A Travel Insurance Skeptic Changes Her Mind

I used to scoff at the notion of travel insurance, never even considering buying a policy that would reimburse my costs if bad weather or an illness caused me to cancel a trip.

I figured my chances of needing to file a claim were low and that any payback from purchasing the insurance would be lousy. As a longtime consumer reporter, I’d often heard complaints from travelers saying they were unable to collect because their policies contained so many loopholes and exclusions.

What Changed My Mind About Travel Insurance

But now that I’ve gotten older, I’m having second thoughts about travel insurance, especially for expensive excursions, requiring lots of upfront cash, to countries not known for their medical care. (My new thinking has nothing to do with the tragic Asiana plane crash; I’m still opposed to buying flight insurance because flying is generally extraordinarily safe.) If you’re over 50 and a globetrotter, I think you might want to buy some types of travel coverage before your next trip, too.

(MORE: Take Safety Precautions When Traveling Abroad)

The reason for my change of heart is simple: Small injuries and ailments can turn into big problems at my age, prompting not just cancellations of high-priced vacations but also an abrupt halt to a trip in progress if I get sick or injured.

Fortunately, I’ve yet to experience either scenario. But it’s happened to friends in their 60s. In one case, a relatively simple back surgery turned into a staph infection that forced my neighbor and his wife to drop out of a long-planned, luxurious African safari with friends and family.

Foreign Medical Woes Cost Thousands

Then there’s the sad tale of a pal who was injured traveling in Laos and hospitalized in Hanoi, forcing him and his wife to miss their flight home. When doctors gave him the go-ahead to leave, they said he needed to fly business class to keep his legs elevated, costing the couple thousands of dollars more for tickets home.

It’s stories like these that prompted my husband and me to buy a limited version of travel insurance for two recent foreign trips. (Thankfully, we never had to file a claim.) Travel insurance comes in many varieties, from comprehensive coverage for an assortment of possible problems to narrow policies, like ones that only reimburse medical evacuation costs.

When Travel Insurance Makes Sense

Many consumer advocates, however, remain wary about travel insurance. “Generally,” said J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, “I don’t think it’s a good financial deal for the vast majority of people.”

Still, Hunter told me, there are certain situations where travelers may want to consider the coverage. “If it’s the trip of a lifetime, you’ve put money away for decades and you’re worried you might get sick or there’s a history of ailments, you may want to buy it,” he said. “Or if you’re traveling into strange places with poor health care and you think you might get sick, you might want to consider medical-evacuation insurance.”

(MORE: 6 Money-Saving Travel Secrets)

In other words, buying travel insurance, like purchasing most types of coverage, comes down to probabilities. “The rugged, healthy, unattached and gung-ho traveler will probably forgo trip cancellation or interruption coverage,” travel guru Rick Steves notes on his website, Europe Through the Back Door. ”I have skipped it many times and my number has yet to come up. But if you’re paying out a lot of upfront money for an organized tour (which is expensive to cancel), if you have questionable health or if you have a loved one at home in poor health, it’s probably a good idea to get this coverage.”