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Coronavirus outbreak: Travel insurance may not cover associated losses

  • TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
                                Airline passengers wear face masks as a precaution to the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus at the airport in Cengkareng, Indonesia, on Feb. 1.

    TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

    Airline passengers wear face masks as a precaution to the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus at the airport in Cengkareng, Indonesia, on Feb. 1.

You were supposed to be going to China, but coronavirus has scared you and you want to cancel. “I have travel insurance,” you say to yourself. “No problem.”

Not so fast. Even if you have travel insurance, you may not be covered.

The standard wisdom about travel insurance: It covers what has happened to you, not what might happen to you.

Here is a Q&A on what’s covered, what’s not, in light of the novel coronavirus outbreak that started in December. On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared it a public health emergency of international concern. And the U.S. Department of State has raised the threat level to 4 for China: Do not travel. “Travelers should be prepared for travel restrictions to be put into effect with little or no advance notice,” the newest warning says. “Commercial carriers have reduced or suspended routes to and from China.”

Travelers who had booked trips or are considering them must now face difficult questions, partly because their health and safety could be at risk and partly because their investment in a vacation may be threatened. Here’s what we know so far:

Question: Are such outbreaks as coronavirus covered by regular travel policies?

Answer: Doubtful. “Unfortunately, there is limited cancellation coverage (for coronavirus) under most standard travel insurance policies,” Kasara Barto of Squaremouth.com, a travel insurance comparison site, said in an email. “Virus outbreaks do not fall under the standard cancellation reasons on most travel insurance.”

Q: But didn’t the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell travelers they should “avoid non-essential travel” to China?

A: Yes, but in terms of insurance, Squaremouth noted, travelers “are not prevented from” going.

Q: Doesn’t the State Department say you should not travel to China, especially Wuhan, the center of the coronavirus outbreak?

A: The State Department on Jan. 30 raised its threat warning, saying you should not travel to China. Previously the threat level was a 3, which means “reconsider,” except for Wuhan, which was a 4 (do not travel).

Q: The World Health Organization said the outbreak is an international health emergency. Does that change the dynamics of insurance coverage?

A: No, insurance experts say, because now coronavirus is not unexpected. The risk is there and not a surprise.

Q: But what if everything I wanted to see is closed?

A: Too bad. Even if big attractions are closed and visiting them was to have been a big part of your trip, you still aren’t covered.

Q: What if my flight was canceled and I had prepaid, nonrefundable plans, such as hotels or day trips? Do I get money back?

A: Maybe. Many airlines are cutting back or canceling service in the face of this outbreak. (Some airlines are refunding money; others are giving a credit or waiving change fees.) Regardless, canceled service means other prepaid plans would fall by the wayside. But there may be good news in this.

“Comprehensive travel insurance plans can cover prepaid, nonrefundable expenses such as hotels, tours, flights, etc.,” Meghan Walch, product manager for InsureMyTrip, which also lets you compare policies, said in an email.

Q: What if I have insurance and get sick with coronavirus?

A: The good news about coverage in that case is bad news for you: If you contract coronavirus before you travel or while you’re traveling, your care probably will be covered if you have standard travel insurance. The key word is “probably.”

Q: Why probably?

A: Many insurers set a deadline — a date before which you might be covered but after which you won’t be. In other words, if your insurer says you’re not covered if you bought your policy after a certain date, take that to heart.

That’s because coronavirus is now a “foreseen circumstance” — that is, people now know about it.

If you bought insurance, note that the cutoff date for when this outbreak became a “foreseen circumstance” will vary by provider so it’s important to know the “buy by” date that was or is being offered.

Q: Is there anything I can do to be covered for a trip I wanted to make but now am not sure about?

A: There is one kind of travel insurance that can help: cancel-for-any-reason, or CFAR, insurance. It means what it says: If you decide you don’t want to risk (fill in the blank for anything that you consider problematic) or you just don’t think the trip sounds fun anymore, if you have CFAR, it should have you covered.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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