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Why you need to buy travel insurance for your next trip, especially if you’re an older traveler

There are two types of policies you can buy: one for cancellations, another for unexpected medical emergencies.

Smoke from Western forest fires this past summer shroud Mount Rainier in Washington State. Trip insurance can help if natural disasters impact your vacation plans.
Smoke from Western forest fires this past summer shroud Mount Rainier in Washington State. Trip insurance can help if natural disasters impact your vacation plans.Read moreMichael Milne

If you can afford the cost of a trip, you should be able to afford losing that money if unforeseen circumstances cause you to cancel.

That’s one way to argue the travel insurance debate, according to travel agent Susan Wolfson, owner of Go Astro Travel in Allentown. Yet she urges all her clients to get it or actively turn it down.

Lost bags. Missed connections. Trip interruptions. But Wolfson has a bigger concern.

“Travel insurance is so important, not so much that you could cancel [a trip] and get money back,” said Wolfson, who also sells the insurance. “What you can’t afford is if you get sick or injured while you travel and have to be evacuated or spend time in a hospital.”

There are two main types of travel insurance. Cancellation-style policies cover the cost of a trip if it’s cancelled, delayed, or interrupted for specific reasons. Then there’s medical travel insurance, which can cover doctor visits, hospital stays, and even air ambulance transport back home.

Cancellation-type policies charge 5 percent to 10 percent of the trip cost, experts say. They typically include protection for lost baggage, flight delays, and similar travel risks. Medical insurance can be cheaper, though your age impacts the bottom line. Waivers for preexisting medical conditions don’t cost more but come with other restrictions, like a time limit for purchase after you book a trip.

“Policies are really more similar than they are different,” said Megan Moncrief, director of marketing for, one of several travel insurance comparison sites. Still, they are the least-known type of insurance, “so it’s more of a confusing subject.”

Squaremouth estimated that two travelers, ages 65 and 70, taking a one-week, $3,000 international trip would pay $45 for trip cancellation coverage. Adding medical evacuation up to $500,000 and secondary medical up to $100,000 would bring the total to $150.

Check with your private medical insurance carrier to see whether you are eligible for any overseas coverage. Medicare basically doesn’t provide it.

There are lots of variables when buying travel insurance, such as whether a policy’s travel delay coverage kicks in after three hours or 12. Squaremouth allows for comparisons of about 100 travel insurance policies from 25 carriers, Moncrief said. Cruise lines, credit cards, airlines, and tour companies often offer something, too, but “those policies have been kind of packaged to provide the most general or broadest coverage.”

About 80 percent of the policies Squaremouth sells are for trip cancellation, but most of its 65-and-older customers – a demographic that grew 30 percent over the last year – are interested in medical coverage, particularly for preexisting conditions, Moncrief said. A $100,000 limit for medical is typical, but Moncrief noted that medical treatment overseas often costs less than it would Stateside.

Travel insurance isn’t for times when you change your mind about going or discover you hate Paris. But adventure can have unexpected downsides, and insurance may put your mind at ease.

“I’m in my 30s and I’ve used it four times,” Moncrief said.

And, of course, travel agent Wolfson has some horror stories and near-misses that could, well, turn your hair gray.

One couple she works with found their flight delayed and could have missed departing on a Baltic cruise. The ship was headed to Russia, and because of visa restrictions, the couple would have had to wait a week to join their 10-day trip. Luckily, they’d arrived in the departure city a few days early, so they didn’t literally miss the boat. But it was a close one.

“They didn’t have insurance, but they will be getting it from now on,” Wolfson said.