Let's play the what-if game.
What if Mother Nature derails your holiday travel plans -- as it did for so many people during superstorm Sandy and during the Christmas blizzard two years ago? Both times, I never made it out of town for long-planned trips, and by the time I could have gotten out, it would have been time to return home. Friends and colleagues were stranded out of town for days because airports were closed and planes weren't where they were scheduled to be, not to mention the airline personnel who couldn't get to their jobs because mass transit wasn't working and, in the case of the blizzard, streets weren't plowed. That's not even talking about closed highways.
Isn't travel fun? During the first four days of Sandy, some 20,000 flights were canceled, apparently the highest percentage affecting U.S. flights as a result of a natural event in recent years.
Dealing with travel woes may seem inconsequential compared to the tragedies others in Sandy's path have suffered, but I figure that any way we can de-stress is a good thing.
That's why travel agents and travel insurance agents are my new BFFs. "Your time is so valuable . . . why would you not want a travel advocate on your side?" asks Amber Blecker, recognized by USA Today as one of the country's top cruise agents.
That's especially true in the case of an emergency or a big storm that grounds your flights. Let your travel agent handle logistics and get you rebooked. (In one case after a storm, Blecker got hotel rooms not only for her clients but others they'd met aboard ship when their flights home were canceled.)
And while agents can save you aggravation, insurance can save you money. Certainly, policies can save the day if a family emergency forces you to cancel a trip for which you've already paid. Travel insurance also protects many things that are not covered by credit cards, homeowner policies and health care plans, including coverage for those 30 million bags that are mishandled each year, says Jim Grace, president of InsureMy Trip.com.
But what we don't always realize is how travel insurance can save you big bucks if a storm brings travel to a standstill. Figure travel insurance will add 4 percent to 8 percent to the cost of your trip. That may turn out to be a bargain if weather wrecks your plans.
According to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, travel insurance cannot only reimburse for nonrefundable payments if you have to cancel or interrupt your trip because of a weather-related event but will also reimburse you up to a set amount for hotels, meals and incidentals (clean socks) if your travel is delayed beyond a certain period of time (usually six hours or more).
Some plans, such as TravelGuard's Gold Plan (travelguard .com), may even insure trip expenses for children younger than 17 for free. Compare plans at insuremytrip.com or quotewright.com.
Most travel insurance providers include a 24-hour hotline for travel-related assistance services. These services can include emergency travel arrangements to help evacuate you from an area that is in the path of a hurricane or other natural disaster or help make alternative plans, such as finding and booking a hotel or rescheduling flights.
You can let the travel insurance company stay on hold with the airlines while you deal with other issues -- lost power, the tree blocking your street, the car that got flooded, the important meeting you aren't going to make.
During superstorm Sandy, TravelGuard was one of the travel insurance companies that offered free assistance to stranded travelers. But unless customers had travel insurance, they incurred the costs for their emergency expenses. It's bad enough to miss that cruise or resort vacation because you can't get out of town, but it is even worse when you have to pay for it, anyway.