Travel Insurance Sales Soar Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

The virus known as COVID-19 has disrupted plans for millions of travelers worldwide. While not all travel insurance policies will cover cancellations, companies offering "cancel for any reason" plans are seeing a spike in new customers.

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The NBC Bay Area Responds team is hearing from many travelers who've run into trouble rescheduling or canceling Asia trips over coronavirus fears.

While we've been successful in helping some of these families recover more than $10,000 since January, we aren't always successful. In some cases, airlines, cruise lines, hotels, and even travel insurance providers aren't budging.

Hiep Nguyen encountered that problem himself. He was supposed to be in Vietnam this week with his wife, visiting family. But the spread of coronavirus to Vietnam made him decide to stay home in Milpitas.

"Because of the outbreak there -- the coronavirus -- we were afraid," Nguyen said. "We contacted the airline, [but] it was very difficult to contact them. The 1-800 number -- you can never get through."

After seeing reports on NBC News and NBC Bay Area about quarantines worldwide, from cruise ships to Travis Air Force Base northwest of Fairfield, Nguyen says he was afraid of involuntary confinement himself.

"I'm afraid of being quarantined for two weeks," Nguyen said.

Nguyen expected his airline, EVA Air, would let him cancel the trip and get a full refund -- especially because he was making a flight connection in Taiwan, just offshore from mainland China. At least one American family was stranded in Taiwan last week because of coronavirus issues, NBC Chicago reported.

But Nguyen said EVA Air only gave him a partial refund, charging him a $600 penalty for what it called a voluntary cancellation. EVA's website says it is only offering refunds for flights to mainland China. NBC Bay Area reached out to EVA Air on Nguyen's behalf, and we're still awaiting a response.

We asked Nguyen if he regrets not buying a travel insurance policy ahead of his trip.

"Absolutely," he said. "I didn't want to lose money."

A lot of travel websites and airlines advertise travel protection. Sometimes, you can't even finalize a booking, unless you say "Yes" or "No" to travel insurance. For example, one travel booking website we checked suggested travelers "...join 2,483 smart customers who chose trip protection in the last 24 hours."

Not everyone believes travel insurance is so savvy. Kevin Brasler, an executive editor for Consumers' Checkbook, urges caution before making a purchase.

"They use words like 'total protection' and 'protect your trip,' but they're not really up front disclosing that there's a long list of exclusions," Brasler said.

Brasler said virus outbreaks like coronavirus are specifically excluded in many cases.

"The policies sold by airlines and most travel booking sites don't cover you for pandemics, epidemics, and lots of other things you'd expect them to cover you for: earthquakes; terrorist acts; wars; hurricanes," Brasler said.

Nationwide, NBC Responds and Telemundo Responde teams have received more than 300 travel insurance complaints -- often hinging on customers not understanding the exclusions.

Some third-party insurance companies offer a higher level of coverage that will let you cancel a trip for any reason. InsureMyTrip spokesperson Julie Loffredi says such policies are in high demand lately -- with a 60 percent jump in sales since coronavirus started making headlines.

"Our phones have been ringing off the hook from travelers who really have concerns over coronavirus," Loffredi said.

These plans offer flexibility, but they do come at a higher cost.

"You may end up paying a little more for that 'cancel for any reason' coverage, but it certainly is what travelers are looking for at the moment," Loffredi said.

The cost depends largely on the price paid for your trip, and how far in advance you buy coverage. We found a quote for a cruse for a family of four valued at $5,000. A typical travel insurance policy, which would not cover a coronavirus cancellation, was priced $144. A "cancel for any reason" policy would cost $563.

"I think you really have to consider whether premiums you're going to pay for that type of coverage are worth their cost," Brasler said.

Consumers' Checkbook is urging regulators to investigate whether insurance companies are over-selling the benefits of travel coverage. In the meantime, experts advise travelers to carefully read all travel insurance policies before making a purchase. Make sure you understand what's covered and what isn't, and ask to talk with a licensed insurance agent about the policy, before you sign up.

If you're encountering problems related to the virus outbreak, check out our coronavirus travel trouble guide.

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