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living roomIt’s easy to see a broken bone, but it’s harder to prove you’re feeling too distraught to travel. So if you or a loved one has ever struggled with mental illness, don’t count on travel insurance being there to reimburse you if your condition adversely affects your trip.

Two recent articles by NPR and Consumerist offer a cautionary tale about a couple who was refused coverage for a canceled trip due to their son’s mental health emergency (after a medication change, his doctor suggested that he not be left alone). Despite a letter of support from the psychiatrist, the couple was denied their $1,800 claim.

Travel Insurance: What You Need to Know

Travel insurance is not included under the Mental Health Parity Act and Affordable Care Act, which now mandates that health plans must cover preventive services like depression screening for adults and behavioral assessments for children at no cost, and that most plans won’t be able to deny coverage or charge more due to pre-existing health conditions, including mental illnesses. In fact, on the CDC’s website it says to be aware of “exclusions regarding psychiatric emergencies or injuries related to terrorist attacks or acts of war” when purchasing travel insurance. That means that unless your ailment is physical in nature, don’t expect anything in return for your turmoil from travel insurance.

According to NPR, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has received about 10 complaints about travel insurance discrimination over the past year. Travel insurance is state-regulated, so policies, fine print and subtleties will vary across the U.S. Some states flat-out do not offer mental health coverage or consider it a pre-existing condition. Options at this time seem limited for anyone who struggles with bouts of anxiety, depression or even loved ones who may require additional care.

To me, the stigma attached to mental illness reflects an outdated taboo about real disorders and serious conditions that affect one in four adults in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In my opinion it is discrimination, and coverage should extend to families who cope with mental health issues as much as it extends to physical ailments. Everyone deserves to travel and not worry about the consequences if they can’t.

Safety and Health Tips for Travelers

What are your thoughts about travel insurance coverage for mental illness? Have you experienced a similar issue with coverage?

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

hurricaneSummer travelers set to visit the Bahamas or just about anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard from North Carolina to New England have been glued to the Weather Channel. Thank Hurricane Irene for that. The major storm has been pummeling the Caribbean with 120-mile-per-hour winds, upending travel plans for those heading to the Bahamas by ship or plane. If the forecast from the National Hurricane Center holds up, most of the 13 original colonies are in for some serious bluster.

When a storm blows in, especially a beast like Irene, what should a savvy traveler do? Keep your eye on airline change fees, cruise ship itinerary scrambling and, if you have one, your travel insurance policy.

Travel Insurance and Storms
If you don’t have a travel insurance policy by now, nothing you purchase at this point will save your trip from Irene. For the next time around, know this: Not all travel insurance policies are created equal, but a good one will cover travelers for trip delay, interruption and cancellation in the event of a major storm — minus any compensation you get from a cruise line or airline.

For a general insurance overview, check out our Guide to Travel Insurance.

Magnanimous Airlines?
Let’s not get carried away, but with Irene looming, a number of U.S. carriers have temporarily adjusted their flight change fee policies. “Typically, the airlines allow you to change your travel dates without the usual fees, with no change in fare, and usually without limitations on your original fare bucket [during a major hurricane],” says Ed Perkins, writer for our sister site Smarter Travel. For example, United passengers originally booked to fly to select destinations from August 21 – 26 must complete their revised travel within seven days, and may have to check on seat availability in their original fare bucket (economy, business, etc.). Continental is being a little more generous. Passengers scheduled to fly to certain destinations from August 21 – 26 must complete their revised travel by the end of ticket validity (up to one year). These temporary policies do vary somewhat significantly, so check your carrier’s Web site for more information.

Many East Coast airports will close this weekend in preparation for the storm, and more than 1,000 flights have been canceled; check with your airline.

Cruises: Diverted but Never Canceled
Mobility is the cruise lines’ secret weapon against hurricanes. Nassau, to which Irene seems drawn, cannot relocate. Cruise ships can, even if it means a Bermuda sailing becomes a voyage to New England, which happened in 2005. More than a dozen Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean ships have scrambled their originally scheduled itineraries. Bahamas-bound ships have temporarily redeployed to the Western Caribbean, trading Nassau for Cozumel and the like. Worst case scenario: If a punishing hurricane makes a debarkation port inaccessible, the line may have to lengthen the cruise by a day, which of course impacts the 3,000 passengers waiting to board for the next sailing. This, however, is rare.

For regular updates on Irene’s impact on cruising, visit our sister site Cruise Critic’s Hurricane Zone, which is updated regularly.

– written by Dan Askin

uncertainty ahead road sign“THE FEAR’S BACK,” blares a CNNMoney headline over a graph showing the stock market’s latest plunge. Other news stories are filled with phrases like “volatile markets” and “economic uncertainty.”

But despite the turmoil, one thing is certain: we still want to travel. (If nothing else, I need a vacation from these scary headlines!) Here are a few ways to hedge your next trip against economic uncertainty.

1. Buy travel insurance. Maybe you can afford your trip to Thailand now, but what if you lose your job? Not all policies offer refunds if you have to nix a trip for this reason; look specifically for lay-off protection, or choose a policy with a “cancel for any reason” clause.

2. Keep an eye out for prices that go down after you buy. You’ll have to check for change fees and cancellation penalties first, but often you can update your reservation — or cancel and rebook — to take advantage of better rates on airline tickets, hotels and the like. See Watch for Falling Hotel Rates for more information.

3. Read reviews. When every vacation dollar is precious, you don’t want to waste any of them on a fleabag hotel, a rotten restaurant meal or a chronically late flight. You can find hotel reviews at TripAdvisor.com and big booking sites; restaurant reviews at Yelp.com and Urbanspoon.com; and airlines’ on-time records at FlightStats.com. JDPower.com is a good resource for ratings of car rental companies and airlines.

4. Have a back-up plan. Dealing with a lost passport or stolen wallet can eat up valuable vacation time. Pack a copy of your passport and credit cards (in a separate place from the originals, of course), and leave one with a friend or family member at home. You may also want to consider sending a PDF copy to your e-mail, where you can access it from any computer around the world. Having a few spare passport photos on hand is also a good idea. See How to Take On Travel Trouble for more advice.

5. Know your exchange rates. Economic volatility can make it difficult to tell just how much you’re really paying for that gorgeous Murano glass souvenir. Stay up to date with currency fluctuations by checking XE.com or Oanda.com, both of which offer smartphone apps. (See also our story on how to Get the Best Exchange Rate.)

6. Allow some wiggle room. It’s sad but true: every trip ends up costing more than you expect. Avoid sticker shock on your credit card statement by setting aside extra money before you leave to cover unforeseen expenses. Our Travel Budget Calculator can help you plan.

A few resources for cutting costs on your next trip:

-Travel Deals
-15 Ways to Get a Better Hotel Rate
-Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
-Weekend Getaways Under $500

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.

broken suitcase “Hey, buddy, stuff’s falling out of your bag,” said a customer in line at the Denver Airport Hertz. My suitcase zipper was ripped, and I was leaving a trail of balled socks and rolled T-shirts.

US Airways had ruined my bag. But beyond ranting to strangers on the Internet (there are enough stories of satanic airlines taking pleasure in stuffing passengers into sardine cans, gleefully destroying baggage and watching us boil as we stumble through the customer service labyrinth), what recourse does a flier have when his bag is destroyed?

Like most airlines, US Airways requires that passengers report any damage to checked bags at the airport. With US Airways, this must be done within four hours. (Some carriers allow up to 24 hours, but the complaint still has to be made at the airport.) So I zipped back to the baggage claim.

“I’m sorry, sir, we see this happen all the time,” said the claim rep. She told me that airlines are not liable for damage to wheels, feet, zippers and extending handles. “When the baggage handlers throw the bags, the zipper rips off the fabric.” Do they see a lot of smashed zippers when they gently place the luggage on the belt? She obviously had no answer, but she gave me a number to call and register a complaint.

I was then told to e-mail my story to Central Baggage Resolution, a Phoenix-based office only reachable by e-mail. I imagine CBR as a digital bonfire that’s endlessly destroying correspondences. I learned that once CBR receives my claim, it’ll be 14 – 21 working days before I hear from them.

As I continue to hold my breath, I’ve started researching other ways to protect checked bags in the future. My plan of choice is simply to never check a bag, but here’s some info I found:

Both third-party insurers and credit card companies sometimes offer baggage insurance. American Express, for instance, offers free and for-fee baggage protection policies for card holders. I called Amex to learn about its $9.95 per roundtrip flight “premium” baggage policy, which covers checked bag damages up to $1,000. Here’s how it works, according to the customer rep: “File a claim with the airline at the airport. Get the denial.” Then file a claim with AmEx. The claim is reviewed with a licensed rep — but obviously there’s no guarantee that they’ll rule in your favor. The representative did say, however, that there are technically no exclusions for type of damage, ripped zippers included.

According to Smarter Travel‘s Ed Perkins, third party insurers can vary widely — and again, it’s up to fliers to start with the airline, get the denial (or some coverage if you’re lucky) and then file a second claim with the insurer. As always, it’s essential to read the fine print to see what the coverage cap is and if there are exclusions for certain types of damage.

Quite honestly, it all seems like a massive hassle. I paid $50 for someone to rip my bag, rendering it unusable without turning it into a silver mummy. I just want my $50 back. And maybe US Airways could throw in the $3.69 for the roll of duct tape.

Have the airlines ever lost or ruined your luggage? Share your story!

–written by Dan Askin

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Smarter Travel.

sphinx pyramids egyptThe ongoing political unrest in Egypt has governments scrambling to evacuate their citizens, cruise lines rerouting itineraries and travelers wondering what will become of their vacation to see the Pyramids.

Whenever trouble strikes in the travel world, you’ll hear experts touting the many virtues of trip insurance — but civil disturbances and riots are excluded from coverage on most policies. So in a case like the protests in Egypt, will travel insurance actually help you? I caught up with Steve Dasseos, President of TripInsuranceStore.com, to find out.

Dasseos explains that when these sorts of events happen, your tour operator, airline or cruise line is responsible for offering an alternate itinerary. “Let’s say you have a tour company that’s going [to Egypt] at the end of this month,” he says. “The tour company or cruise line has to take care of its passengers somehow. They’ll usually offer an alternate itinerary, bonuses, that sort of thing. You can change your travel dates or itinerary with your insurer and go on a completely different trip. That’s no problem.”

If your trip is canceled altogether, your cruise line or tour operator should give you a refund according to the terms and conditions under which you booked your trip. Contact your travel provider as soon as possible to find out what arrangements are being made.

So what happens if you’ve planned your own trip independently? Are you out of luck? “Not completely,” says Dasseos. “Check with your airline first. It’s likely that the airline has changed or canceled its flights. Most airlines don’t charge people penalties for changing their itinerary [when this sort of incident happens]. You can then change the dates on your insurance to apply to your other trip.” He cautions travelers to be sure to let your insurance company know of itinerary changes as soon as possible — before you actually travel.

As for hotels, Dasseos points out that most properties won’t charge you a penalty unless you cancel your reservation within 48 hours of arrival. And in extraordinary circumstances like the Egyptian riots, “I doubt that hotels are going to hold travelers accountable to those cancellation penalties,” he says. “They don’t want to spoil future business.”

If you’ve got a trip to Egypt booked for a few months from now, you’ll need to sit tight. Odds are that your tour operator will wait to see how the situation in Egypt plays out, so your trip may not be canceled or altered just yet. You may want to call off the trip yourself if you’re nervous about traveling to Egypt or if you’d rather go somewhere else instead. But these reasons are not covered by your travel insurance policy unless you purchase “cancel for any reason” coverage. This type of insurance will cover “being afraid to travel or changing your mind,” says Dasseos, “which aren’t normally covered by other policies.”

For nervous travelers, “cancel for any reason” insurance is a good bet for any trip, no matter where you’re headed. You may also want to check out Travel Warnings and Advisories, which offers useful tips on traveling to potentially unstable countries.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

travel insurance poodle
If your girlfriend finds a new beau, your French poodle becomes angry or you get subpoenaed as a character witness for your criminal uncle, Travel Insurance International has you covered. The company, which sells travel insurance policies, has released a jocular slideshow titled 21 Reasons You Need Travel Insurance, listing a flock of fantastic, funny situations — all of which call for a good travel insurance policy.

Though many of Travel Insurance International’s scenarios are, to say the least, a bit silly, there’s some semblance of truth in each slide. Check out the eighth one: “Your French poodle Gigi is stuck in a Chicago kennel while you are stuck in a Paris hospital. Gigi yelps at you on the phone as you tell her you’ll be home soon. Pet Care coverage will pay her boarding costs for a few more days.” It’s unlikely that your French poodle will develop the ability to communicate with you over the phone (I know some dog lovers who would disagree with me on this point, but I’ll stick to my guns). However, it’s true that any event that keeps you abroad for longer than anticipated will come with a caboodle of expensive consequences — including kennel fees for pet owners.

Travel Insurance International’s slideshow reminds us that Murphy’s Law still applies when you’re on vacation. Not sure whether or not you need insurance? Get answers in Travel Insurance Tips.

Do you book insurance when you travel?

–written by Caroline Costello

sos sand beach helpEarlier this week, the world’s longest round-the-world cruise — a 335-night epic on Cruise West’s Spirit of Oceanus — was unceremoniously cut short in St. John’s, Newfoundland, about six months before its scheduled end in February 2011. Cruise Critic reports that Cruise West (best known for its small-ship Alaska voyages) has canceled the rest of the world cruise, will sell the ship and will “work towards a restructuring of the company and its operations” in response to recent financial woes.

World cruises are typically sold in segments, so it’s likely that many passengers were already planning to disembark in St. John’s. But any cruisers who were planning to stay aboard the ship for the next segment, as well as the hundreds of other passengers who were booked on future segments of the cruise, are now left scrambling for options (and refunds).

If the “stranded traveler” story sounds familiar, it should; just a few weeks ago, Mexicana Airlines suspended its operations, leaving passengers high and dry in Mexico and many destinations beyond. And Kiss Flights, a British airline, disrupted the plans of some 70,000 passengers when it folded last month.

Getting stranded far from home is a worst-case scenario for travelers. So how can you protect yourself against the bankruptcy of an airline, tour operator, hotel or cruise line? A few suggestions:

-Always pay for your travel purchases with a credit card so that it’s easier to dispute charges and get refunds if necessary.

-Buy travel insurance — and do so through an independent source, not through your travel provider. This way you’re protected if that provider goes belly up. Be sure your policy includes protection in the case of travel supplier default.

-If you reserve your trip through a travel agency or booking site, program its number into your cell phone so you can call for help at the first sign of trouble.

-Look for alternatives. Other travel suppliers often step into the void when a company ceases operations. For example, both AeroMexico and American Airlines added additional flights and offered personal assistance to aid accommodate passengers who’d been stranded by Mexicana.

What suggestions would you add? Have you ever been stranded by a travel company?

–written by Sarah Schlichter

hurricane caribbean Hurricane Earl is currently barreling toward the East Coast — just in time to derail the Labor Day weekend plans of travelers heading to the region. For those of you wondering whether the storm will affect your upcoming vacation, we’ve answered five key questions about Earl.

1. What is Hurricane Earl?
Hurricane Earl is a powerful storm that caused damage on several islands as it tore through the Eastern Caribbean earlier this week. It’s now moving toward the East Coast of the U.S. Evacuations have been ordered for North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island, and more evacuations along the East Coast could follow within the next few days. The coasts of North Carolina and Virginia are on high alert.

2. Will Hurricane Earl affect my Labor Day travel plans?
The National Hurricane Center reports that the outer bands of Earl could reach the North Carolina coast by Friday morning before the storm heads to the New England coast as early as Saturday morning. Although Earl is expected to stay offshore, it still might cause a ruckus for vacationers along the Atlantic. According to the New York Times, “Forecasters said that even if it fails to hit the Atlantic coast directly, the storm could still cause trouble up and down the Eastern Seaboard, generating large waves and hazardous riptides that prompt beach closures and force vacationers to stay away from the ocean during the final week of summer vacation.” Expect lots of rain, strong winds, rough waves and dangerous riptides on East Coast beaches this weekend.

3. Will Hurricane Earl affect my upcoming cruise?
Our sister site, Cruise Critic, has reported numerous cruise itinerary changes for ships sailing in the Caribbean and along the East Coast. Cruise lines that have announced altered itineraries include Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and NCL. Get the full list of affected cruises in Cruise Critic’s Hurricane Zone.

4. Will Hurricane Earl cause flight delays?
Although it’s still too early to predict exactly how bad the weather will get on the Eastern Seaboard in the next few days, it is possible that Earl may cause some flight delays in the region, including at airports around New York City and in New England.

5. What should I do to prepare?
If you are traveling to coastal areas between North Carolina and Maine, it’s important to keep an eye on the weather. Many local tourism Web sites, like visitnc.com, post weather advisories for travelers coming to the area when there’s something significant like a hurricane happening — so you’ll want to periodically check the site for your destination to see if an advisory is posted. You can also monitor the progress of Earl and check storm warnings on the National Hurricane Center Web site.

Flying this weekend? Get tips for dealing with delayed flights in Airport Delays: Six Ways to Cope. Airline Web sites and call centers are not always the best sources of information for travelers looking to see if their flights are delayed (the airlines are slow to release this information). Instead, try FlightStats.com, which has an excellent Flight Tracker tool.

If you’ve already purchased travel insurance, read the fine print to see whether you will be covered if your flight is delayed or you have other issues getting to your destination. However, if you haven’t purchased travel insurance already, don’t bother doing so at the last minute. You won’t be covered now that the storm has formed. Read more about travel insurance here.

If you decide to change your plans to avoid traveling this weekend, check with your airline to see whether you may do so without penalty. For instance, both AirTran and Continental are currently waiving change fees for travelers flying to, from or through airports that may be affected by Earl.

Are you concerned that Earl will affect your Labor Day travel plans? Tell us about it!