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Why your travel insurance might not cover the coronavirus

Trip insurance is designed for “unforeseen events.” An expert says the coronavirus isn’t.

A woman wearing a protective mask at Italy’s Santa Lucia train station.
Manuel Romano/Getty Images

Editor’s note, March 31: There have been significant developments in the coronavirus pandemic since this story was last updated, and some details may no longer apply. For our most up-to-date coverage, visit our coronavirus hub. Click here for the CDC’s current public health guidance.

The global and domestic spread of the novel coronavirus has prompted travelers to reassess their travel plans through 2020. Already, airlines are canceling hundreds of flights, foreign cities are shutting down, and high-profile companies are asking employees to limit “non-essential” travel. These developments have many people wondering: Is it safe for me to travel overseas? Will I be able to get a refund for my trip if I back out? What happens if I get sick during a trip?

Within the past week, several countries, including South Korea, Iran, Italy, and Japan, have been added to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s growing travel advisory list since the outbreak began in Wuhan, China. A month ago, these countries appeared to be somewhat of a safe travel bet, but that’s changed. The World Health Organization has raised its risk assessment to the highest level, as more than 60 countries have reported cases.

Experts recommend travelers to consider the risk of the destination they’re heading to and follow the advice of authoritative bodies, like the World Health Organization, the US State Department, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, before making a decision. Jennifer Nuzzo, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Vox’s Julia Belluz: “I’m more concerned about the unpredictability of the [outbreak] response at this point. It would not be fun to go to China and get stuck there somehow. And coming back, you’ll be subject to additional screenings” or quarantines.

If you’re hesitant to move forward with a trip at this point, most travel insurance won’t cover a cancellation, according to Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison site. That’s because travel insurance is “designed to cover unforeseen events,” and Covid-19 is now considered a “foreseen event,” unless you purchased it before a specific date, Squaremouth content director Steven Benna told me.

“Most travelers generally look for a policy with cancellation benefits and emergency medical benefits that cover them while they’re traveling,” he said. “At this point, the only cancellation coverage available is the ‘cancel for any reason’ insurance, which is a time-sensitive upgrade.” The “cancel for any reason” coverage usually has to be purchased within 21 days from the first payment for a trip, whether that be airfare or a hotel reservation, and can cost about 40 percent more than a standard trip cancellation insurance. However, the tradeoff might be worth it since “cancel for any reason” reimburses travelers up to 75 percent of their trip cost.

To put it simply, the most basic travel insurance options are likely not offering refunds for the coronavirus — no matter how widespread the disease becomes. There are cases where you might get a trip refunded, but it’ll only apply if you purchased the insurance before Covid-19 became a global threat (before late January, according to Benna).

“Some providers do exclude epidemics or pandemics outright,” Benna added. “Others have specific language that won’t refer to whether or not something’s a pandemic, but would have a foreseeability date whether something has an impact on travel.”

For those worried about contracting the disease on a trip, Benna said that some insurance packages still offer medical benefits for travelers, which includes emergency and medical evacuation coverage. The benefits would only apply for those who contract it during the trip, but currently, the coronavirus outbreak “is a unique situation and it varies,” he added.

If you’ve already purchased trip insurance for an upcoming vacation, the best thing you can do is read the fine print or call the insurance company to figure out what’s covered under your policy. Every provider offers different insurance options that can vary depending on what you’ve selected, and it might not be too late to upgrade to a more comprehensive plan. But if you’re determined to carry on with your vacation, remember: Consider the risks and check those travel advisories.

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