Travel Alerts vs. Travel Warnings: Are You Covered?

Bri, Marketing

If you’re reading this, I suspect you, like most of us, have been keeping up with the news surrounding this weekend’s State Department Travel Alert.  For those who haven’t yet heard, here’s a quick recap, from the government’s travel security website:

“The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe.  Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks.  European governments have taken action to guard against a terrorist attack and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions.”

Americans are not being advised at this time to suspend their travel plans or cut short their vacations; the State Department simply wants those traveling abroad to take extra care to be aware of their surroundings, report any suspicious activity, avoid potentially overcrowded or “touristy” areas as much as possible, and try not to be conspicuously “Americanized” — which means those Yankees caps, college T-shirts, American flag pins, and all other identifying clothing or distinctive patriotic markers should be left at home.  In other words, when in Rome…try to look like you belong there.  (Walking around with your face deep in a Fodor’s guide, loudly asking every passing soul for directions — in English — is also not part of traveling incognito, I presume.)

Frankly, the State Department’s recommendations strike me and some friends I’ve talked to recently as good advice, not only in times of “alert,” but in general.  Because the language seems relatively non-specific, many are left wondering: is this a major security threat?  Is this simply a more stringent urging to apply due caution when traveling?  Is it the same thing as a warning?  And, in the case of those of you who have travel insurance policies in place: would I be covered if this alert convinced me to cancel my trip?

In answer to those questions: maybe, maybe, not quite, and maybe.

To be more specific:

A travel alert, such as this, is intended to alert U.S. citizens who are either living or traveling abroad to a possible imminent security threat.  Alerts are used in situations that the State Department sees as relatively short-term (for example, the current European travel alert expires on 1/31/11).

travel warning is generally reserved for long-term safety and security issues that make a country or region very unstable and therefore potentially dangerous to Americans.  Warnings are also of slightly greater concern because they may be issued when the U.S. government considers its ability to offer assistance to American travelers in the specified region to be limited; in other words, the embassy or consulate may have had to be shut down, or the staff of such agencies has been drawn down for security reasons.  When a warning is issued, travelers should be aware of the fact that not only is their safety in that region questionable, but their access to the usual channels of assistance may also be blocked.

Obviously, both are of concern; any statement from the government that brings into question the safety of conditions in any part of the world for American travelers should be taken seriously.  However, there is a distinction, which I hope is made clear to you by the above explanations; and with regard to the coverage offered to you by any travel insurance policy you may hold, there will also be a clear difference in the benefits offered to you in each of these situations.

In the event of an alert, as we have now, the government has clearly stated that it is still considered reasonable for travelers to proceed with their plans.  Although you as an individual may disagree with their assessment and may feel safer or more comfortable canceling your plans, there is no urgent need for you to do so.  For that reason, most policies will not cover you for cancellation or interruption of your trip due to the travel alert.  There may be an exception to this rule if you happen to have purchased a Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) policy; since these policies are more flexible than standard package plans, the decision to cancel your trip based on a travel alert would likely be accepted, and covered, by your insurance company.

Should a State Department warning be issued for the region to which you intend to travel, you’ll need to be aware of the terms of your specific travel insurance policy. Most policies state that the warning issued would have to be related to a terrorist attack in your destination city and/or a departure city on your itinerary for you to receive coverage for canceling your trip.  It’s also important to realize that if a terrorist incident had occurred in that city 30-90 days before you purchased your policy, you may not be covered; check your policy for details on this statute of limitations.  (Also, please keep in mind that as with any insurance purchase, you must have bought your travel insurance policy before the warning was issued in order to be able to receive a refund for your canceled trip.)  What constitutes a terrorist attack?  Again, check your policy wording.  It should be clearly defined, and if it’s not, or you’re not sure you understand, it would be wise to contact us for clarification before making any assumptions.

As always, if you still have questions, feel free to contact our Customer Care representatives at 800-487-4722.  On behalf of the staff of InsureMyTrip, I wish each of you safe travels.  Be smart, be aware, and be well.

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