Travel insurance industry response to the South Asia tsunami

How did the travel insurance industry respond to the Asian tsunami disaster in December 2004 and how did this affect travel insurance coverages for this period and for subsequent travel?

General travel insurance policy coverages

Claims for medical, trip interruption, trip delay and miscellaneous coverages such as baggage loss, etc., are being accepted as a result of tsunami-related losses.

Claims for trip cancellations are generally accepted only if the claim meets the clearly outlined and defined conditions in the fine print of the policy. Specifically, in natural disasters, the claim is most commonly considered to be valid due to language such as “the trip/tour provider or the hotel/resort accommodations were not functioning for a period of 24 hours.” During this emergency, travel insurance companies that I contacted said they were handling cancellation claims on a case-by-case basis and assistance was being provided for alternative travel planning.

As in the cases of the post-9/11 period and during the 2003 SARS epidemic in Asia, trip cancellation claims are never payable if, after booking but before departure, one simply “did not want to go” because of general safety or health concerns. (At the end of this article, I have listed some tour companies that offer very liberal “cancel anytime” options.)

Travel insurance companies generally stepped up to the crisis by supplying additional services that their worldwide facilities allowed.

Specific examples

Access America/World Access had almost 400 customers in the area. They set up hotlines to help in the extremely difficult problems of communication. They flew in 13 doctors and nurses from their operations in Europe and Asia Pacific. A toll-free number (800/284-8300) was provided for communication assistance.

Trip cancellation claims for travelers who had booked travel to affected areas but had not yet left were being handled on a case-by-case basis.

Travel Guard International announced that it would provide emergency travel services and medical assistance services free to survivors and families affected by the devastating tsunamis whether or not travel insurance had been purchased from Travel Guard.

Services offered included doctor or medical facility referrals and medical coordination, lost travel document replacement assistance, message relay and emergency travel arrangements. Family members seeking these services for their relatives were given a toll-free number (800/644-6811) by which to contact Travel Guard.

Travelex offered assistance with communications, evacuations, medical referrals, etc. They had increased their staff in order to allow 24/7 access to their emergency phone number (866/866-8155).

For those customers whose future travel plans were impacted by the tsunami, Travelex will honor transfers of protection plans to future travel dates. (The phone number for this service is 888/322-6776.)

Tour companies and airlines

Tour companies and airlines servicing the affected areas were reported to have been extremely flexible and accommodating in the face of this major catastrophe. As this is being written, the full extent of the damage and losses are still unknown. It should be of great comfort to the traveling public to know that, in the case of this level of tragedy, all available resources of the travel industry quickly swung into action to assist affected travelers and their families.

Cancel anytime/any reason

The following listed tour companies, with privately designed programs, continue to provide customers the option of canceling a trip anytime for any reason — even if they “just don’t want to go” — generally up to the day of departure. (As far as I am aware, no standard travel insurance policy provides this cancellation flexibility.)

Collette Tours (800/832-4656), American Express Vacations (800/ 297-5490), Uniworld (800/257-2264), Tauck Tours (800/788-7885) and Overseas Adventure Travel (800/537-3850) all have policies that allow for trip cancellations that are more flexible than anything available from travel insurance companies. Details and costs vary. Some plans reimburse on sliding scales and/or with some combination of cash and vouchers.

If this trip cancellation flexibility is of interest, it would be worthwhile to contact these companies to get details of their available tour packages and trip cancellation options.

Happy trails.