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Do you need travel insurance? If you think so: What kind and how much? Are you likely to run into an Asian tsunami, a Caribbean hurricane, an English flood, a Colorado mudslide? Who knows? It's funny how many otherwise careful citizens -- those who take care to insure their lives, their homes, their cars, their incomes when possible -- fly off merrily to Belize or beyond without giving a thought to insurance on the road. Not that commercial insurers don't try to get your attention. The US Travel Insurance Association (UStiA) says we spent more than $1.3 billion on travel insurance in 2006, the last year surveyed. That's 67 million travelers purchasing policies from UStiA member companies, more than one-third of these being trip travel insurance plans that included coverage for trip cancellation.

Less than four percent in another survey bought travel medical and medical evacuation policies, however. Which means, of course, that we are more afraid of losing money when we have to cancel a trip than we are of getting sick or injured while traveling. About half buy the trip policy, says UStiA. The organization says it represents more than 90% of the travel insurance market in the USA. More info can be had at www.ustia.org.

UStiA (not to be confused with TIA, the Travel Industry Association) says that you can expect to pay about 5 to 7 per cent of the trip's total cost for a travel insurance plan. It should cover one or all of these: trip cancellation, trip interruption, medical expense, emergency medical evacuation, baggage and travel delay, for starters. Every company and its plans offer wildly varying combinations, so much for baggage loss, so much for emergency medical care, so much for trip cancellation, and so on. But not every comprehensive policy pays for actual air evacuation, so be forewarned. Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, a physician who consults at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says "One of every two travelers heading to a foreign country will experience a health problem." Most difficulties are minor, such as traveler's diarrhea, but auto accidents, heart attacks and other serious situations may arise.

The UstiA remarks on five common misconceptions about travel insurance. Here's a brief summary:

Myth #1: "I'm covered in case I have to cancel or interrupt my trip." More than 70% of travel insurance claims are for trip cancellation, interruption and travel delay. Illness, work problems, weather are the usual reasons you may have to cancel.

Myth #2: "In case of Acts of God, I will likely receive refunds on cancelled trips, anyway." Airline, cruise lines, hotels and tour operators are under no legal obligation to refund consumers when force majeure (often known as Acts of God) intervene, but most companies have very limited ideas about that they need to offer the customer.

Myth #3: "Airlines will reimburse for delays." Nope, especially if the delay is caused by weather-related matters.

Myth #4: "Don't buy travel insurance through a travel agent." Way back in 2004, travel agents arranged more than 35 per cent of the insurance sold by UstiA members, so they have reason to deny this myth. I suggest using an agent if you want to cut down on paperwork for yourself.

Myth #5: "Only unsophisticated travelers buy travel insurance." UStiA says their research indicates those who buy travel insurance tend to be better educated, take more expensive trips, and are more likely to travel abroad, "usually the hallmarks of sophisticated travelers."

Among the 24 full members of UStiA are such well known institutions as Amex Asurance, AIG Travel Guard and TravelSafe Insurance. Included among the 27 associate members are Medex Global Group and MedJet Assist.

Help Choosing Plans

An interesting site called Travel Insurance Review (www.travelinsurancereview.net) seems to be a reasonable place to start looking. Damian Tysdal, who describes himself as a licensed insurance agent living in Boston since 1996 has worked out a lot of tips to buying insurance plans, even charting comparable plans to give you some idea of costs and benefits. For example, he has a graph of some 25 companies and their plans, using, he says, the sample of a 32-year old couple planning a 30-day trip costing $10,000, and wishing to have medical coverage of $10,000. The examples he gives range from an AIG Travel Guard Essential Plan at $600 up to an Access America Deluxe Plan at $1,472. A good tip from Tysdal: buy your travel insurance well in advance of your trip, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition, in which case most firms want to sell you a policy at least 15 days before you start out.

Another good website is that for Squaremouth (tel. 800/240-0369; www.squaremouth.com), a seven-year-old company operating out of St. Petersburg Beach in Florida, owned by Chris Harvey, a transplanted Englishman who says he has been 15 years in the insurance business. Here, as in the Review site mentioned above, you can get instant quotes, they say, and purchase online.

A fairly new site for people who want to post their own reviews of insurance policies is Travel Insurance Reviewer (www.travelinsurancereviewer.com), owned by the Vicario brothers (Matthew and Marc) and based in the USA. They also own three other reviewer sites, dealing with language schools, cruises and airlines. They do not have any sponsors, they say, but do run site-wide ads from Google. They prefer to communicate exclusively through email so do not publish a phone number.

Credit Cards

Your credit card may or may not offer some travel insurance protection or assistance services, but, says UStiA, these "rarely include actual trip cancellation benefits, emergency medical expense or emergency medical evacuation coverage."

Personally, I carry medical evacuation insurance with two carriers, MedJet Assist (as an individual) and Access America (in a group). The individual policy is more costly, so I carry the lower-priced group policy as a fall back. And remember, you don't have to be overseas to use this kind of insurance.

Contacts

Note: The author is the Vice President (pro bono) of IAMAT, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, a registered charity, tel. 716/754-4883; www.iamat.org.

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