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THE TRAVEL INSIDER : Consumer's Guide: How to Buy Travel Protection : Insurance: There's coverage for everything from lost luggage to jury duty . . . but restrictions may apply.


Your life, your car, your body, your possessions--there's a good chance you're paying insurance premiums on all those things. And if you don't believe in taking any chances, you may already be in the habit of buying special medical insurance before an international trip.

Few travelers realize, however, that these days they can insure themselves and their vacations in far more elaborate ways--against jury duty, for instance, or against a 24-hour spell without luggage, or even against changing their own minds, for no particular reason, after buying airline tickets.

This doesn't mean that you should buy such policies. That depends on questions this column can't settle, including your next destination, your existing insurance, your approach to risk-taking and your bank account. If you buy your plane or train ticket with a standard personal American Express card, for instance, you get $100,000 in death and dismemberment coverage; in most cases, you're also covered against collision, fire, theft and vandalism against your rental car.

But plenty of people are buying insurance directly. Business is brisk enough to occupy 80 employees at Tele-Trip, the travel insurance subsidiary of Mutual of Omaha. Brea travel agent Anita T. Galins estimates that 10%-15% of her leisure-travel customers buy insurance. At Glendale's Alladin Travel Agency, agent Janice Ramsey says about 25% of her customers buy some kind of insurance. Among travelers on tours and cruises--which often keep hefty nonrefundable deposits if you back out at the last minute--agents say the rate is substantially higher.

Travel agents get commissions of 25%-40% on the policies they generate, and many agencies channel all their insurance customers through one carrier. But, as I learned when I went shopping for travel insurance, policies can vary substantially, and so can the advice they inspire.

"We highly recommend insurance," one travel agent told me, "especially if you're a senior citizen."

But another agent, requesting anonymity, confessed that "I have a hard time pushing insurance. . . . If they (insurance companies) can afford to pay that kind of commission, they're not having to pay out too much" to customers filing claims.

Describing an imaginary 14-day trip to England and France with my wife, I called several insurers to hear what they could offer. I asked detailed questions and I compared prices. But my survey was unscientific and uncomprehensive, and since every policy is a complicated contract, the information below isn't enough to support a knowledgeable choice of one company over another. It is, however, a start.

You can usually buy travel insurance by mail and sometimes by phone, in some cases as little as a day before the beginning of a trip. Most policies are applicable anywhere, but stipulate that they won't cover travelers in areas of war and insurrection. Access America, a Virginia-based company, goes a step further and names countries where it won't insure travel. Among them: Afghanistan, Cambodia, El Salvador, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Nigeria, North Korea, Yemen and Vietnam.

Travel agents and insurance-company agents said two types of coverage are most popular: cancellation-and-interruption policies, which protect customers against losses if unforeseen events disrupt a trip schedule, and comprehensive policies, which cover possibilities from jury duty to dismemberment.

Cancellation-and-interruption policies usually cost about $5.50 per $100 of coverage. Access America has set a price of $27 for the first $500 in coverage for international travel, making it a few cents cheaper than several competitors I called; Mutual of Omaha costs more at $6.50 per $100, but unlike many competitors sets no limit on how much coverage you can buy.

Details vary company to company and state to state. But in most cases, insurers pay off when weather affects your transportation. The insurers would also pay if you or an immediate family member or traveling companion suffers sudden sickness, injury or death not due to pre-existing medical conditions.

In some cases, the insurers pay if your transportation company goes bankrupt or is liquidated--but not if something goes amiss with a company already in bankruptcy (as are America West, TWA and Continental airlines). Likewise, if a tour operator stays solvent but cancels your trip, or if your travel agent goes under, you may not be covered.

Usually, the insurers pay if you are quarantined, called to jury duty or summoned to appear as a witness in court. But you probably won't be covered if you have to appear in court as a defendant, or if your losses involve the violation of any country's laws.

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