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Travel Insurance: Is it Worth It?

Lessons learned when living through Category 5 Hurricane Irma in St Thomas

Traveling can be expensive. Flights, hotels, rental cars, excursions, and eating out cost enough. Tacking on a travel insurance premium on top of all this may seem to push expenses over the top.

We buy it anyway. Trip after trip we've bought a policy. There are exceptions- we skip it for roadtrips, when visiting family, and for weekend getaways; but if we're leaving the country or taking any organized tours, we get travel insurance along with our itinerary.

The thing is, we never use our travel insurance. We just pack our policy in our suitcase and never unpack it. After a while you start to wonder if it's worth it.

That is, we hadn’t used our travel insurance until… a category 5 hurricane was coming straight at us. She was named Irma and we were facing down the path of the storm while staying at a vacation rental in St. Thomas. She hit us almost head on with 185mph sustained winds for hours along with repeated wind gusts thrashing us at well over 200mph. Over the weeks to come, we learned a lot about travel insurance. Here are our top 7 travel insurance takeaways:

1) Read Your Policy

Who has time for that? Ain’t nobody got time for that. Pretty basic advice, but how many of us spend the time to read through our insurance policies? Turns out that every covered event has a trigger point stating a certain condition must be met in order to activate coverage benefits. If you're familiar with these thresholds, you’ll be better prepared when something throws your trip off course.

We had actually spent a lot of time researching travel insurance, including reading through competing policies to find the best fit for us. The trigger point in our policy was arguably illogical but pretty clear: we would be compensated for evacuating when an evacuation order was issued. Our problem was that the local and federal government never issued an evacuation order for their island territories. However, just because we didn't qualify for an evacuation benefit doesn't mean that other policy benefits didn't kick in. Our insurance company expertly assisted us with finding coverage benefits for our situation.

2) Your Safety is YOUR Responsibility

Travel insurance companies can have the best of intentions filled with people who really do care about your family’s wellbeing, but it is not their job to protect you. When push comes to shove, YOU must take charge of the situation and get your family to safety. Travel insurance companies may help to get you on your way, but your safety is your job.

We made the mistake to think that our insurance company's partner travel agency would evacuate us ahead of the storm no matter the situation- this was both unrealistic and implausible. What we should have done: as soon as the storm was a threat, we should have booked and bought refundable airfare out of there. This way if the hurricane continued its planned path away from us, we could refund our plane tickets at no cost. If the hurricane changed direction towards us (which she did), we could fly out ahead of the storm to safety and submit a claim for consideration. Instead, we got stuck in the heart of one of the most severe hurricanes to ever strike land. At least we took charge of our safety once we realized we would have to face the storm: we prepped in every way we could and we were resourceful in the aftermath to get off the island.

3) Call Early and Call Often

As soon as something goes wrong, contact your travel insurance straight away. The earlier they know something is off, the more helpful they can be to make it right. Don't assume they'll cover a claim and simply submit after the fact. Instead, call ahead and ask what your options are and what may be covered with your policy.

If you don't tell your insurance company that something is wrong, they aren't going to guess that it is. We dialed them up a soon as we heard the hurricane could hit. They walked us through our policy benefits and prerequisite coverage conditions. Throughout our ordeal we had daily calls (when we had cell service!) with the insurance team and sent detailed follow-up emails to confirm what was discussed.

4) Treat Insurance Contacts with Respect

If you have to talk with your travel insurance company, you are likely in a stressful or not-fun scenario. Don't take your frustrations out on the people that are trying to help you. Tell them what you need and how they can be helpful to you, but be courteous and thankful for their efforts- your kindness could go a long way towards getting results.

We got lucky for this one: we had no cell service, no internet, and no way to contact anyone after the storm. If we could have talked with our insurance company during the aftermath, it probably wouldn't have been pretty. Instead, we had days to compose our thoughts and calm our frustrations before we could call anyone.

5) Ask for What You Want

They can't read your mind. If you want something, you need to vocalize it. They won't pay it if you don't say it. When your plans change on you unexpectedly, it's tough to figure out what will make your situation any better. Be decisive.

Narrow down what will ease your worries and be specific. Provide a couple options for the insurance coverage to remedy your scenario so they can choose which they'd prefer to cover. We were perhaps too wide open: since our trip was interrupted, we said “we'll go anywhere!” Later we smartened up and sent 3 destination options each with detailed flight itineraries for them to review to approve.

6) Save Your Receipts

Sometimes policies cover more than you know. When plans go awry, every out of pocket dollar spent could quite possibly be covered.

After Irma hit, we stayed away from stores and the town to minimize exposure to safety issues and risk of looting in the unstable cash-only dystopia. Thankfully our condo had withstood the storm and we had stocked up on food and water days before the storm struck so we had little need to venture out. Just because you survived the storm doesn't mean you should take unnecessary risks in the aftermath. Once we found a way off the island to Puerto Rico, everything started getting pricey. Instead of cooking in our condo, we were in hotel rooms eating out for every meal. Expenses added up quickly and we wisely kept every receipt for reimbursement consideration on our claim.

7) Don't Feel Bad About Making a Claim

This was tough for us. We don't want to take any handouts. We like to earn what we get. Making a claim felt a bit like getting something for nothing. Except we've been paying travel insurance premiums for a decade, so we hadn't paid nothing. We had paid all of those years to be covered for just such an unfortunate event that we were stuck in.

We went through a horrible hurricane and lost out on weeks of our planned paid stay in paradise. Our interrupted trip was nothing compared to so many people who lost so much more- homes, businesses, boats, cars, property, livelihoods. A disaster of this magnitude is not good for anyone. Our insurance benefits don't bring back paradise or make the miserable memories go away, but they do cover the costs we lost to make it economically easier to move on to our next adventure.

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