7 travel insurance tips for hurricane season

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June 1 marks the start of the 2013 hurricane season, and predictions say it could be a tough one. For example, an influential forecast from meteorologists at Colorado State University projects that the Atlantic region — which includes the Caribbean — will see 18 named storms, nine hurricanes and four major hurricanes. An average season brings 12 storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

The outlook is unwelcome news for travelers who remember the disruptions and damage caused last October by Sandy, the hurricane that combined with two other storm systems to slam into the East Coast as a superstorm. “Who would have ever thought that so many people would have been stranded for so long in New York?” says Linda Kundell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Travel Insurance Association.

And although the bulk of hurricanes hit in August, September and October, the 2012 season jumped the gun in May with tropical storms Alberto and Beryl. The season traditionally ends Nov. 30.

When storms disrupt your travel plans, the right travel insurance policy can cover costs related to flight delays, unexpected hotel stays and transportation rerouting. Here are seven expert tips on how to protect your vacation during the height of hurricane season.

‘Insure’ your trip goes well

Shop around. No two travel insurance policies are exactly the same, warns consumer advocate Christopher Elliott. “They vary based on your age, state of residence and coverage,” says Elliott, author of “Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles and Shady Deals.”

He recommends that travelers get prices from at least two of the three most common sources of travel insurance: travel insurance companies; travel agents; and travel providers, such as airlines, cruise lines or tour operators. Expect to pay a premium equal to 4 percent to 8 percent of your trip’s prepaid, nonrefundable cost, he says, though a less restrictive “cancel for any reason” policy can cost as much as 10 percent.

“Travel insurance is extremely competitive,” Elliott says. “By checking with multiple sources, you won’t just find better terms or prices. You’ll also avoid buying a potentially useless policy.”

Buy early. Once a tropical storm has formed, you won’t be able to buy travel insurance for trips potentially in its path. “If it’s already been named and sighted, it will be too late,” Kundell says. Purchasing your insurance at the same time you book your trip ensures you’ll have protection for cancellations and interruptions, she says.

Examine the fine print. “It’s better to ask about your policy and what it does and doesn’t cover before it becomes an issue,” Elliott says. Call if you have any questions as soon as you receive your insurance documents. Many travel insurance companies give customers up to 10 days to cancel and receive a refund if the policy doesn’t meet their needs, he says.

Keep receipts. Most travel insurance policies require you to pay any covered expenses upfront and then submit for reimbursement. So keeping track of your expenses in a verifiable way is crucial, Kundell says. “Keep receipts for everything,” she says, including hotel rooms, transportation and meals.

Get things in writing. It might not make you a popular person at the service counter, but if you incur costs because your flights are delayed or canceled, get the reason in writing if possible, Elliott says. “You can never have enough documentation. A lot of claims are rejected because travelers can’t prove a cause of delay,” he says. “Finding out the reason long after your trip can be difficult — if not impossible.”

Be flexible. Cruise lovers are often drawn to hurricane-season deals in the region where storms brew. In those cases, travel insurance is “a no-brainer,” says Erica Silverstein, features editor at CruiseCritic.com. “There are a lot of moving parts to a cruise,” which makes it all the more likely that weather could disrupt one or more legs.

All cruise ship lines have contingencies in place for hurricanes; many change routes to avoid rough seas. But travel insurance policies don’t cover itinerary swaps, Silverstein warns. “If it leaves on schedule and returns on schedule but goes to different ports, you will not get reimbursed,” she says. “You still had a vacation.”

Her best advice is to cruise with an open mind. “If you don’t set your heart on something extremely specific, you’ll be OK,” she says. She urges cruisers to draw up their own contingency plans, just in case bad weather arises. “Don’t schedule something important for the Monday after your trip. Talk to your dog sitter: ‘Can you take Fluffy an extra day if we get stuck?'”

Remember the big picture. Many travelers balk at paying the extra fees for travel insurance, but hurricane season is no time to skimp. “It can save you a lot of money in the end,” Silverstein says, noting that hotel stays and other out-of-pocket costs can add up when hurricanes throw travel out of whack. “It’s not that much for what it can provide.”