The volcanic ash clouds, the earthquakes, the tornadoes, the floods. Where will it all end? It won't, and that's why you should consider buying travel insurance for your next trip. Paying a few hundred dollars in premiums could save you untold grief and thousands of dollars if your trip goes awry.

Cases in point:

Thanks to insurance, Don Van Brackel and his wife, Madonna, of Coldwater, Mich., earlier this month received more than $8,000 in refunds on flights and a European cruise they missed when ash clouds from the Icelandic volcano disrupted air traffic in April. That was 10 times what their premiums cost.

The same disaster grounded Daniel and Kristy Dicke of Pasadena in France for a week. Daniel said the couple, who hadn't insured their trip, "burned through most of our savings" to get back home. They paid more than $4,500 for last-minute airfares and car rental.

Although trip insurance can be helpful, it won't cover every mishap or outright tragedy that can befall a journey. With rare exceptions, you can't just cancel your trip on a whim and get your money back.

But with the Icelandic volcano, earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, floods in Southern states — and don't forget that hurricane season starts Tuesday — 2010 is shaping up as a good year to think about insuring your next big trip.

Here's a primer on how to buy travel insurance, what you get and the pitfalls, gleaned from industry experts and travelers' experiences.

How do I get travel insurance?

You can buy it through an online broker, your travel agent or your tour or cruise company. Each source has its good and bad points.

Online brokers, such as and, make it easy to compare dozens of policies from different companies. Just be sure to read the full policy, not just the summary, before you buy.

Travel agents often work regularly with a single insurance company, so they may not be as familiar with other offerings. But that also means the agent should know the policy they sell, act as your advocate if problems arise and help you gather the right paperwork for claims.

Policies bought through tour and cruise operators can offer inexpensive, basic protection. But they generally will not cover you if you lose trip deposits because the operator itself goes bankrupt, and they may be tailored as much to protect the operator as the traveler. In some cases, benefits are paid in vouchers for future travel, not cash.

What should travel insurance cover?

It should reimburse you for nonrefundable deposits with cruise, tour and hotel companies, as well as extra airfare costs you may incur when the unexpected happens before or during a trip. Look for medical coverage too, including hospital stays and emergency evacuation, because your regular health insurance may not cover you outside the U.S.

How much should I pay for a premium?

Expect to pay 4% to 8% of your trip's cost for a so-called bundled or package policy, the most popular type, which covers situations such as travel delay and trip cancellation and interruption. Premiums vary by the buyer's age, the scope of coverage and other factors.

Will insurance handle every problem?

No. A standard policy covers you only if certain unforeseen events, such as illness, weather or labor strikes, affect your ability to start or complete your trip, or cause problems along the way. These events may be listed under "covered reasons" or "benefits" in your certificate of insurance.

Before you buy a policy, read the full certificate, which can run 20 pages or more. You can obtain this document from your travel agent or the insurance company, which may post it on its website.