Don't rely on a policy summary or other shorthand that refers vaguely to "weather coverage" or "illness coverage." Details count. Many insurers, for instance, won't cover pre-existing medical conditions if you buy a policy more than two weeks after making your first trip deposit.
I heard the ash clouds from the Icelandic volcano were going to shut down my departure airport for several days. So I canceled my tour. Can I get my money back?
I bought a "cancel for any reason" rider. Am I covered for everything?
A lot, but not everything. These increasingly popular riders, also called "cancel anytime" provisions, are optional additions to standard policies. Instead of limiting you to reasons listed in the policies, they allow you to cancel trips for any reason, even if you just change your mind. That can save you a lot of arguing over fine print.
The downsides: Your premium will cost about 50% more if you add the rider. And if you cancel your trip for a reason not listed in the main policy, you'll typically be covered for only 75% or 80% of your costs.
And here's another wrinkle: Often you'll need to cancel at least 48 hours before your scheduled departure to use the rider. So if a problem comes up the day before your trip, the rider doesn't help; you'll be covered only for reasons listed in the main policy. That's an issue when ash clouds close airspace on short notice.
My flight was canceled because an earthquake shut down the airport I was flying to and the airline had no idea when flights would resume. Because my policy contains coverage for natural disasters, I'll get my deposits back on my hotel or tour, right?
A. It's not a sure thing. If "natural disaster" in your policy is a covered reason for a broad range of situations, you're probably OK. But some policies won't pay unless the disaster affects your lodging.
That's what happened to Al and Carol Schuh of Valencia in March after the Chilean earthquake shut down the Santiago airport, causing the couple to miss a connecting flight to a fishing lodge in Patagonia, which was undamaged.
In denying their claim for more than $10,000 in tour deposits, the Schuhs' insurer quoted from their policy, which covered a "natural disaster at the site of your destination which renders your destination accommodations uninhabitable." It didn't matter that the couple could not get to the lodge.
Had the Santiago airport been shut by bad weather, the Schuhs might have been covered under a different policy provision. "Unfortunately, an earthquake is not considered a weather condition, it is a natural disaster," the insurance company wrote.
In case you're wondering: Ash clouds from the Icelandic volcano are being defined as "weather" by many insurers, even though the eruption itself might be classified as a natural disaster.
My insurer denied my claim. What else can I do?
You can file an appeal with the insurer or complain to your state insurance department. In California, the complaint line is (800) 927-4357 or you can file online at http://www.insurance.ca.gov.
If you paid for your trip with a credit card, you should also request a charge-back from the card company. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, card holders can have charges removed for goods or services that they do not receive. For that reason alone, it's wise to put big trip deposits on your credit card; never pay by cash or check.
Don't forget to check with your hotel and tour or cruise operator. Even if their policies say deposits are nonrefundable, they may make exceptions or offer vouchers for future travel.