When Things Go Wrong: Six Scenarios to Daunt the Most Intrepid Traveler

Here are some real-life examples of hazards faced by adventurous travelers.

You meet up with a pickpocket

While you're touring the Vatican, a pickpocket steals your passport and wallet, leaving you with no credit or bank cards and less than $20 USD in cash.It most likely happened while you were staring up at the incredible ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, your attention riveted on the paintings of Michelangelo. You barely felt a tug before the divine turned into a tourist's version of hell after your cash and passport were stolen out of your backpack.

You have to rush back home only a day or so into your trip

Your mother has a stroke and you have to fly home two days into your trip to India. Your return ticket isn't for three more weeks, and you've got a nonrefundable tour and hotel bookings for that time. Besides these losses, a last-minute one-way return ticket could cost you another $1,000 or so. Trip cancellation insurance will cover you when you have to cancel or interrupt a trip due to sickness, a death in the family or another calamity listed in the policy.

You suffer a medical emergency abroad

You fall on a trek in the mountains of Nepal, get a compound fracture of your leg and have to be airlifted to the nearest hospital. Then you need to be flown to a major hospital in the United States for surgery and a leg infection.

Luckily, you bought medical evacuation insurance as part of a comprehensive package. Without insurance, the damage could be huge: Air evacuation could cost $20,000, and the commercial airline that flew you home for treatment could require you to travel on a stretcher with a paramedic, which means that you might have had to purchased ten or more seats on a plane at a possible cost of more than $10,000, according to Janet Ruiz of the Insurance Information Institute.

And that's not including the medical treatment. Some of the medical costs may be paid by your primary health insurance company - eventually. You most likely would have to pay upfront first and wait to be reimbursed, according to Ruiz.

You have a run-in with nature

There you are, walking on a swinging-rope bridge on a Costa Rica adventure travel tour and admiring the monkeys scampering along with you. Suddenly one leaps onto your shoulder and pulls out a chunk of your hair. As you shriek and try to bat it off, the monkey bites you on the hand. Bad monkey! Now your trip is on hold while you get a series of rabies injections at the local hospital. But you bought travel insurance with coverage for these unexpected medical expenses, extra days in a hotel while getting treated, and the cost of altering your trip. The cancellation part of the policy takes care of the nonrefundable hotel and other losses, said Ruiz.

You get a tropical disease

You're volunteering for a non-profit in Brazil. You double-checked to make sure that the agency would pay for any accidents, sickness of other medical costs while you were serving there. It was good you asked, since this program advised you to get comprehensive coverage -and to be sure it covered the entire six months you are there, as many policies only cover two months of travel. You developed dengue fever four months into the program, and had coverage for all the medical costs as well as the cost of rebooking your return ticket.

You lose everything overnight

Everything - and that is everything - you have with you is stolen out of the compartment of an overnight train in Thailand after you dropped off to sleep. You arrive in Chang Mai with no clothes, laptop, video camera, smart phone, passport, or cash. But your provider has a 24/7 hotline that put you in touch with all the right places and people, and your Baggage Insurance or Personal Effects Coverage took care of most of these issues, including replacing clothes and toiletries for the rest of your trip.


Insuring Against the Unpredictable: What Travel Insurance Will and Won't Cover

Some think travel insurance isn't for them, because they don't expect trouble. But that's really the reason for insurance - because we don't know what will happen. Unless you are exceptionally wealthy, you likely need some travel insurance to protect you against the unexpected.

Travel insurance isn't free: fees range from 4 to 8 percent of your total trip cost, depending on circumstances. For a short domestic trip costing less than $1,000, it may not be worth it. But when big bucks -or your health - are at risk, it can be a wise investment.

When the trip of a lifetime doesn't happen

Consider this true story: A couple invested in a cruise to the Caribbean - something the husband had always wanted to do. Because it was such a large investment, "he made me buy travel insurance for the first time," said his wife. "He died a few days before we were supposed to leave." Stunned and grieving, she canceled the trip. A few months later she got notice that the trip money had been refunded to her credit card in full.

In another real-life example, two old friends had planned a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa costing more than $34,000. Shortly before the trip, the grown son of one of the travelers died in a freak skiing accident. Because they were insured, both got a full refund within a month for all including air, hotel, river cruise, train and safari charges.

Too sick for Harry Potter

Parents know to prepare for just about anything, so they are among the groups most likely to buy travel insurance. A couple might invest $7,700 in nonrefundable airline tickets and a four-night package deal with hotel at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood for their two kids. If two days before the trip, the 8-year-old developed strep throat, they would be out all their money. But if they bought travel insurance, they would be fully reimbursed and could book again when the child was better.

Cash is not covered

Some losses can't be insured against. A frequent traveler from San Francisco was carrying $1,000 in cash to pay for a house rental in Tuscany. As he hailed a cab outside a hotel in Florence, a snatch-and-run thief made off with the briefcase that was resting between his feet. The $250 briefcase was covered - but not the money. (For more on exclusions and what isn't covered, see: Pitfalls to Avoid When Shopping for Travel Insurance.)

What Type of Travel Insurance Should You Get?

The type of travel insurance - and your cost - depends on several things: the cost and length of your trip, the destination, your activities, your age, when you buy the insurance and what you choose to cover. Generally, travel insurance will cost 4-8 percent of your total trip cost. For a $6,000 trip for two in an exotic location, that could be $510 or more.

There are literally hundreds of options in buying travel insurance. However, coverage can be grouped into some basic categories, most often packaged and sold together as comprehensive coverage.

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    Comprehensive Travel Insurance

    You can shop a la carte, buying only what you need. However, it may be more economical to buy a comprehensive plan with multiple protections, even if it has some coverage you don't think you will use. An experienced travel agent can be a great help in finding the right kind for you. As always, be sure you understand exactly what coverage and services you are purchasing.

    Comprehensive coverage generally pays for:

    • Emergency medical expenses abroad (some plans charge separately for medical evacuation)
    • Emergency hospitalization
    • Cancellations due to family illness
    • Cancellation due to unforeseen circumstances such as a hurricane or flood
    • Trip delay expenses (note that there are often minimum delay times before coverage kicks in. Travel Guard's coverage, for example, begins after a 5-hour delay)
    • Lost and stolen baggage (up to a certain dollar amount). There are usually minimum delay times for missing baggage, too; Travel Guard, for example, covers delays of more than 12 hours.

    Some comprehensive plans also cover disability and loss of income from travel accidents or death.

    Here are some of the types of insurance you can buy singly or bundled together in one policy:

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    Financial Travel Protection

    This covers your expenses for transport and accommodations, events and lost or stolen baggage and personal items. Here's some typical coverage:

    • Trip Cancellation Protection
      Next to medical costs, this is the big one, and includes reimbursement for non-refundable trip payments and deposits. This would also usually reimburse you if a cruise line or tour operator goes out of business.

    • Trip Interruption Protection
      Sometimes trips end prematurely due to forces of nature and other circumstances beyond your control. This benefit includes reimbursement for unused costs and transportation costs to return home.

    • Baggage and Personal Possession coverage
      Pays to replace lost or stolen items while traveling.

    • Coverage for financial default
      What if the tour operator for your upcoming family vacation goes out of business? Travel insurance may be your most reliable means of financial recourse. In addition, look for airlines and tour operators who are covered for financial default.

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    Medical Coverage

    This insures you for health issues that arise during a trip. It can include emergency medical evacuation. Much medical insurance you buy is supplemental to your existing basic health coverage. Be aware: Policies may exclude existing conditions. (See Pitfalls) Also, basic Medicare does not cover you when out of the country. Many on Medicare have a supplemental (or gap) policy: check to see whether yours covers you. The U.S. State Department advises you to have both medical and emergency evacuation coverage, warning that "foreign hospitals and doctors often require payment in cash, and emergency medical evacuation can cost up to $100,000."

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    24-hour Assistance Service.

    This is included as a telephone service in many policies. Getting real-time help when you're in a mess is invaluable, especially when you don't speak the local language. This can include arranging evacuations for medical emergencies, pre-trip assistance, passport replacement and many other things.

How long does travel insurance last?

When picking a plan, you should consider how often you travel and how long on will be on the road. Some plans may cover you for a short time, but you can extend that protection if it makes sense.

Here are the most common options:

    For a single trip with no extensions

    For the frequent traveler. It goes into effect automatically for every trip taken.

    For those planning to travel for a year or more.

    For 10 or more traveling together.

When to buy more extensive coverage

Consider adding more coverage if any of these scenarios applies to you and your trip.

  • You are going to a remote area not easily accessible to medical care
  • You're planning to combine adventure travel and sports, which mean more exposure to possible injuries
  • You have a medical condition that might flare up and cause a cancellation
  • A member of your family is in poor health, which might cause you to cancel a trip
  • You are pregnant. Most pregnancies are uneventful, but an injury or illness could be more serious
  • You are disabled, since disabled access is not easily available in many parts of the world
  • You are older. You may be more susceptible to certain illnesses or injuries

Why Students Might Need Travel Insurance

Young, eager - and targeted by thieves

Student-age travelers are among the U.S. groups most likely to have something go wrong during travel. Even so, only slightly over half of student-age tourists carry travel insurance, according to a UStiA survey.

If you're a student, you may feel like you're wasting money on insurance, especially when you're penny-pinching and planning on a budget-level vacation. But when things go wrong and the unexpected happens, you may find yourself in extensive debt.

Adventure travel blogger and photographer Matt Karsten recommends travel insurance on his site ExpertVagabond.com. "Why? Because —- happens. Whether you think it will or not. Despite your best-laid plans and preventative measures." One friend, he recounts, contracted a flesh-eating parasite while trekking through the Peruvian jungle and required months of specialized treatment, including an emergency flight back to the United States. Another had his room in a five-star Mexican resort ransacked. And Karsten himself had his expensive laptop stolen shortly after he let his travel insurance lapse. "My point here is you never know," he writes.

What kind of travel insurance do students studying abroad need most?

Many American students are leaving home to study abroad for short-term courses or an entire academic year, or longer. In 2013-14, more than 327,000 U.S. students took courses in foreign countries.

Choosing the right type and amount of insurance is important, both for medical coverage and theft protection. Many students travel with credit cards, expensive computers, smartphones and other portable devices that tend to attract thieves, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Also, students may take more risks when away from home: A recent survey by On Call International show students studying abroad admitted to drinking and blacking out more in other countries, which makes them more vulnerable to thieves.

To find the best travel insurance coverage:
  1. First, check with the academic institutions at home and abroad, to see what coverage is recommended or required, and look for policies that meet those requirements. They may even offer or recommend policies best for the specific location and country.
  2. Next, be sure that any policy covers the entire time away from home base. Not all policies cover more than a month or two, and that includes annual policies, said Daniel Durazo, director of communications for Allianz Global Assistance insurance.
  3. Read the policy carefully and ask questions, looking for travel time and other limits and exclusions. A number of insurers offer policies specifically for students or health insurance separately from other travel coverage. Yet others offer an option for tuition protection.

The costs average between 2 and 6 percent the total program cost (tuition, airfare, accommodations, and so on). You can shop for them among different providers on trip comparison websites.

Safety tips for students abroad

Here's what the U.S. State Department advises for students and other traveling abroad:

Find out more about your destination at travel.state.gov. The site will tell you about local laws, customs, medical care and visa requirements and whether women or LGBT people may encounter "additional challenges."

Read up on health precautions. The World Health Organization and The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will list any vaccinations and travel precautions yo should take.

Look for special alerts about your destination. Check the State Department site for any Travel Warnings or Travel Alerts for the country you're traveling to. These alerts warn of any new risks that could affect you or your plans.

students-abroad Carry contact details for the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate in English and the local language. In an emergency, you can also contact the state department in Washington, D.C. at 202-501-4444.

Read up on how to handle money abroad and how to use ATMs and credit cards at your destination.

Get a letter from your doctor about any medications you're bringing, since some countries have strict laws about meds.

Here are some other tips for students, courtesy of the FBI:

  • Never leave your drink unattended, since someone may try to slip a pill in it that will knock you out.
  • Choose clothes that don't draw unnecessary attention to yourself, including sports jerseys from American teams.
  • Avoid traveling alone, especially in the evening.
  • Don't wear flashy jewelry.

How Much Can You Save with Travel Insurance?

One question many travelers have is how much travel insurance will cover. Coverage varies with the exact policy you purchase, but here is a general summary of what you could expect.

Travel Problem
What Insurance Will Cover
Potential Savings

Cancelled Trips: The major reason people buy insurance is to cover a flight or an expensive vacation. Cancel for Any Reason plans offer the most coverage. However, it's also the most expensive.

Read the cancellation policy carefully, as coverage varies. Most cover cancellation for illness or accident. Cancellation for Any Reason covers just about anything - and for a major trip may be cost effective.

You could save anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a domestic flight to $34,000 for an African trip for two that includes safaris, train and boat journeys.

Interrupted Trips and Delays: Illness, accidents or missed flights can leave you stuck with nonrefundable hotel fees and other costs.

Look for trip interruption coverage, and see what it covers. Look for exclusions. Do you need a specific reason for a missed flight, for example?

You might have to buy a new airline ticket for $1,000 or so - or lose many thousands on cancelled flights, hotels and special events.

Stolen luggage or delayed luggage: You're in Rome but your bags are in Reno, with no ETA for their arrival.

A baggage policy will reimburse you and send you on your way with new items. Airline coverage is minimal, and the time to make a claim eats up part of your vacation.

Depending on what's in those bags, you could save thousands. But the time you save to get reequipped and back on your vacation is priceless.

Medical emergencies and expenses that arise on a trip

They will pay for expert care.

Generally anything up to $50,000, but could pay much more if you need hospitalization.

Medical emergency evacuation for when you really need expert medical care ASAP

This will cover you if you need to be transported to a place with better medical care.

Between $100,000 to $1 million. A transoceanic flight with paramedics and nurse could cost up to $120,000.

24/7 Assistance: Medical, disaster, terrorist activity: you need help ASAP

Many providers offer free 24/7 phone access; some policies give you concierge specialty services as well to replace passports and rebook hotels and flights.

Priceless, when your ID is missing or you have been mugged and robbed or injured and you don't speak the language.


How to file a travel insurance claim

Ideally, you should start the process for making a claim before you ever leave home. That means taking a careful inventory of everything you're bringing and knowing ahead of time what to do if it all goes missing.

  • Create records of important documents
    Scan and make a copy of your passport, itinerary, driver's license, insurance policy number and emergency contact number, and so on, and save them to the cloud or other place easily accessible from anywhere. Google and/or email them to yourself, and leave another copy with a trusted friend or family member.

  • Document the property you're taking with you
    Photograph your stuff: computers, tablets, phones, cameras, binoculars, and pricey sports gear. Jot down serial numbers. Include expensive jewelry or designer clothes.

  • Keep and copy receipts for everything
    hotel bills, restaurants, expensive items you buy, and any hospital and doctor costs. Secure copies by photographing them and sending images the cloud.

  • If your trip is delayed
    get the reason for it in writing from your tour operator or carrier.

  • If you've been robbed
    file a police report within 24 hours of the incident.

  • Call your insurer immediately
    if you think you may need to file a claim. Some policies require that you get medical treatment within 24 hours of an incident to be covered.

  • Send the documents to your insurer via certified mail
    so you have a receipt. And hold on to copy of all the documentation.

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Pare down to essentials. It's a truism: The less you take, the less to lose. You don't need to take as much as you think.

  • Thin out your wallet: take only two credit cards and a bank (ATM) card at most.
  • Avoid carrying lots of cash: this is one loss that's not covered. Get cash as you need it: ATMs are everywhere these days

Experts' Guide on Travel Insurance

  1. Where can you find savings in travel insurance?
  2. How do you know a travel insurance company is legitimate? What scams should I watch out for?
  3. What types of claims are paid out the most?
  4. How can you best find a policy that's right for you?
  5. What's the major pitfall to look out for?
Jeff Rolander
Jeff Rolander

VP of Claims at Faye Travel Insurance

Daniel Durazo
Daniel Durazo

Director of Communications


US Travel Insurance Association (UStiA)
The UStiA is a national association whose mission is to help develop ethical and professional standards for the industry. It website contains a useful FAQ about travel insurance.

U.S. Department of State Travel Alerts and Warnings
These warnings can help you decide whether to postpone your trip and/or what to watch out for in your destination country.

World Health Organization, International Health and Travel
Find out what vaccines you need before your trip and what precautions to take once you get there.

10 Travel Risks Not Worth Taking
Matador Network. A blog post from an experienced traveler that's well worth reading.

Study Abroad: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Health and safety advice for students traveling abroad.

Safety and Security for U.S. Students Traveling Abroad
Tips from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Student Travel Safety Checklist
Southwest Education Network. A guide to student group leaders to foreign countries.

CIEE Study Abroad, Health and safety tips for students.

Hosteling International
A global network of youth hostels with an emphasis on sustainable tourism.

A guide to more than 30,000 hostels worldwide, many of whom accept people of all ages.

About Judith Horstman

Judith Horstman headshot

Judith Horstman is an award-winning journalist who specializes in reporting on science, health and medicine. She has been a Washington correspondent for Gannett, a journalism professor, a Fulbright scholar and a senior editor at Time Inc. She is the author of seven books, including the popular Scientific American Day in the Life of Your Brain series. Her work has been widely published in media from leading newspapers and magazines to universities and websites. A popular public speaker, she is an editorial consultant and offers workshops on writing.