By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services
Let’s play the what-if game. What if Mother Nature derails your holiday travel plans — as it did for so many people I know earlier this month during Hurricane Sandy and during the Christmas blizzard that crippled the East Coast two years ago?
Both times, I never made it out of town for long-planned trips, and by the time I could have gotten out, it would have been time to return home. Friends and colleagues, on the other hand, were stranded out of town for days because airports were closed and planes weren’t where they were scheduled to be, not to mention the airline personnel who couldn’t get to their jobs because mass transit wasn’t working and, in the case of the blizzard, streets weren’t plowed. That’s not even talking about closed highways.
Isn’t travel fun?
During the first four days of Hurricane Sandy, some 20,000 flights were canceled, according to the Chicago Tribune, apparently the highest percentage affecting U.S. flights, as a result of a natural event, in recent years. The superstorm disrupted travel around the world for hundreds of thousands of people scheduled to fly to, or through, the East Coast.
We forget that when weather disrupts our plans to make it to Thanksgiving dinner, a cruise ship, a Caribbean or ski resort or home after a business trip or vacation, the ripple effect a major storm causes — and the number of days it can take to get planes and crews to where they are supposed to be.
Two days after the 2010 Christmas blizzard, we actually went to the airport. The airline’s website said our flight to the Caribbean was on schedule. We had boarding passes in hand. I’ll never forget the chaotic scene when we arrived at JFK — not enough airline personnel, people who had been stranded for days, no one to answer questions, the longest lines I’d ever seen. Of course, our flight was canceled. I felt like a dope thinking it would be otherwise.
This time, I tried to be smarter. I prevailed on my travel companions to cancel our long-planned, grade-school friends’ reunion in the Caribbean before the storm even reached us — as soon as Jet Blue announced it was waiving cancellation fees. At least this time, we wouldn’t be stuck at the airport— just on the phone trying to reach the airline.
Dealing with travel woes may seem small when compared to the tragedy of those who have lost their lives or their homes, but, I figure, anyway we can de-stress this experience by planning ahead is a good thing, especially when we are already stressed by the holidays, kids are part of the equation, you can’t reach the airline, when you have no power at home (as was the case for one of my friends trying to reschedule flights to visit her elderly mom) and when you are faced with days of expensive hotels because you can’t get home.
That’s why travel agents and travel insurance agents are my new BFFs. “Your time is so valuable … why would you not want a travel advocate on your side?” asks Amber Blecker, recognized by USA Today as one of the country’s top cruise agents. That’s especially true in the case of an emergency or a big storm that grounds your flights. Let your travel agent handle logistics and get you rebooked. (In one case after a storm, Blecker got hotel rooms not only for her clients but others they’d met aboard ship when their flights home were canceled.)
Let your travel insurance company mitigate your woes. (Did you know that some plans like TravelGuard’s Gold Plan can cover children 17 and under free? Compare plans at www.insuremytrip.com or www.quotewright.com).
Certainly travel insurance can save the day, if a family emergency forces you to cancel a trip for which you’ve already paid. In case you or one of your kids gets sick (think ear infection and the toddler can’t fly) or injured (when the hotshot skier lands in the ER), according to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, a comprehensive travel insurance policy will help reimburse medical expenses, locate and arrange appropriate medical care, plus arrange and pay for needed medical transportation, including private air ambulance evacuation, if needed.
Travel insurance also protects many things that are not covered by credit cards, homeowner policies and healthcare plans, including coverage for those 30 million bags that are mishandled each year, says Jim Grace, president of InsureMyTrip.com. (Think Christmas without the gifts, or that holiday wedding without anything to wear.)
There are even policies that allow you to “cancel for any reason,” though you typically must buy it within 10 to 30 days of making your first trip payment, Grace noted.
But many of us don’t always realize is how travel insurance can help — and save you big bucks, not to mention aggravation — in the case of a storm that brings travel to a standstill, whether you were planning that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa or a simple weekend getaway. Figure travel insurance will cost 4 percent to 8 percent of your trip. That may turn out to be a bargain if weather wrecks your plans.
But what we don’t always realize is how travel insurance can help — and save you big bucks, not to mention aggravation — in the case of a storm that brings travel to a standstill, whether you were planning that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa or a simple weekend getaway. Figure travel insurance will cost 4 percent to 8 percent of your trip. That may turn out to be a bargain if weather wrecks your plans.
Also according to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, travel insurance can not only reimburse for nonrefundable payments if you have to cancel or interrupt your trip because of a weather-related event but will also reimburse you up to a set amount for hotel accommodations, meals and incidentals (clean socks and underwear!) if your travel is delayed beyond a certain period of time (usually six hours or more). That can be a lot of money!
In addition, most travel insurance providers include a 24-hour hotline for travel-related assistance services. These services can include emergency travel arrangements to help evacuate you from an area that is in the path of a hurricane or other natural disaster or help make alternative plans, such as finding and booking a hotel, rescheduling flights, and accessing other needed services.
You can let the travel insurance company stay on hold with the airlines while you deal with other issues — lost power, the tree blocking your street, the car that got flooded, the important meeting you aren’t going to make.
During Hurricane Sandy, TravelGuard was one of the travel insurance companies that offered free assistance to stranded travelers and reported that their call volume had increased as much as 40 percent. But unless customers had travel insurance, they incurred the costs for their emergency expenses. It’s bad enough to miss that cruise or resort vacation because you can’t get out of town, but it is even worse when you have to pay for it anyway.
As for me, my grade-school friends and I rebooked our trip for January. In case there’s a blizzard, I’m going to make sure everyone gets travel insurance.
© 2012 EILEEN OGINTZ, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.