By Kristen A. Lee -- AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — With swine flu dominating the headlines, planning a trip — especially an international one — may feel less like a vacation than a headache and a gamble.
If you're planning to travel, you may be considering an investment in travel insurance, which — depending on the policy — could offer you some coverage if you have to cancel or cut short a vacation.
Michael Ambrose, president of the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, stresses that each policy is different. The key is to call your insurer and ask specific questions to determine the conditions under which you will — or won't — be covered.
"When you get the insurance, get the facts," Ambrose says. "Ask the questions up front."
To help start the process, here are answers to some key questions:
Q: Who buys travel insurance?
A: Ambrose estimates that about 30 percent of U.S. travelers buy travel insurance, which he said is probably dominated by travelers going on cruises, tours or international trips. Travel agency Liberty Travel said about 38 percent of its customers who buy vacation packages get a travel insurance plan.
Ambrose says the numbers have risen over the past few years as terrorism, natural disasters and other medical scares like SARS have highlighted the risks of going away.
"It's unfortunate that bad news sometimes helps our business, but the reality is people don't think about these things until they happen," Ambrose says.
Q: What special protection does travel insurance give me if my trip is ruined because of swine flu?
A: That will depend on your policy and the circumstances. If you get sick while you're on vacation, most policies will provide some benefits for medical care, evacuation or quarantine.
You'll also have access to guidance from your insurance company if you need to find a hospital or leave the area quickly.
It's a different story, though, if you decide to cancel a trip in advance because of a swine flu outbreak or CDC warning.
Travel Guard Vice President Dan McGinnity says most traditional travel plans will not provide coverage for canceling a trip due to a health scare.
"Most of our policies have a provision in there for terrorism but not for something like swine flu," adds Ambrose, who is also the president of Travelex Insurance Services.
For a higher premium, a "cancel for any reason" policy would provide you with at least a partial refund if you decide to cancel your trip in advance because of swine flu or anything else.
"You won't get back 100 percent, but you will get back a percent," Ambrose says.
Q: Swine flu isn't the only worry on my mind. What if I lose my job after I book my trip?
A: Many policies do include provisions that cover trips that are canceled because of job loss, Ambrose says. Again, you have to ask.
In fact, many insurance providers have relaxed their restrictions — like minimum years of employment — for those policies as unemployment has increased over the past six months or so.
That helps both parties involved. "As the policies start adapting more to the consumer, our take-up rate becomes better and better," Ambrose says.
Q: So when is travel insurance worth the cost?
A: Ambrose estimates that travel insurance will cost between 3.5 percent and 9 percent of the cost of your trip, depending in part on your age and what kind of plan you choose.
Jameson Kowalczyk of Liberty Travel says the company's agents recommend some form of travel insurance for any trip, but the type depends on factors like where the customer is going and the length of the stay.
"We've all traveled enough to know that unexpected things do happen," he said in an e-mail. "Flights get canceled, bags arrive late."
"Plus," he added, "unexpected things can also happen at home — before you leave or while you're away — which may cause you to interrupt, delay or cancel a trip."
Ambrose suggests that travelers check their medical and other insurance policies before their trips to find out when they will be covered under those plans. You may or may not be covered under your health insurance policy, for example, when you are out of the country.
Otherwise, it's a case-by-case decision. "It really comes down to that comfort level in what you have invested in the trip and what you can afford to lose," Ambrose says.
Q: Do I have some coverage already anyway, even without separate travel insurance?
A: Credit cards generally offer coverage for catastrophic events or accidents while a person is traveling. People who pay for a trip using an American Express card, for example, automatically receive some coverage for lost baggage, car rental damage, roadside assistance and even some injuries or death.
For an additional fee, card holders can get coverage for missed flights, medical expenses, emergency evacuation and other circumstances.
But don't count on it. As ever, Ambrose says, check the fine print.
• Secrets To Travel Successhttp://www.mainstreet.com/article/lifestyle/travel/secrets-travel-success
• Common Cents: How to Get a Refund on Vacation Travelhttp://www.mainstreet.com/article/lifestyle/travel/common-cents-how-get-refund-vacation-travel
• Travel Insurance: When Do You Need It?http://www.mainstreet.com/article/lifestyle/travel/travel-insurance-when-do-you-need-it
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