New ways to protect your 2021 vacation
In the wake of widespread pandemic cancellations, there are new ways travelers can safeguard upcoming travel. (iStock)
BY Christopher Elliott
October 14, 2020
Dean Kato is optimistic about his 2021 vacation. He is planning a Danube river cruise through Germany, Austria and Hungary in August. But he’s also realistic — and thinking of new ways to protect a potentially risky adventure.
“I guess a river cruise will be safe by then,” says Kato, a business consultant from Kirkland, Wash., “as long as there’s a vaccine.”
But he’s not taking any chances, and neither are other travelers. They’re looking for new ways to protect their 2021 trips. Among their strategies: taking advantage of more-permissive booking policies, buying new travel insurance policies that specifically cover a pandemic and subscribing to services that can help them at their destinations.
Kato safeguarded his upcoming adventure in several ways. His first step was to book with a company that has a lenient cancellation policy. Viking, his cruise line, allows him to change his cruise date up to 24 hours before departure without paying a penalty. He turned down Viking’s offer of a 3 percent discount if he paid by cash. That way, if something goes wrong, he can dispute the charges on his credit card.
“I’ve also maintained my annual travel insurance plan with Allianz, which provides some cancellation coverage and covers repatriation and emergency medical expenses,” he says.
Airlines also have eliminated some, though not all, change fees. Generally, you will still pay a change fee for extra-cheap economy-class tickets and international tickets, though policies vary from airline to airline. Taken together, these amount to some of the most consumer-friendly booking policies in a generation.
“Airlines are now offering incredible flexibility,” says Juan Fernandez, operating partner at Elli Travel, a travel agency in Larchmont, N.Y. “For hotels, it’s important to book refundable rates.” He says travelers can take the extra step of calling and asking a front-desk manager or in-house reservations manager how the hotel handles credits and refunds.
Fernandez’s advice applies to any kind of travel booked for 2021. If you want to know how a travel company will handle pandemic-related disruptions, or cancellations for other reasons, just ask. Chances are, the airline, cruise line or hotel has a policy in place.
Sometimes you can pay a little extra for some peace of mind. For example, Alaska Tour & Travel offers what it calls a “worry-free” cancellation waiver that allows travelers to cancel an Alaska tour up to 31 days before the trip. It costs 3 percent of the price of the tour, which is about half the price of travel insurance. The waiver also provides a full refund for a cancellation because of a medical emergency or a death within the traveling party or the immediate family, as long as the company receives cancellation notice at least 24 hours before the start of your tour.
“The one thing we can count on is uncertainty,” says Bailey Foster, a vice president at travel insurance company Trawick International.
Foster recommends finding a travel insurance policy that includes trip cancellation and trip interruption coverage. Most travel insurance doesn’t cover a cancellation made because of fear of a coronavirus infection, but some policies do cover pandemic-related treatments and mandatory quarantines.
That’s a big change from earlier this year, when travel insurance coverage for such treatments and quarantines was “unthinkable,” says Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO of VisitorsCoverage, a company that sells medical insurance for travelers. “There was nothing available for travelers facing the potential of contracting covid-19 to purchase.”
The availability of this insurance is the good news for those trying to protect their 2021 vacations. The bad news: Benefits and exclusions vary widely. And coverage is largely untested. In other words, travelers have filed relatively few covid-19 claims, and we don’t know how the insurance companies will process these claims.
The travel insurance site Squaremouth reports that 81 percent of policies purchased include trip cancellation benefits. Twenty-two percent of all policies provide “cancel for any reason” insurance, a 552 percent increase from last year. Policies that cover any cancellation will cost 10 to 12 percent of the cost of your trip — roughly double the price of regular travel insurance — and they refund 50 to 75 percent of the cost of your trip. The travel insurance site AARDY.com says more than half of its customers are choosing cancel-for-any-reason coverage, despite the higher cost.
Health insurance is an item often overlooked by travelers. “Most U.S. health insurance plans will not cover you outside of the United States in the event of a medical emergency, such as an injury or sickness that requires hospitalization or evacuation,” says Christine Buggy, vice president of marketing at Travelex Insurance. The fix is a supplemental health insurance plan. (If you’re on Medicare, look for a Medigap policy that covers you overseas.) Many travel insurance policies also cover health-care expenses on international trips.
Cautious travelers can go beyond travel and supplemental health insurance, buying a membership in a service such as Medjet or Global Rescue. Coverage has changed to address the coronavirus outbreak. In October, for instance, Medjet added new covid-19 coverage to its plans. If you’re infected and hospitalized while traveling in the United States, Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean, Medjet will transport you to the hospital of your choice at home.
Extra-cautious travelers may also want to consider a travel assistance plan offered by a company like FocusPoint International, which specializes in travel risk management. You can buy a FocusPoint plan as part of Medjet coverage or as stand-alone protection. FocusPoint assistance includes evacuation for medical emergencies that result in hospitalization. Its plans also provide help in such situations as natural disasters, riots, strikes and, of course, pandemics.
But there’s one thing you can’t do: Make your next trip risk-free. No refund policy or travel insurance company can protect your vacation from everything. Looking ahead to 2021, experts are cautiously optimistic that the pandemic will end and that normal travel will resume. But no one knows for sure when — or if — that will happen.