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Is Travel Insurance a waste of money - or essential?

Did you know that travel insurance policies vary enormously in coverages and in value

Read this - and part two - to understand where the best types of insurance come from, and what the most important types of coverages are.

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Travel Insurance - Yes or No?

No need to just 'cross your fingers and hope' if you have chosen travel insurance wisely!

Part 1 of a series on Travel Insurance - please also visit

1.  Travel Insurance - Yes or No
2.  What type of travel insurance do you need
3.  Ten things your travel insurance may not cover



Travel Insurance – Yes or No? Some people swear by it, other people swear about it. But there are many different types of travel insurance, some better than others.

In part one we review the different types and sellers of travel insurance policies; in part two we look at the different type of coverage and protection these policies offer you.

A Travel Agent Perspective

As a former seller of travel, I definitely loved travel insurance – not so much for the commission I earned from selling it, but rather because of the way that it could transform a desperate and sometimes tragic problem into a resolved situation.

I remember one time being telephoned, in the middle of the night, from a small out of the way island off the Australian coast. The caller was a client, in tears due to learning about the sudden death of his mother. I was able to say to him ‘Don’t worry about a thing, Paul; simply go to the airport tomorrow morning and there will be tickets waiting for you to get you and the rest of your family home as quickly as possible’. The cost of urgently returning home, and the cancellation fees for the rest of their vacation, were all absorbed by the travel insurance.

Another Travel Agent Perspective

As a travel wholesaler, we sold travel insurance through travel agents. One time I had a travel agent call me - also in tears. It turned out that she had neglected to offer travel insurance to a client, and now he was threatening to sue her and her agency if they didn't refund him the costs that would otherwise been covered by travel insurance. He said 'if you had offered it to me, I would have bought it, and because you didn't offer it to me, you should be liable'.

For this reason, travel agents should be sure to always offer their clients the option of travel insurance.

Different Sources of Travel Insurance

There are many different sources for travel insurance policies, with different implications for their value and their coverage. Some sources are very much better value than other sources.

Wholesale or Retail Insurance

When you buy any sort of travel insurance, the premium you pay gets allocated several different ways. Some of it goes as commission to the person selling it to you. Some of it goes to cover the administration costs of creating your insurance policy and recording it. Some of it goes as profit. And some of it goes to actually cover the risks you’re insuring against.

You want as much of the money you pay as possible to go towards actual coverage, and as little as possible to be allocated towards the other things. Let’s guess how a typical $50 premium gets spent – something between $5 and $15 is selling commission, another maybe $5 goes towards promotion and other selling costs, then perhaps $20 goes towards administration, maybe $5 for profit, and that leaves something between $5 and $15 for actual risk coverage – not a large percentage of your $50 payment, is it!

However, if you bought the policy as a 'wholesale' policy, the $20 administration cost reduces down to maybe $1 or less, which means that the $5-15 of actual risk/benefit coverage increases up to $25-35 – more than double the coverage, compared to a 'retail' policy. If at all possible, you want to be buying a wholesale rather than retail cover.

What is the difference? A retail policy is where you fill out a special insurance application form, and send off a payment to the insurance company, and get a certificate of insurance back from them.

A wholesale policy (which also is sold through travel agents) is where a tour operator or wholesaler groups together many insurance sales. You still get the chance of buying insurance along with the rest of your travel arrangements, you pay the premium along with the rest of your travel costs to them, and simply get a pre-printed generic policy document and perhaps a voucher from the tour operator.

This way the insurance company has almost no administrative overhead – it simply gets a statement once a month from the wholesaler listing the people that they have sold insurance to and sending a check for the net premiums; all the insurance company has to do is bank the check (well, at least until you make a claim!).

'Real insurance' or Supplier's Self-insurance?

If you are buying travel insurance that ultimately comes from a travel insurance underwriter, that is a 'real' insurance policy. But some tour operators and cruise lines will offer their own 'house' insurance policies. Often, all these policies protect you from is from that company's own cancellation fees if you cancel your travels. This type of insurance can be very limited in its coverage, and while it might be less expensive than a comprehensive policy, it is rarely a good value.

The most extreme form of this in-house insurance is seen when rental car companies try and sell you their insurance coverages at rates typically ten times or more higher than you would pay through a commercial insurance company.

Annual or Single Trip Policies

Most travel insurance is offered as a single trip policy that covers you for your one particular upcoming trip. However it is possible to buy annual cover online that provides cover to you – potentially for as much travel as you might do during the entire year.

This is another form of ‘buying in bulk’ and the value tends to be very much greater in an annual policy than in a single trip policy, although the biggest factor here is how much travel you’re likely to do in a year. If you’re only going to travel once or twice, single policies are better, but if you have a lot of travel lined up in the next twelve months, check out an annual policy as a possible alternative.

Primary or Secondary Cover

This is an important point of distinction. Primary cover means that the company offering it will ‘pay first’; secondary cover means that they will pay second (or last), only after you’ve claimed as much money as possible from any other insurance you already have.

The important difference is most clearly illustrated with car insurance. If you have a $5000 claim, you don’t want to have to use your regular, at-home, auto insurance because they might then increase their rates and you lose your ‘good driver’ history with them. If the travel insurance policy has primary cover auto insurance, then you don’t need to do anything to mess up your regular auto insurance at all; but if it is secondary cover, the travel policy won’t do anything until after you’ve gone to your regular insurer and got as much as you can from them.

Needless to say, primary cover is better than secondary cover!

On a similar concept, some insurance companies will pay claims direct to whoever it is that seeks payment, others require you to pay yourself and then seek reimbursement. This is not necessarily always up to the insurance company – sometimes people will want to get money direct from you rather than trust on a faceless insurance company in another state or country to pay them, but where it is an option, you’d obviously prefer the insurance company to directly pay rather than to have to suffer the cash-flow consequences of making large payments yourself with reimbursement to follow who knows exactly when.

Read more in Parts 2 and 3

Part 1 of a series on Travel Insurance - please also visit

1.  Travel Insurance - Yes or No
2.  What type of travel insurance do you need
3.  Ten things your travel insurance may not cover

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Originally published 11 Oct 2002, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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