurance. No catastrophe occurs. You pay for the trip, which you take.
c) You do get travel insurance. Catastrophe! You pay for the insurance, but not for some amount of the trip.
d) You do get travel insurance. No catastrophe occurs. You're out the cost of the insurance.

To me, it seems that scenarios b) and d) are by far the most likely. As such, it makes more sense to not get insurance. If there's some outside factor that makes situations a) and c) more likely (potentially fragile health for you and your wife or a family member, for example), then it would make sense to reconsider.

If you pay for the insurance, you're more likely to spend money needlessly than if you don't.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:17 AM on February 2, 2010

I've only bought travel insurance once, and for a very specific reason: I went to Mexico (Playa del Carmen) during hurricane season. My credit card has (pretty decent) travel insurance but it wouldn't cover the costs of cancellation if a hurricane happened to slam into the Riviera Maya before we left. (It covered evacuation if we got caught IN a hurricane, but I was worried about a hurricane hitting the resort a few days BEFORE we left.) So we bought travel insurance for that purpose and that purpose only. We chose the vendor based on a recommendation from my credit card company. It was about $70 for two people for a week long trip. I have never bought travel insurance other than for that one trip and only did so because of hurricane season, and only after researching exactly what both my credit card and Travelocity would cover.

Medical evacuation is almost always going to be the most expensive emergency you'll encounter and the one you want to make sure you're covered for, but since you're going to Europe, it's likely not necessary for you. (Where there's poor quality of care, you're more likely to need to be evacuated to receive adequate treatment at all and that's not really going to be an issue in France and Italy.) Of course, if you have any particular illnesses or conditions that you might absolutely need to have treated at home, then you want to be doubly sure you are covered for your costs in getting home for that treatment. In any case, chances are good you're already covered for your own and your wife's medical evacuation through your credit card, possibly through the booking agency, and possibly through the carrier. Chances are good you are also covered for evacuation to deal with family emergencies (i.e., coming home for a funeral) for immediate family members.

--And on preview, chances are good you are also already covered for cancellation due to your or an immediate family member's major illness. Read the definition of major illness, of course. :)

Short answer: first figure out what coverage you already have (talk to your credit card company and your travel agency/booking agency, read the fine print on your travel package/air tickets). If you need more coverage, ask your credit card company if they have any preferred partners; you might get a discount.
posted by devinemissk at 11:18 AM on February 2, 2010

Are you really going to be out thousands of dollars? Surely you will be able to cancel at least some of the lodging without penalty and the value of your non-refundable tickets can probably be applied to a future ticket within a year after a $200 change fee or something similar. If there's really a documentable catastrophe (serious illness or death) you might be able to escape even that. Check the fare rules. (You saved the fare rules when buying the ticket, right? As a personal finance maven I think you should. I usually do. Anyway, you can call the airline to check this if not.)
posted by grouse at 11:19 AM on February 2, 2010

Of course, if what you really want is peace of mind, and getting travel insurance is a means of gaining that peace of mind, then it isn't money needlessly spent.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:19 AM on February 2, 2010

But because he didn't have travel insurance, he was out the cost of travel and lodging.

In your example, most airlines allow medical exemptions (often with a doctors note) and most hotels dont require payment up front...sometimes just a small cancellation charge.

Like many others here, I have gotten travel insurance but primarily for medical reasons, usually going out of our way to not pay for insurance for cancellations etc. which can often be handled by other means - as above.
posted by vacapinta at 11:21 AM on February 2, 2010

No, it doesn't make sense.

If you can afford the trip, you should self-insure. That is, if you get sick and can't go, you just don't go. If you have to cancel, you cancel. The actuaries at the travel insurance company have determined that your chance of having problems multiplied by the chance of the insurance company actually doing anything about your problems multiplied by the cost of the trip is less than the cost of insurance. In other words, the odds are against you that you will save money by buying insurance. In fact, there are quite a few very smart people that are determined to make sure that's the case. To cover the case where problems actually happen, the travel insurance company will try their darnedest to ensure that you are denied the promised benefits.

This is the same argument against any insurance where you can afford the harm being insured. For the same reason you shouldn't buy an warranty extension on consumer electronics, you shouldn't bother with travel insurance. Yes, it's cheap, but a worthless cheap thing is still worthless.

For what it's worth, I'm a moderately experienced traveler with about 200,000 mostly Europe-to-US miles under my belt. I've never bothered with travel insurance for exactly this reason. Yes, I've had issues, but nothing that I couldn't fix by being nice to gate agents and not getting upset at unavoidable problems.
posted by saeculorum at 11:21 AM on February 2, 2010

I always travel with insurance -- if I am stuck in a country I didn't plan to get to, what would I do if I needed medical cover. Thankfully, I've never had cause to see how the claims process works, but I've always felt a bit more secure. Lonely Planet recommends World Nomads, and I've found buying their insurance hassle free. First, though, check with your credit card company -- some, not all, offer very good insurance, covering cancellation, lost luggage, evacuation etc (at least in France).
Happy trails!
posted by bwonder2 at 11:21 AM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

It depends.

For you, heading to a first-world country, with good medical care and infrastructure and zillions of flights in/out, on a trip you can "absolutely afford"? Nah, skip the insurance. Sure, there's a very small chance things will go badly, but just about the worst thing that can happen is that you're out the cost of the trip. (Of course, if a very very small chance of losing a few thousand dollars bothers you more than the very very high chance of losing a hundred or so -- whatever the insurance costs you -- then by all means go for it, but realize that this is designed to be a winning proposition for the insurance company.)

But I disagree with those who are implying you should never get insurance. By coincidence, just yesterday I came across this thread on Flyertalk, in which someone describes being stuck at Machu Picchu, missing their flights home, and being forced to shell out $4K for walk-up one-way tickets home. This is still, you might say, not that big a deal -- they got really really unlucky and are out a few thousand dollars because of it; I'm mentioning it only because the general theme of many (rather harsh) comments there was "what, you didn't have insurance?" So maybe take that as a bit of counterpoint to the comments here.

Personally, I've only taken out full-fledged travel insurance a couple of times, for long and complicated trips to places with poor infrastructure / medical care. It was relatively cheap. My credit card also covers the kind of thing you're talking about -- trip cancellation for medical reasons -- so you might look into whether yours does, too (or will for a fee). Here in Canada, a few of the big insurance companies offer a travel policy -- e.g., TD Canada -- so you might look into those, too, in addition to the dedicated travel-insurance places. Have a great trip!
posted by chalkbored at 1:08 PM on February 2, 2010

I don't understand this "if you can afford the trip, don't get travel insurance" take. It works like any other insurance; you're betting something will go wrong, the insurer is betting it won't, and the odds are long, meaning insurance is cheap.

A month is a long time and shit happens; I would want cover.

Call your credit card companies, your bank and your home insurance company. Sometimes travel insurance is included as an account benefit; we get good cover with our basic account at our bank. At the least, you want trip cancellation, emergency repatriation, 300K in medical expenses (this should be sufficient for Europe, where costs are lower), and some kind of liability in case you, I dunno, accidently shove someone under a bus or hit a pedestrian in a car. (I think ours is 1 million in legal and cover.)

When I was quoted for this seperately from an online travel insurance site, it was like €129 for the year. Why would you not spend that when the worse case scenario is so much more costly?
posted by DarlingBri at 1:13 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I kind of see what everybody else is saying, but at the same time ... I kind of don't. Travel insurance is incredibly, incredibly cheap. Sure, these days, I only get it when I worry about medical evacuation costs in less-developed countries, but that's really part laziness on my part.

Take cooker girl's example. Most airlines I've flown with have been pretty helpful in changing non-refundable plane tickets without an "extra fee" attached (I don't even know what that "extra fee" might refer to ... fare differences? I've never run into any other "extra fees;" correct me if I'm wrong) to the change fee. But almost any airline change fee in itself is many times more costly than a month of travel insurance. I've thrown claims at a travel insurer once, just to see what would stick. Some things did, some things didn't. But it would have been no big loss if even nothing had stuck, considering how cheap the insurance was, and I'd at least have someone to fight if I had a large claim for one reason or another. And those rare occasions in which you need to make a large claim are the reason you get insurance in the first place.
posted by SpringAquifer at 1:40 PM on February 2, 2010

SpringAquifer, we had to pay $200 per ticket for a change fee. Extra fees would have occurred if we had flown back on a different flight, i.e. Flight 34 instead of Flight 37. Flight 37 is always Flight 37, no matter if it's this week or next week. So, because we remained on Flight 37, even though it was two weeks earlier than we would have flown originally, there were no extra fees. (this might be Delta specific, I don't know)

Travel insurance, for us, at the time of our trip, was more than the change fee. We saved money by leaving early, since we didn't have to pay for a hotel or food or transportation costs for those two weeks.

I see the point in having insurance for travel to non-first-world countries, but for France and Italy? I just don't see the point.
posted by cooker girl at 2:18 PM on February 2, 2010

OK, I just re-read the original question. Some of the later answers sort of talked about medical care and lost luggage such, so I started to take other large expenses into account. I just realized that the OP is mostly concerned about trip cancellation insurance.

Never mind! Don't get insurance just for trip cancellation. I've only had to change two long-haul tickets in my life, and though the fees tend to be much more expensive than a one-time trip insurance policy, I'd be out a lot more had I gotten insurance every time I've gone on a trip. Sorry for the derail.

cooker girl: Hrm, interesting. I've only had to pay fare differences + change fees in the past. Anyway, never mind this, too. Way to continue to derail the thread, me.
posted by SpringAquifer at 2:53 PM on February 2, 2010


You're walking through a quaint but secluded Italian village. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a rogue bicyclist comes tearing out of nowhere, knocking you and your wife down. You break both legs; your wife breaks an arm.

What hospital are you being taken to and how do you get there?
What happens if you need a better hospital than the one that's closest? How are you getting *there*?
How are you getting home? Both legs are broken; you've missed your flight home because of medical care. You need AN ENTIRE ROW now, not just the two seats you and your wife had purchased.

This isn't a matter of whether or not hospitals in the European Union are okay or not. (And still, even if they are, do they just not charge tourists or something? Is this a new thing I don't know about?)

I've traveled in Asia and Africa and Europe. I traveled ONCE without travel insurance, and I got food poisoning from shrimp in the Sinai Peninsula. I am lucky as hell that it wasn't serious and it just took 24 hours of vomiting it out to be alright again. The whole time I was sick, all I could think was WHAT A BLOODY IDIOT YOU ARE, NOT SPENDING THE EXTRA $25 ON TRIP INSURANCE so I could have been evacuated to Eilat via helicopter.

Now, as for trip *cancellation* insurance, it depends what your non-refundable costs are. For example, if you went on a cruise, you'd probably want cancellation insurance, because short of death, you're not getting a refund. And before you say "oh no, I know someone who did" I am going through this now with my parents - they are elderly so they HAVE travel insurance. My dad had a medical emergency and now they won't be able to travel in May as a result of the emergency, and without filing for a claim through the insurance, neither the cruise nor the airline will give him squat. Again, this is why they took out cancellation insurance.

I went on a 5 day cruise this past summer and took out travel insurance. I think it cost me $15.
posted by micawber at 6:20 PM on February 2, 2010

I can't really believe all the travel insurance hate in this thread.

I don't know what prices are in the US, but here in the UK it is cheap as chips. Seriously, for £30 I can get a whole years worth of travel insurance covering loss of baggage, trip cancellation and medical costs anywhere in the world. In fact it is so cheap that my bank actually offers EU travel insurance for 'free' (though of course this comes out of the monthly fee I pay them)

Travel insurance is like any other insurance. Chances are you won't need to use it, but you will love it more than all thats holy when you do. My advice, get it.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 3:15 AM on February 3, 2010

TheOtherGuy, it's not cheap in the US. Not at all.
posted by cooker girl at 5:52 PM on February 3, 2010

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