Travel insurance, travel safety and State Department advisories

By Wayne Wirtanen
This item appears on page 68 of the June 2001 issue.


Trip-cancellation/interruption coverage

Will your trip-cancellation policy pay if you cancel a tour prior to departure because you feel uneasy due to political unrest or threats of terrorist problems?

The short answer is no.

To be more specific, I’ve been told that there is no insurance company that will accept a claim for pre-trip cancellation merely because you decide not to travel because you fear that the destination might not be safe.

In looking at the insurance certificate’s language for the company Access America, the following travel-safety-related problems are specifically not cause for claim payments due to trip cancellation or rescheduling: “. . . the issuance of travel advisories, bulletins or alerts; wars or acts thereof; civil disorder, riot or unrest; bombnscares or threats of terrorist activity. . .”

When will your cancellation policy pay in case of a “terrorist incident”?

There is a significant difference in the texts of various policies with regard to pre-trip cancellation having to do with “terrorism.”

The main problem is a lack of a common definition of a “terrorist incident”; does a terrorist-inspired broken shop window qualify? Three shop windows? Injury to local citizens? To tourists?

The common key to this facet of trip-cancellation coverage is that there has to be some unforeseen “triggering” incident or “official” warning that occurs after the effectivity of the policy.

Some samples of insurance policy text dealing with this issue

Access America’s (800/284-8300) policy states that in cases of claims for safety-related cancellations, your trip-cancellation/interruption policy will only pay if the tour operator completely cancels the trip (offering no appropriate alternative destination) or if the policy holder was scheduled to arrive at that destination within 10 days of an “unanticipated terrorist incident.”

The Travelex (800/863-9995) policy has slightly different wording; they will reimburse for cancellation losses if the State Department issues a “Travel Warning” after the policy has been purchased.

Travel Guard’s (800/782-5151) text says, “The incident must be documented by the United States Department of State or reported by the major print media, such as the Associated Press. . .” 

Travel Guard also excludes coverage “for travel to or through countries for which travel warnings have been issued by the U.S. Department of Offices for Overseas Services at the time this insurance is purchased” and “travel to or through countries in which such a documented or reported incident has occurred in the 12 months prior to purchase of the insurance.”

Travel Insured International’s (800/243-3174) policy does not contain the word “terrorist” at all.

In summary, it would appear that Travelex’s choice of text (keyed to a “Travel Warning”) is the most straightforward and apparently the most lenient for the traveler.

However, I’ve heard that the U.S. State Department sometimes ignores “incidents” affecting non-American travelers — and then does not necessarily issue a “Travel Warning.” Just because German travelers, for example, might have been affected, it doesn’t mean that the destination is safe for other nationalities.

Travel insurance companies refuse to sell any policies for travel to a changing list of countries.

State Department recommendations/warnings

The U.S. Department of State routinely issues three categories of information regarding worldwide situations that might adversely affect the safety of Americans traveling overseas.

Travel Warnings essentially recommend that Americans avoid travel to a certain country.

As you might expect, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Haiti are among the 27 countries on the “avoid” list. These countries are probably not high on your itinerary “wish list.”

Countries that might not seem to fall under the “avoid” category but which are on the list (as of April 10, 2001) are Israel, Colombia, Pakistan, Solomon Islands and Yugoslavia.

Public Announcements essentially list countries where the applicable details of conditions are “posing significant risks to the security of American travelers.”

Among the destinations currently on the “significant risk” list are Burma (Myanmar), El Salvador, Fiji, Malaysia, Nepal, Peru, the Philippines, Tanzania (Zanzibar), Thailand and Viet-Nam.

The common key to this facet of trip-cancellation coverage is that there has to be some unforeseen 'triggering' incident or 'official' warning that occurs after the effectivity of the policy.

Consular Information Sheets are available for every country in the world. They provide a wide variety of travel-related information, including “Safety/Security.” Consular Information Sheets generally do not include advice but present information in a factual manner so the traveler can make his or her own decisions concerning travel to a particular country.

How to use this information

This State Department information is essentially for your own personal use in decision making; tour companies generally will make an independent decision regarding canceling a tour based on their own information from land operators at the destination.

It’s not uncommon for a tour company to decide that the specific itinerary will avoid known trouble areas and that the normal “tourist attractions” are free from problems; the tour may well then proceed on schedule in spite of what one might read in a State Department “advisory.”

If you cancel or reschedule because of your concern for safety, in spite of the tour company’s decision to proceed, the tour company will almost certainly impose some penalty and, unless the cause for your concern fits your insurance policy’s text, your cancellation policy will not reimburse your loss.

Are State Department “advisories” too cautious?

I have been twice to Tikal in Guatemala when there were State Department “announcements” at one level or another suggesting that Guatemala was not recommended for American travelers.

In both of those cases, I saw no problems on the normal “tourist trail”; the areas of valid concern were well away from these areas, in parts of the country seldom visited by American travelers.

A few years ago I happened to meet the American Ambassador to Nicaragua at a modest resort in Nicaragua. I expressed the opinion that the State Department’s “Announcements/warnings” lack adequate differentiation between known problem areas and popular tourist destinations.

Characteristically, I was undiplomatic enough to accuse the State Department of issuing unnecessarily cautious recommendations in order to “cover their behinds” in case of American tourists’ safety problems.

The ambassador was not thrilled about my opinion, but he did not offer any significant response.

An example of a safety-related canceled tour

I spoke briefly with Anita Ream of Anitours (an ITN advertiser), asking about details of a typical trip cancellation for a “safety concern” reason.

She said that she had had only one occasion to cancel a tour for a “safety concern” reason.

A 12-member trip was scheduled to go to Egypt when a terrorist-inspired shooting at a popular tourist destination killed and injured a number of travelers.

Nearly immediately, eight of the travelers called to cancel, and because their Access America policies provided reimbursement for losses due to cancellation because of their scheduled arrival within 10 days of an “unanticipated terrorist incident,” they ultimately received full refunds.

The remaining four travelers would have been willing to continue, but Anitours canceled the tour. Three of these had the same policies and received 100% reimbursement because the trip was canceled by Anitours.

The remaining one traveler did not have cancellation insurance. Since Anitours had negotiated a 50% refund from the Egyptian land operator, however, this last traveler received a 50% reimbursement.

(Since Anitours had negotiated the 50% refund for the entire group, the travel insurance company’s remaining liability was only the remaining 50% for the policy holders.)

So what’s an overseas traveler to do regarding safety concerns? (As Dorothy observed, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”)

1) Don’t be paranoid about overseas travel safety. This is the most important recommendation.

“Terrorist incidents” occur extremely infrequently and even more rarely in those countries most often visited by Americans.

It’s much more important to make sure that you watch where you walk to avoid a bone-jarring fall or a bump by an unnoticed approaching auto.

Be well informed and use your common sense when planning a trip. At any destination, use the usual prudent precautions and keep a “heads up,” alert attitude.

2) Do get some basic safety facts about your destination, including simple information such as health-related conditions and the possible degree of strenuous activity.

Guidebooks and your tour company are good sources. (Ask if your tour company has a detailed pre-trip information package and request a copy of it along with the tour brochure.)

3) Get the available information supplied by the State Department. See the “News Watch” and “Current Warnings” segments each month in ITN.

Log on to the State Department travel safety website at (If you’re not on the Web, your local public library likely provides this access — and printout service.)

On this website, one can get the most recent safety-related bulletins and destination reports. You can also sign up to automatically receive up-to-date travel-safety information by e-mail.

4) Look up a copy of “Fielding’s The World’s Most dangerous Places” by Robert Young Pelton (published by Fielding Worldwide, Inc., 308 South Catalina Ave., Redondo Beach, CA 90277). My third-edition copy was published in 1998.

“Who is this book for?” the preface asks. “Adventurers, Adrenaline Junkies and Thrill Seekers, Intelligence Junkies, Journalists, Expats, The Curious and Easily Amused (“how to make an emergency IV out of a green coconut”) and Hollywood and the Media. . . (“Dangerous Places” on Jerry Springer?).

The first third of the book has information on a full spectrum of useful topics, from general overseas travel safety to dangerous diseases and how to avoid them, all the way up to “How to avoid land mines.”

(“Never take a trip on a mined road before 9 or 10 a.m. Most mines are laid at night to surprise regular convoys or patrols. Try to follow heavy trucks. Keep at least 200 yards behind but do not lose sight of the truck.”)

I’ll be sure to keep this travel detail in mind.

Using multiples of stars, the book rates 30 countries in regard to the danger level for travelers.

The United States and Peru rate one star — “Places that are not really dangerous but have a bad reputation for isolated incidents. If you work hard enough, you could get waylaid or interred.”

Somalia and Colombia rate five stars — “A place where the longer you stay, the shorter your existence on this planet will be. These places combine warfare, banditry, disease, land mines and violence in a terminal adventure ride.”

Four countries have been rated with multiples of hand signals indicating “stop,” including North Korea with four of the “stop” signals. I did not see a detailed definition of the “stop” signal; apparently, none was needed.

“DP,” as the book familiarly calls itself, also lists 24 “Coming Attractions.” Examples are China (a rising rate of crime), Ecuador (disagreement over the border with Peru) and Panama (unrest caused by Noriega’s old buddies).

(Based on my positive travel experiences in Ecuador and Panama, I’d say that it is reasonably unlikely that the countries in the “Coming Attractions” segment will present safety problems at the usual tourist destinations in the near term.)

The book has a lengthy and fascinating disclaimer that essentially says that these places are dangerous to one degree or another but that you should do your homework and get the latest-available safety information before planning any overseas trip.

It’s my opinion that the bulk of the information supplied in this 961-page paperback would be of more value to a mercenary soldier than to a traveler with a more mildly adventuresome appetite, but it’s a book like no other and it’s an interesting read — with grim humor in places.

5) Rely heavily on your tour operator. They have every incentive to make sure that their clients (and employees) have a reasonably risk-free experience.

If you are traveling independently, call a couple of tour operators who travel to your planned destination to ask their opinions on safety factors; I’ve found ITN’s advertisers to be most helpful with general questions of this type.

6) Make a reasoned decision on what type of travel insurance (if any) to purchase. Ask your tour operator for a recommendation.

I understand that it’s common for African tour operators to automatically supply “Flying Doctor” evacuation service as part of the tour price.

My opinion is that trip-cancellation/interruption coverage is a useful product/service, but because of its cost, 5% to 8% of a trip’s price, it’s a poor value for most occasions.

Consumer Reports Newsletter agrees, stating in the January 1999 issue, page 11, re trip-cancellation insurance, “. . . it’s grossly overpriced.” They add, “We recommend it only to cover losses that you can’t afford to absorb. . . But give it a look if you want to guard against full or partial loss of payments you’ve made for a major tour or cruise.”

When Buying Travel Insurance” in the August 1994 issue of ITN.

7) At the very least, consider purchasing emergency medical evacuation coverage. It’s only a remote possibility that you might need this service, so it’s quite inexpensive. If, however, you do need medical evacuation service, it can be extremely expensive.

I recommend Travel Assistance International (800/821-2828). They have no upper age limit, no upper limit on cost of service and, most importantly, no preexisting-condition clause.

(See my article “The Ins and Outs of Emergency Medical Evacuation Coverage,” in the December 1999 issue of ITN, and “Eye On Travel Insurance” in the July 2000 issue.)

Happy trails.