The cost of travel insurance varies widely, depending on the destination, the cost and length of your trip, your age and health, and the type of trip you're taking, but expect to pay between 5% and 8% of the vacation itself. You can get estimates from various providers through InsureMyTrip.com. Enter your trip cost and dates, your age, and other information for prices from more than a dozen companies.
Trip-Cancellation Insurance -- Trip-cancellation insurance will help retrieve your money if you have to back out of a trip or depart early, or if your travel supplier goes bankrupt. Trip cancellation traditionally covers such events as sickness, natural disasters, and State Department advisories. The latest news in trip-cancellation insurance is the availability of expanded hurricane coverage and the "any-reason" cancellation coverage -- which costs more but covers cancellations made for any reason. You won't get back 100% of your prepaid trip cost, but you'll be refunded a substantial portion. TravelSafe (tel. 888/885-7233; www.travelsafe.com) offers both types of coverage. Expedia also offers any-reason cancellation coverage for its air-hotel packages. For details, contact one of the following recommended insurers: Access America (tel. 866/807-3982; www.accessamerica.com), Travel Guard International (tel. 800/826-4919; www.travelguard.com), Travel Insured International (tel. 800/243-3174; www.travelinsured.com), and Travelex Insurance Services (tel. 888/457-4602; www.travelex-insurance.com).
Medical Insurance -- Although it's not required of travelers, health insurance is highly recommended. Most health insurance policies cover you if you get sick away from home -- but verify that you're covered before you depart, particularly if you're insured by an HMO.
If you're ever hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, MedjetAssist (tel. 800/527-7478; www.medjetassistance.com) will pick you up and fly you to the hospital of your choice in a medically equipped and staffed aircraft 24 hours day, 7 days a week. Annual memberships are $225 individual, $350 family; you can also purchase short-term memberships.
Lost-Luggage Insurance -- On flights within the U.S., checked baggage is covered up to $2,800 per ticketed passenger. If you plan to check items more valuable than what's covered by the standard liability, see if your homeowner's policy covers your valuables, and consider getting baggage insurance as part of your comprehensive travel-insurance package. (Some of the companies mentioned in the section "Trip-Cancellation Insurance" above also offer baggage insurance.)
If your luggage is lost, immediately file a lost-luggage claim at the airport, detailing the luggage contents. Most airlines require that you report delayed, damaged, or lost baggage within 4 hours of arrival. The airlines are required to deliver luggage, once found, directly to your house or destination free of charge.
The United States doesn't present any unusual health hazards, provided travelers take reasonable precautions. Lyme Disease, carried by deer ticks, is a growing concern in the woodlands of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, but you can minimize your risk by using insect repellent and by covering up when hiking in the deep woods. Should you get bitten by a tick or notice a bull's-eye-shaped rash after hiking or camping, consult a doctor immediately. Another insect-related illness that's become a nationwide issue is West Nile Virus, spread by mosquitoes. Again, use insect repellent and avoid swampy areas during the summer mosquito season, and you should encounter no problems. To keep from contracting rabies, avoid contact with wild animals, no matter how cute or friendly they appear. If you even think you may have been exposed, see a doctor at once.
In the Rocky Mountain states and the high elevations of the Southwest, one of the biggest health concerns is altitude sickness. Don't arrive in Denver planning to tackle the Rocky Mountains on the same day -- the only thing that will happen is that you'll end up short of breath, exhausted, or worse. The best way to avoid this is to ease your transition into high-altitude climates, drink lots of water, and get plenty of rest; if you have breathing difficulties, your doctor may be able to prescribe medication to ease any difficulties.
If you plan on visiting some of the country's sun-soaked spots, limit the time you spend in direct sunlight and bring sunscreen with a high protection factor (at least 25). Apply it liberally -- and often. This advice goes double if you're climbing at high altitudes, where the air is thinner and it's far easier to get a serious burn (even if the climate is actually cold). Skin cancer is one of the fastest-growing illnesses in the United States and it doesn't take much time in the sun to do serious damage. Remember that children need more protection than adults do.
The other natural hazards for outdoor enthusiasts include poison ivy (learn to recognize and avoid it) and hazardous wildlife (never approach a wild animal or feed it). To minimize risks, never hike alone, notify someone of your planned hiking route, always carry a first-aid kit, and check in with park rangers to get the lowdown on possible hazards in the area in which you're hiking. If you're hiking in forested areas during hunting season, be sure to wear brightly colored clothing.
If you plan to head into the great outdoors, keep in mind that injuries often occur when people fail to follow instructions. Believe the experts who tell you to stay on the established ski trails and hike only in designated areas. Follow the marine charts if you're piloting your own boat. If you're rafting, wear a life jacket. If you're biking or rock climbing, be sure to use appropriate safety gear. Mountain weather can be fickle at any time of the year, so carry rain gear and pack a few warm layers. Watch out for summer thunderstorms that can leave you drenched or send bolts of lightning your way. In the Southwest, a summer storm can easily cause a flash flood, so be cautious and keep your wits about you.
When camping, always inquire if campfires are allowed in the area in which you are traveling. Some of the country's worst forest fires in recent years were started by campers who didn't follow proper safety protocols.
Tap water is safe to drink throughout the country, though you can get bottled water pretty much everywhere if you prefer it. Water in the wild should always be treated or boiled before drinking it.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region and offers tips on food safety.
If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before your departure. For conditions like epilepsy, diabetes, or heart problems, wear a MedicAlert identification tag (tel. 888/633-4298; www.medicalert.org), which will immediately alert doctors to your condition and give them access to your records through MedicAlert's 24-hour hot line. If you have dental problems, a nationwide referral service known as 1-800-DENTIST (tel. 800/336-8478; www.1800dentist.com) can give you the name of a nearby dentist or clinic.
Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, in their original containers, with pharmacy labels -- otherwise, they may not make it through airport security. Also bring along copies of your prescriptions in case you lose your pills or run out. Don't forget an extra pair of contact lenses or prescription glasses.
Although tourist areas are generally safe, U.S. urban areas have their fair share of crime. You should always stay alert; this is particularly true of large cities. If you're in doubt about which neighborhoods are safe, don't hesitate to inquire at the hotel's front desk or at the local tourist office.
Avoid deserted areas, especially at night, and don't go into public parks after dark unless there's a concert or similar occasion that will attract a crowd.
Avoid carrying valuables with you on the street, and keep expensive cameras or electronic equipment bagged up or covered when not in use. If you're using a map, try to consult it inconspicuously -- or better yet, study it before you leave your room. Hold on to your pocketbook, and place your billfold in an inside pocket. In theaters, restaurants, and other public places, keep your possessions in sight.
Always lock your room door -- don't assume that once you're inside the hotel you are automatically safe and no longer need to be aware of your surroundings. Hotels are open to the public, and in a large hotel, security may not be able to screen everyone who enters.
Driving Safety -- Driving safety is important, too, and carjacking is not unprecedented. Question your rental agency about personal safety, and ask for a traveler-safety brochure when you pick up your car. Obtain written directions -- or a map with the route clearly marked -- from the agency showing how to get to your destination. And, if possible, arrive and depart during daylight hours.
If you drive off a highway and end up in a dodgy-looking neighborhood, leave the area as quickly as possible. If you have an accident, even on the highway, stay in your car with the doors locked until you assess the situation or until the police arrive. If you're bumped from behind on the street or are involved in a minor accident with no injuries, and the situation appears to be suspicious, motion to the other driver to follow you. Never get out of your car in such situations. Go directly to the nearest police precinct, well-lit service station, or 24-hour store. Keep your cellphone with you, or if you find you don't have coverage with your own phone, consider buying a cheap pay-as-you-go phone, or rent one. One recommended wireless rental company is InTouch USA (tel. 800/872-7626; www.intouchusa.com).
Park in well-lit and well-traveled areas whenever possible. Keep your car doors locked, whether the vehicle is attended or unattended. Never leave any packages or valuables in sight. If someone attempts to rob you or steal your car, don't try to resist the thief/carjacker. Report the incident to the police department immediately by calling tel. 911.