When you purchase travel insurance, it’s not unreasonable to assume that you are, well, insured for all aspects of your trip. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Travelers are frequently frustrated to find that their travel insurance coverage is full of holes—with exclusions that are typically stated in the fine print but nonetheless confusing and sometimes counterintuitive.
For example, whether there’s a pandemic or a natural disaster out of your control, trip cancellation insurance doesn’t cover cancellation under every possible circumstance: To qualify for those, you must purchase a “cancel for any reason” add-on.
If there’s ever a time to read the fine print, purchasing travel insurance is it. Don’t take my word for any of the following, or the word of the person selling you the policy, or the sales page of the insurance company’s website—read the contract for yourself. It will be an enlightening experience.
The old adage “you get what you pay for” tends to apply here. Less expensive insurance packages typically include less comprehensive coverage.
Below are 18 things travel insurance coverage usually doesn’t include. For purposes of clarity, most apply to the highest tiers offered by most insurance companies; that is, most of these travel insurance exclusions apply to even the most comprehensive policies. In some cases you can purchase special add-ons to cover these exclusions. Ask when purchasing.
Health Crises (Like Pandemics) That Begin Before You Purchase
As with natural disasters, trip insurance may generally cover losses due to global health emergencies, but you must make the purchase before the crisis is a “known event.” According to SmarterTravel’s Ed Perkins: “Your best bet for recouping costs is ‘cancel for any reason’ insurance purchased before [the pandemic] was a known event.” The date from which the event is “known” varies depending on the insurance company; for COVID-19 it’s largely been January 21 through 27. Most travel insurance policies won’t cover cancellation due to fear of a pandemic, so if you want to use insurance to protect your payments—particularly nonrefundable airfares—make sure it’s a “cancel for any reason” policy.
With nonrefundable air tickets, your recourse is either to rely on the airline’s generosity (some do waive fees in times of emergency) or buying cancel-for-any-reason insurance. Most policies exclude “foreseeable” contingencies, or existing threats like already-known pandemics.
Losses Due to Pre-Existing Conditions
Travel insurance coverage does not extend to most pre-existing medical conditions, and the definition of “pre-existing” often depends on the timing of when you are diagnosed and when you purchase your travel insurance—with a so-called “look-back period” that is usually 60, 90, or 180 days prior to the day you purchase your insurance.
In short, your travel insurance does not cover losses due to conditions for which there were either symptoms or treatment during the look-back period. You will be covered for losses due to so-called “stable” conditions for which no change in treatment or symptoms has occurred.
Say you’ve had arthritis for several years, with no major flare-ups or medication changes in the past six months. In this case you would likely be covered if you had an intense, debilitating flare-up during your trip. But if you had been having trouble with the condition in the months leading up to your vacation, your trip insurance would be unlikely to cover any losses related to your arthritis unless you purchased a specific add-on.
Natural Disasters That Begin Before You Purchase Insurance
Trip insurance generally covers losses due to hurricanes or tropical storms, but you must make the purchase before the storm is named. Similar conditions typically apply to other natural disasters; if you buy a policy after a volcano starts erupting, for example, you won’t be covered for any losses related to that volcano’s activity.
Routine dental care is not included in travel insurance coverage, although dental trauma may be under some circumstances. One policy I reviewed provides coverage only for damage to “sound natural teeth,” for example.
Losses Due to Mental or Emotional Disorders
Most travel insurance policies do not cover claims involving psychiatric or emotional disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression. (In rare cases policies may cover these conditions if hospitalization is required.)
Travel for Medical Procedures
Most trip insurance will not cover issues that arise for those traveling specifically to get medical treatment (such as procedures available overseas that are not available or are too expensive at home).
Pregnancy and Childbirth
If you are pregnant and give birth while traveling, your travel insurance coverage generally will not include childbirth expenses. You might, however, have coverage for complications associated with pregnancy or childbirth. This is one to check carefully in advance if you’re planning to travel while pregnant.
Risky Activities and Sports
Active travelers, take note: Many travel insurance policies exclude losses due to adventure sports such as bungee jumping, backcountry skiing, snowboarding, rafting, caving, sky diving, scuba diving … you get the idea. Some policies take this even further, applying exemptions for any sports involving bodily contact. (That means your kid’s football tournament might not be covered.) If you’re planning an active vacation, carefully check the terms of your policy before committing.
Some of Your Favorite Stuff
Baggage delay, damage, and loss policies don’t cover everything in your bags. Common travel insurance exclusions include glasses, hearing aids, dental bridges, tickets, passports, keys, cash, and cell phones. In some cases these items are covered but only up to a certain dollar limit, so if you have multiple expensive electronic items (such as a laptop, a tablet, and a cell phone), you might not have enough coverage to pay for the loss of all such items.
Travel insurance tends not to cover weather that limits your activities on a trip. For example, you’re covered if the weather is bad enough to delay or cancel your flight, but not if it pours during a jungle hike. And unless you bought a “cancel for any reason” rider, you can’t call off your beach vacation just because the forecast calls for rain and clouds.
Flights Purchased with Miles
Most policies do not cover flights purchased with miles or points. They may cover associated fees if you decide to cancel or change an award fare, however.
Security Delays or Overbooked Flights
According to travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth, your policy typically won’t protect you if you miss a flight due to long airport security lines, or if you’re bumped from an overbooked flight and miss a subsequent connection or cruise departure.
Lost Reservations or Double-Booked Accommodations
Squaremouth also notes that travel insurance coverage doesn’t include certain lodging snafus. A lost hotel reservation will have to be taken up with the company or travel agent that lost it. And if you find someone else in the vacation rental you reserved, you’ll have to take it up with the site through which you booked.
Accommodations That Aren’t as Expected
An accommodation that’s a lot less desirable when you arrive than it looked to be online generally isn’t covered by travel insurance. Researching accommodations on review sites like TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) falls on you. The exception is if your hotel or vacation rental is uninhabitable due to a natural disaster, structural damage, or the like.
If you find your event or sightseeing excursion ticket turns out to be fake, typical travel insurance won’t cover you, says Squaremouth. Make sure you’re using a trusted ticket or tour outlet.
If your cruise line or tour operator makes a last-minute itinerary or excursion change, travel insurance typically won’t cover any travel issues caused by it, unless it involves complete curtailment. You can try contacting the operator responsible for the changes about compensation.
Anything for Which You Lack Documentation
If you don’t have a solid paper trail for all causes and costs involved in your claim, your chances of reimbursement plummet. Keep records like your wallet depends on it.
Anything NOT in the List of Covered Items
Travel insurance works largely by inclusion of items specifically noted to be covered, and anything not mentioned is likely not covered. If you have a concern that you don’t see listed in the fine print, contact the travel insurance company to see if you can purchase an appropriate add-on.
Did I skip other important things travel insurance coverage doesn’t include? Post your thoughts in the comments.
More from SmarterTravel:
- How Annual Travel Insurance Could Save You Money
- How to Get Travel Insurance in Under 5 Minutes
- 9 Nasty Truths About Car Rental Insurance
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ed Perkins contributed to this story.