Because I am 23, I’m usually scraping the bottom of the barrel when I travel. That means booking the cheapest flights, taking those budget economy seats and declining trip insurance. That’s put me in a pickle on several occasions, because, as a 23-year-old, I’m also stupid. My brain isn’t even fully developed! So I’ve had to pay hefty fees to change flights I booked on the wrong days or when something goes wrong and I can no longer take my original flight.
Would this all have been prevented had I just bought that damn travel insurance?
The thing with travel insurance is that it doesn’t really cover my general idiocy. Had I needed to change a flight because I was sick, travel insurance would have covered it. Instead, I usually need to change a flight because I accidentally booked it in the entirely wrong month. That’s on me.
Typically, travel insurance offered by companies like Travel Guard or Allianz cover a particular set of “unforeseen” circumstances one could potentially face. Most people purchase one-time plans for individual trips, though these companies also offer annual memberships for people who travel more regularly.
In either scenario, insurance covers the cost of changing or canceling flights, reimburses you for lost baggage and the value of its contents, offers stipends for delayed flights and sometimes even covers the cost of unexpected medical transportation and procedures incurred on a trip. Because COVID-19 is considered a “foreseen” circumstance, coverage for canceling your trip because you simply don’t want to fly anymore is no longer available, unless you booked before the outbreak. Most travel insurance companies will, however, still cover medical expenses and such if you actually contract the virus.
Beyond the virus, all that coverage is extremely valuable. If you’re planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip worth thousands and thousands of dollars, particularly to a country where you’re not familiar with the medical system, that insurance makes sense. But if you’re just traveling home for Thanksgiving, you can probably skip it — especially now that most hotel, airline and rental car companies are waiving change or cancellation fees.
Before booking a trip, whether it’s next week or next year, you ought to check with every company you’ll be giving money to about their current flexibility. All of the major airlines in the U.S. have extended their no-fee policies regarding changing or cancelling flights, through various dates or in perpetuity. American Airlines, for example, is allowing customers who book flights before May 21, 2020, to change or cancel their flights at no cost, regardless of when the flight is. You cannot get your money back unless American cancels the flight themselves, but you’ll receive credit for future travel.
With major airlines, it shouldn’t be much trouble re-using that credit, meaning adding insurance isn’t much of a necessity. However, if you’re booking with an airline that only goes to specific destinations or that you know you wouldn’t otherwise travel with, it might still be worth it to spend that extra $30 or so rather than have airline credit you won’t use.
Chain hotels are even more flexible. Marriott is currently offering free changes and cancellations for any booking made before June 30, 2020, up to 24 hours before check-in. IHG hotels are offering similar flexibility. With both companies, you can get your money back if you cancel or even wait to pay until you actually do check-in. It can get trickier if you book through a third-party site like Hotels.com, but for the most part, companies don’t want to look like assholes right now, and being too stringent about changes or cancellations would be in poor taste. Smaller, independent hotels might be in a different scenario financially, so it’s important to contact wherever you’re thinking of booking ahead of time to see what their policies are.
Generally speaking, though, COVID-19 has brought more flexibility than ever. Whereas your airline might have previously hit you with a $200 fee to switch a flight before this, you’re now off the hook. For that reason, travel insurance is less of a necessity for national travel.
On top of that, it’s always worth checking what benefits your credit card might offer. Many, particularly those geared toward travel, will cover up to $10,000 worth of costs incurred from delayed or canceled travel. In most cases, this doesn’t apply to changes made just because you feel like it, but it’s definitely a nice backup to have if something goes wrong and can render those added travel insurance options obsolete.
If you’re just a complete buffoon like me, it’s better to pay extra for the more expensive airplane seat options, rather than getting the insurance. Often, Premium Economy rates allow for changes for any reason, and not just those where you have an actual legit excuse. Somewhat comfortingly, though, current policies give you even more room to be a buffoon than ever.
Don’t go flying off and getting coronavirus, but now’s not a bad time to book a flight for the future.