Q uestion: I recently received offers from two of my frequent-flier airlines that want me to buy their insurance. If I'm sick somewhere in the world, they promise to bring me home. They tell fearsome stories of people sickened in mid-ocean or somewhere far from civilization. What do you think of this?
Answer: I think some of that language falls into the "evil genius" category, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should dismiss it.
For instance, at the end of booking tickets on some airline websites, you're offered the chance to buy trip insurance. You can click "yes" or you can click, "No, I choose not to protect my purchase." Which is one of those statements that make you feel a peculiar combination of shame and fear. It might as well say, "No, I have no sense whatsoever. Plus, I think I'm special - that nothing bad will ever happen to me because I'm me."
You may be able to resist the extended warranty on a new refrigerator, but travel is a different kind of consumption category, said Robert Meeds, an associate professor of communications who teaches advertising at California State University, Fullerton. Unlike that new fridge, a travel purchase is both "important and emotional."
That makes this conversation likely to break out in your mind: "Holy broken leg! Great galloping gash in the head! Sufferin' stomach flu! Maybe I do need that insurance after all." Then comes the follow-up conversation: "Nah, they're just trying to scare me. None of those things is going to happen to me. I won't be bullied into buying something I probably won't need."
Which voice wins?
"There's a lot of research right now that strongly suggests when we make a snap decision [we make] an emotional decision," Meeds said, "since that's so much of what we do on a daily basis. Sometimes those are the better decisions."
If you want to make the best decision possible, Meeds advises you to prepare. "My advice would be to be aware that you will be offered things you may not need," he said. "Try to plan and do your homework ahead of time so when you are faced [with a decision] you already know what the pros and cons are."
On the rational side, you know insurance that's worth having will cost you. Sometimes it's downright expensive. Sometimes it doesn't cover what you think it should. And there's no "sometimes" about this: You must always read the fine print to know what you're buying. Groan.
As Meeds suggested, anticipation is part of the preparation. Buying insurance is a mindful decision, not one to be made in the heat of another purchase. Before you click the yes or no box, "the traveler has to think about what they are trying to protect," said Michael Feighan, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Chubb Accident & Health.
To figure that out, here are four important questions to ask yourself as you begin this deliberation:
If travel is an investment - and in many cases, it is a huge investment - can you afford to lose that money if something goes wrong?
If you're in Iceland and a volcano erupts and closes the skies (or pick another event) so no one can fly for about a week, as happened with the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010, do you have the money to pay for costs you'll incur to stay there?
Is Anxiety your middle name?
Will you know where to turn if you encounter medical trouble?
If you answered yes to at least one question, you may fall into Peggy Goldman's camp. Goldman, president and co-owner of Friendly Planet Travel, an Internet tour operator, told me this: "The question I would ask: You are mandated by law to buy car insurance," Goldman said. "You're mandated to protect your mortgage with mortgage insurance. When you invest in a trip and there are so many things that can happen, why would you somehow think that [insurance] is optional?"