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Tentative travelers have a number of potential safety nets

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: March 14
  • Published March 14

People visit an international terminal at John F. Kennedy airport, Friday, March 13, 2020, in New York. A ban on travelers from most European countries began at midnight Friday, and travelers returning from there will be screened. The ban is the latest calamity for a global travel industry already reeling from falling bookings and canceled reservations as people try to avoid contracting and spreading the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Alaskan travelers are bracing for the first wave of novel coronavirus cases on our home turf. Schools will be closed. Meetings and events are being canceled and the trending playlist on some iPhones is “hand-washing theme songs.”

Those of us with trips planned are checking to see if the planes still are flying, or if they’re still accepting visitors where they land. Many cruise ships are tying up in the harbor to sit things out for a month or two.

In this age of non-refundable tickets, travelers are checking with their insurance providers to see about changes or cancellations. You can change or cancel your trip, of course. The question is how much money, if any, will you get back from the airline, tour company or hotel.

Even if you don’t have a standalone travel insurance policy, you may be covered. For example, when we had our belongings stolen in Sicily, it was my homeowner’s insurance from Allstate that helped. We lost two laptops, a lot of camera gear and some other essentials, easily exceeding the $500 deductible.

The credit card you used to make your arrangements most likely has some insurance tied to it. That helped out when I had a fender-bender in Seattle. My Alaska Airlines card (from Bank of America) provides primary collision-damage waiver coverage for car rentals.

Right now, though, many travelers are weighing the benefits of traveling against the risk of getting COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

Daniel Durazo is the director of communications for Allianz Global Assistance, based in Richmond, Virginia. I have a policy with Allianz because they offer an annual plan, instead of purchasing a separate policy for each trip.

“If people become sick because of the novel coronavirus, we will extend emergency medical coverage,” Durazo said. “Plus if you or a family member gets sick and your doctor feels you shouldn’t travel, you’re covered. But if you’re afraid to travel, that’s not covered,” he said.

“We recently brought a guy back from Italy, where he had suffered a stroke. He was in the hospital for six weeks. We brought him back on Lufthansa, where we booked 16 seats. We do this all the time,” he said.

Allianz offers a 15-day “look and see” period. “That way you can select a policy and read through it. If it doesn’t work, you can get a refund,” he said.

Many airlines, including Alaska Airlines, have amended their policies to allow changes because of the coronavirus pandemic. Durazo advises travelers to contact the airline if you want to change or cancel — even if you cannot find a specific policy on the website.

Some insurance plans are custom-tailored to certain itineraries. If you're going on a remote trip to Africa, your tour operator may mandate a specific policy that works best for the trip.

World Nomads is an insurance company designed for adventurers. Depending on the policy you select, you can be covered for scuba diving, hang gliding, motorbiking, hockey and skydiving. Of course, terms and conditions apply.

So, with World Nomads you’re covered for a wide range of adventurous activities. Still, “we won’t provide coverage because of fear,” said Lisa Cheng, who is based in the company’s Oakland, California, office.

Valerie Wilson caught the travel bug early. Her parents took her along on trips from an early age. But a four-year bout with Lyme disease clipped her wings. After that, she started "traveling like a mad woman. I had to see everything before I was bed-ridden again."

Her love of travel and her writing skills led to the development of her own travel blog, trustedtravelgirl.com.

Things were going well until she woke up in a Swiss hotel with a sharp pain in her abdomen.

“This was at the beginning of a dream trip for me — skiing in the Swiss Alps,” she said.

"But I was so sick (with appendicitis) that I literally had to crawl out of bed to unlock the deadbolt in my hotel room. They called an ambulance and packed up all of my stuff as I was taken to the hospital.

“First I called my mom’s friend, who is a doctor in the U.S. Then I called my mom. Then I called Travel Guard. I have an annual travel insurance policy and the premium was about $250,” she said.

Wilson said Travel Guard covered the entire cost of her surgery, prescriptions and most of the cost of her extra days at the hotel after surgery. The company also booked a lie-flat business class seat for her return to the U.S.

Also important to Wilson was the round-the-clock availability of doctors and nurses who talked her through her whole stay in Switzerland. "I was on a first-name basis with many of the folks on Travel Guard's medical team," she said. "They would tell me that I had to get up and walk around instead of just laying in bed. They told me to breathe deep, even though it hurt," she said.

Now, on her Instagram TV account, Wilson has posted several videos about the importance of travel insurance.

Wilson said she’s getting lots of questions about traveling during the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s really a personal decision,” she said.

One thing we agreed on: It’s a cheap time to book travel. Flying in the U.S. is a bargain right now as demand for air travel takes a nosedive. If you’re inclined to fly, fares between Anchorage and Chicago or Los Angeles start at $98 one-way with Alaska Airlines for travel through June 10. Fares are available from Anchorage to Quito, Ecuador, for $597 round trip on either Delta or United between now and early December. And nonstop fares from Anchorage to Dallas/Fort Worth on American are available for $305 round trip between May 7 and June 25.

Fares from the U.S. to Europe are unstable right now because of the recent travel restrictions placed on European travelers to the U.S. Actions like the European travel restrictions, plus the travel restrictions for China and South Korea, compound the uncertainty for travelers. It’s another reason to have a good travel insurance policy.

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