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Omicron and Travel: So, Now Do I Need Trip Insurance?

Posted December 7, 2021 8:54 p.m. EST
Updated December 7, 2021 9:00 p.m. EST

FILE — A traveler walks alone Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., Nov. 22, 2021. In light of the omicron variant, is extra protection warranted for things like flight and lodging cancellations and quarantine hotels? It depends. (Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times)

While the pandemic has depressed travel, it may have encouraged travel insurance, say those in the industry.

“The biggest question we get from customers is: ‘What happens if I get COVID during travel and what if I have to quarantine?’” said Jeremy Murchland, the president of Seven Corners, a travel insurance management company. “COVID has created a much broader awareness of travel insurance.”

But will it help you in light of the new omicron variant, which has already led to new travel restrictions and requirements? In the early days of the pandemic, travel insurance largely failed to protect travelers who wanted or needed to cancel as the world shut down.

The following are answers to common questions about travel insurance now.

Does travel insurance cover COVID-19, including the new omicron variant?

For the most part, yes, travel insurance policies now treat COVID-19 in all its variants — including omicron — like any other medical emergency.

“Consumers should know that most travel insurance plans with medical benefits now treat COVID like any other illness that you could contract while traveling or that could prohibit you from going on your trip,” said Carol Mueller, a vice president of Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. “If you become ill before your trip, you’ll need a doctor’s note confirming your illness and that you are unable to travel in order to be eligible for benefits. The benefits are the same regardless of whether you contract omicron, another variant of COVID or any illness for that matter.”

Buyers should read the policies carefully and look out for those that exclude pandemics, COVID-19 and its variants. To make a claim, you must have had travel insurance before becoming ill.

“We always say, you can’t buy auto insurance after you’ve already had an accident,” said Meghan Walch, the product manager of InsureMyTrip, an insurance sales site. “It is designed for unforeseen issues. You have to purchase it before an event.”

I am traveling internationally. If borders close because of omicron, am I covered through travel insurance?

No, most policies do not cover you if your foreign destination closes its borders to visitors, as Israel did recently. With a few exceptions, that also goes for a government-issued travel warning to a destination, which is generally not a covered reason to make a claim.

Given the added uncertainties of omicron, should I consider a ‘Cancel for Any Reason’ policy?

Cancel for Any Reason, or CFAR, provisions would allow you to claim some of your nonrefundable costs if you decide not to go on a trip for any reason, including border closures or fear of contracting COVID-19. The rub is that this form of insurance — in addition to being more expensive — must generally be purchased within a few weeks of booking the trip and will return only 50% to 75% of nonrefundable trip costs.

“Most travel insurance policies do not cover you for wanting to cancel out of fear of COVID. We say this 10 times a week,” said Sarah Groen, the owner of the agency Bell and Bly Travel.

She counsels clients to consider their worst fears — illness, for example, or quarantine — in troubleshooting travel insurance.

“We’ve become like therapists,” she said.

What about quarantine and medical expenses?

Make sure the policy you choose covers these. In the case of medical coverage, check with your regular health insurer; many policies will not cover you abroad, which is an additional reason to consider coverage if you are traveling internationally.

“What travel insurance can do is cover additional hotel stays if you are able to self-quarantine and additional airfare when you’re able to come home,” said Megan Moncrief, the chief marketing officer for Squaremouth, a travel insurance sales site.

She added that most policies will extend to seven days past your originally scheduled return date, effectively covering only about seven days in case of quarantine.

Do some destinations require travel insurance?

Yes, primarily to cover medical care or quarantine accommodations in the event that a traveler tests positive for COVID-19. For example, Singapore requires medical insurance with a minimum coverage of 30,000 Singapore dollars, or about $22,000. Fiji requires travel insurance to cover potential treatment for COVID-19, and makes it available from about $30. Some destinations, such as Anguilla, recommend rather than require travel insurance. InsureMyTrip.com has a page devoted to countries that require travel insurance.

It bears thinking about what it would take to get home for treatment should you contract COVID-19 abroad. Thailand, for example, requires travelers to have medical insurance with the minimum coverage of $50,000.

“Evacuation out of Thailand would be higher,” said Sasha Gainullin, the CEO of Battleface, a travel insurance startup that unbundles benefits.

In the case of a Thailand trip, he advised taking medical coverage up to $100,000 for treatment locally and $500,000 for medical evacuation and repatriation.

Do I need insurance if I have bookings with flexible cancellation policies?

Probably not, if you have hotel reservations that allow free cancellation 24-48 hours in advance. The same with flights; if your flight is changeable and will provide a voucher or refund in case of cancellation, you’re covered.

I have rented a house with restrictive cancellation penalties. Can I insure against those?

Yes. Vacation home rentals from Airbnb and the like can be treated just like other accommodations that do not offer refunds. In this case, you would want to get a policy in the amount you would forfeit if you had to cancel for a covered reason like illness. Again, fear of travel is not a covered reason; for that, you would need CFAR. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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