If you book a trip with an airline, cruise line or travel website, it will urge you to pay extra to “protect your trip.” That means you get an insurance policy to cover at least some of your costs if you cancel or change your travel plans—and sometimes it includes compensation for lost luggage and travel delays. But extensive caveats hidden in the small print make this protection—which typically costs 3% to 15% of the trip’s price—far less useful than travelers expect. This is especially on travelers’ minds now because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has slammed travel plans.

Details Vary

Coverage details vary, but among the potential restrictions in policies… 

Canceling a nonchangeable ticket for any reason often is not covered. Example: Expedia’s Vacation Waiver program “does not cover nonchangeable flights.” 

Coverage might be provided only if you cancel your trip for a very specific reason, such as job loss, illness or death. Even these approved reasons have caveats. Example: Canceling due to an illness often isn’t covered if the illness is related to a preexisting condition. 

Compensation might be provided in travel credits, not cash, especially with cruise lines. 

What to do: Don’t purchase trip protection from travel companies—it’s inevitably a bad deal. If you feel you must have financial protection for an expensive trip, purchase a policy from a well-established provider such as ­Allianz Travel Insurance, Generali Global Assistance, Travel Guard or Travelex. These providers tend to have better reputations…typically offer more complete coverage…and usually provide more for what you pay. Prices vary dramatically depending on the types and amounts of coverage provided and on your age and destination. 

If you want to cancel an upcoming trip because you are afraid of the ­coronavirus outbreak or have some other fear, only a “cancel for any reason” policy would cover you. That type of policy typically costs about 40% more than a standard policy…can be obtained only within 10 to 21 days of your initial trip payment…and may ­cover only up to 75% of your insured trip cost. However, if you fall ill during the trip, you might be covered even by a standard policy—depending on the exclusions.

Although many credit cards have cut back on benefits, a few still offer trip-cancellation and interruption protection as a free perk. This coverage tends to be full of caveats and limits, but at least it doesn’t cost extra if you already have the card. Examples: Chase Freedom Visa (no annual fee, up to $6,000 per trip coverage)…United TravelBank Visa (no annual fee, up to $6,000 per trip)…Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa ($95 ­annual fee, up to $20,000 per trip). 

Airlines Waive Some Penalties

Keep in mind that airlines have been temporarily waiving penalties for altering or canceling planned trips—and in some cases have offered refunds or have waived fare differences. Details and flexibility vary widely and change frequently, so check with individual airlines. Also check with hotels, home-sharing services such as Airbnb and cruise lines, as well as with your travel agent if you use one. Airlines and cruise lines have been slashing schedules and offering passengers refunds or credits.

For the latest travel cautions, check advisories from the World Health Organization at WHO.int and the US Department of State at Travel.State.gov.