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How to protect your next trip against a pandemic

What if it happens again? What if coronavirus resurges this summer, just as you’re leaving for a well-deserved vacation? Or during the winter holidays?

Travelers are looking for ways to protect their next trip from another wave of the pandemic. One of them is Baron Hanson, who takes frequent trips between Washington, D.C., and Palm Beach, Florida.

“We’re traveling by car,” says Hanson, a consultant who lives in McLean, Virginia. “We’ll wear gloves and disinfect surfaces ourselves with wipes.”

There are lots of ways to protect your vacation from an unwanted sequel to the current health crisis. They include meticulous planning, steering clear of potentially dangerous destinations and selecting the right travel insurance policy. Smart travelers will be thinking about a second outbreak long before they start planning their trip.

“Health and safety have always been a concern for people while traveling,” says John Gobbels, the chief operating officer of Medjet, a membership program that provides air transport in medical emergencies and travel security. “But coming out of this global crisis, I think there’s just a greater awareness of how vulnerable we all are.”

Your credit card may offer some protection, but read your card member agreement before you book your trip, experts say.

“Certain credit cards, like the American Express Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve, offer emergency medical transportation coverage,” says Sean Messier, a credit industry analyst at Credit Card Insider. “But bear in mind that you must require medical assistance to actually use these evacuation services, and even then, they’re only designed to get you to medical care, not home.”

It’s not just how you travel but where. Initial booking data suggest more travelers will choose domestic destinations over international ones. Michael Heflin, senior vice president of hotel relations at Travel Leaders Group, says clients are showing interest in driving out west and to destinations in less-populated areas. “Places like Northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada, as well as Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, are great options for post confinement,” Heflin says.

Those who do opt to travel internationally will want to sign up for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It’s a free service that provides essential information from the U.S. Embassy in your destination country about safety conditions there.

“Enrolling in STEP will also help the embassy contact you in the event of an emergency,” says Michael O’Rourke, CEO of Advanced Operational Concepts, a security consulting firm.

If something goes sideways on your international trip, the U.S. Embassy will help you get back. But O’Rourke says you shouldn’t rely exclusively on information from the State Department when making decisions about how to come home. You should also consult local news sources, other governments and contacts on the ground.

To a certain extent, travel companies have already helped to make vacations less vulnerable to a pandemic. They’re offering “no risk” bookings that you can cancel without having to pay any fees. Even airlines, for which change fees and cancellation fees are a major source of revenue, are waiving them in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Insurance can help, too. But its usefulness is limited, as many travelers have discovered during the current pandemic.

“All travel insurance policies have a list of exclusions,” says Terry Boynton, president of Yonder Travel Insurance, a travel insurance comparison site. “The reason for these exclusions, like a global pandemic, is that insurance companies must be able to assess the risk for a covered event to determine the pricing of the product. In cases like pandemics, the risk is extremely difficult to calculate because of its unpredictability.”

Travel insurance still covers a cancellation if you get sick and are quarantined. “There is also cancellation coverage for the financial repercussions of the pandemic, such as (a customer’s job layoff) or if a travel supplier goes insolvent,” says Kasara Barto, a spokeswoman for Squaremouth.com, a travel insurance site.

However, most standard travel insurance policies exclude pandemics. For coverage that doesn’t, you’ll need a more expensive “cancel for any reason” policy. They cost 10% to 12% of the price of your vacation and refund part of your vacation costs if you decide to cancel.

Jonathan Breeze, CEO of AardvarkCompare, a travel insurance site, says cancel-for-any-reason policies now account for half his site’s sales. Before the pandemic, those policies represented just 5% of sales. Note that such policies are time-sensitive: They must be booked within two to three weeks of the first trip payment, Breeze says.

Pay close attention to the terms. Travel insurance companies have been changing them because of the pandemic, reducing the refunded amount or providing vouchers instead of cash. Some companies have stopped selling the policies altogether.

But for many travelers, protecting the next trip means taking smaller and simpler precautions. David Kazarian, a pharmacist from Tampa, still has plans to take a river cruise in Europe in late June. He’s planning to bring plenty of disinfectant and disinfectant wipes, and he will be treating all the surfaces in his berth after boarding. But he doesn’t intend to let the threat of the coronavirus sink his vacation.

“If the trip isn’t canceled by the cruise line, I’m going,” he says.

When it comes to protecting your vacation from a pandemic, there’s only so much you can do.

“The coronavirus outbreak, at this point, is unpredictable,” says Roland Rust, a business professor at the University of Maryland. “That means that travel plans may end up being canceled. Consumers should maintain as much flexibility as possible.”

In the end, that may be the best way to protect your vacation: Have a Plan B – and C – just in case there’s a COVID-19 sequel this summer.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.