New York Times
As the first storms of the Atlantic hurricane season began to swirl toward the Caribbean last month, I was booking a last-minute getaway to my favorite beach in Puerto Rico.
Asking for it, you say? Perhaps. But it wouldn't be the first time I visited a hurricane-prone destination at the height of hurricane season, which typically peaks in August through October.
Six summers ago, when my husband and I honeymooned on the Riviera Maya, a slice of the Mexican coast on the Caribbean, a tropical storm threatened our thatched-roof cabana. Rather than flee, we ducked into the resort's spa as ominous storm clouds rushed in and the hotel staff gathered the pool chairs. When we emerged relaxed and refreshed a couple of hours later, the wind and rain had subsided and the sun was peeking out.
Some friends, however, who stayed at a beachfront resort roughly 50 miles to the south, were forced to evacuate to a makeshift shelter a few miles inland. Two days of their short trip were ruined by the storm.
Several years passed before we returned to the Caribbean in hurricane season. In October 2007, my husband and I rented a house on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico. The three-bedroom home was perched on a hilltop, and its pool offered clear views of the bioluminescent bay and remote beaches. The October rate was a bargain, and other than a few afternoon showers, we escaped any foul weather.
This year, we decided to press our luck again. Why? Because we were getting insurance.
Basic travel insurance typically covers hurricanes or other unexpected weather events. This can offer peace of mind to travelers going to a storm-prone region. If a hurricane shuts the airport or wipes out the hotel, for example, you don't lose the money you spent on the vacation.
But some companies have started going a step further, offering more specific storm-related benefits like hurricane-warning protection. With this type of insurance, travelers don't have to wait until a hurricane ruins their vacation to get their money back. Rather, hurricane-warning coverage generally allows cancellation of a trip within 24 hours of departure if the destination is under a hurricane warning from the National Hurricane Center.
But in searching for the best coverage, I learned that finding the right travel insurance isn't easy. Coverage varies, and deciphering the fine print can require professional guidance. Here are some tips:
SHOP AROUND: To start my search, I turned to three popular Web sites that let you compare travel insurance: InsureMyTrip.com, SquareMouth.com and QuoteWright.com. Like air fare shopping sites, they let you plug in travel dates and locations and offer comparisons of policies.
Also as with air fare sites, some search engines are better than others. InsureMyTrip didn't list a $76 plan from Travelex that showed up on the other sites. QuoteWright missed the Essentials plan from Global Alert for about $125. SquareMouth offered the most comprehensive list. So it's a good idea to check several sites for the most thorough results. But don't expect the sites to uncover any cut rates. It's not legal to discount insurance. Policies typically cost 4 to 7 percent of the price of the trip, with fees based on the traveler's age and on the cost and length of the trip.
PICK UP THE PHONE: All the sites allow shoppers to click on a plan to read the actual fine print, but speaking with an insurance agent can clear up questions. Each company had knowledgeable representatives at toll-free numbers. InsureMyTrip, however, had the best office hours, with agents available until midnight Monday through Friday compared with 5 and 5:30 p.m., respectively, at SquareMouth and QuoteWright.
GET "HURRICANE WARNING": Both TravelSafe's Vacation Insurance and the Preferred plan from Global Alert cover cancellation of your trip within 24 hours of the scheduled departure if your destination is under an official hurricane warning from the National Hurricane Center.
ALREADY COVERED? Even though the policies may not come out and say it, insurance plans that cover trip cancellations because destinations have been made "uninhabitable" by a storm generally also cover mandatory evacuations. In other words, the fact that you're being evacuated means that your destination is uninhabitable.
Also, most airlines and hotels typically waive restrictions and fees on rebooking when natural disasters strike. So even without insurance, it's unlikely that you will lose the money you spent on flights or hotels if a hurricane obliterates your destination.
NOT COVERED? Just because you have hurricane insurance doesn't mean that you can expect a total refund if a hurricane does strike. What if the hurricane wipes out all the good beaches but your hotel is fine? Doesn't count. Waiting to buy the policy once a storm is named won't work, either. At that point it's no longer an "unforeseen event."
SIDE BENEFITS: Besides weather, travel insurance offers peace of mind for unforeseen events like an airline strike or a serious illness affecting you or a family member back home, forcing you to cancel. If you become sick or are injured on vacation, most policies provide medical coverage for hospital bills and emergency evacuation if medically necessary.
And for perhaps the most likely problems travelers might encounter - those involving airlines - most policies reimburse customers for the cost of meals and lodging should they be stuck at an airport because of a lengthy airline delay or cancellation - even if it's weather related. Keep receipts to expedite the claims.
STATE RESTRICTIONS: Insurance is regulated by the states, and some policies are not available in certain states, like New York. In some states, for instance, Travel Guard offers an add-on benefit called Cancel for Any Reason, which for an additional $52 essentially allows travelers to do just that and recoup roughly 80 percent of the trip cost.
BUY WHEN YOU BOOK: Certain insurance benefits like hurricane-warning protection come with a catch. For example, unless the policy is bought 15 days in advance, that coverage isn't generally available.
"ANY REASON" OPTION: Though more expensive, this add-on protection allows customers to cancel trips for any reason, no matter how minor, and recoup most of their money. One catch: Travelers must give 48 hours' notice. I went with a basic plan from Travelex for $76 and tacked on cancel-for-any-reason coverage for another $34.
Let's hope I won't need it.