Travel insurance spikes as omicron fuels cancellation fears

This week, health officials identified the first cases of the omicron variant in Florida. What that means going forward is still unknown, but it puts future plans at risk all over again.

The uncertainty over more coronavirus outbreaks and closures is leading travelers to buy travel insurance at record rates, according to Megan Moncrief, the chief marketing officer at St. Petersburg-based Squaremouth. The travel insurance agency saw sales increase by 53 percent following the arrival of omicron.

Concerns about canceled travel plans are higher now, compared to the 20 percent spike Squaremouth saw following the delta variant, Moncrief said. Even with delta, the travel industry was still fairly optimistic as borders reopened to foreign travelers.

Related: Tampa International Airport plans to restore routes as U.S. border opens to vaccinated travelers

“Going into the holidays, there was quite a bit of confidence with a lot of destinations open,” Moncrief said. “Then the new variant made everyone a little bit shell shocked.”

Moncrief spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about what’s driving traveler concerns and what travel insurance can cover. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How could the omicron variant impact travel plans?

We spoke to a lot of our customers to gauge concerns. They seem to be shifting more toward travelers worried if they’ll contract COVID-19 or have to quarantine. With the variant, we immediately saw three countries close their borders, one of which is Israel, currently our fourth top international destination, so a very popular country as far as U.S. tourism. We all know those border closings happened last year and caused this huge drop in travel altogether. Travelers had trips booked and then were immediately nervous that the border was once again going to close.

Megan Moncrief, the chief marketing officer at St. Petersburg-based Squaremouth. [ ASHLEE HAMON PHOTOGRAPHY, INC | Ashlee Hamon Photography, INC ]

How is the omicron variant affecting expectations that international travel would rebound after the U.S. border reopened to foreign travelers last month?

It’s kind of a wait-and-see pattern right now. We’re seeing a lot of chatter about additional restrictions: more negative tests, vaccines and quarantine requirements potentially upon a return or even arrival. We haven’t seen widespread closures like we did in early 2020. But it’s still pretty early.

Obviously the holidays are a busy travel season. Our sales are up as far as insurance, but that doesn’t mean travel is up. It could just be more scared travelers. Or it could mean more people booking trips and therefore booking insurance.

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Related: Tampa International Airport sees record travelers for Thanksgiving

How should travelers prepare if they want to go out of the country right now?

There’s so much out there and it can be hard to find one place that has the most current information. We’re urging our customers before they even book a travel insurance policy to find out everything that you can from their destination, airlines and hotel. Understand what policies are in place, what requirements there are of you, when do you need to have your negative test, do you need to be vaccinated at your destination?

Don’t spend more money on a policy than you have to on what could already be an expensive trip. Look into a travel insurance policy for any gaps there might be.

What does travel insurance not cover?

The big gap right now is a border closure. Travel insurance policies don’t have the term ‘border closure’ or anything related to a border closure included under a standard trip cancellation policy.

Now, there are a few that will provide coverage for a government-issued travel warning, like a CDC level 4 alert or higher. So that can potentially be helpful in this scenario as long as the policy is purchased before that alert is issued.

Unfortunately, prior to 2020 this was never a main concern. So it’s going to take time for the travel insurance providers to adjust their coverage and adhere to these new and evolving kinds of traveler concerns. So if that is your No. 1 concern — the border closed and you can’t go, or you’re scared of this new variant, maybe you’re high risk or just not comfortable traveling anymore — that’s also not going to be covered under a standard travel insurance policy.

What most policies will cover is contracting COVID-19, whether it was before or during your trip. There are additional types of policies that you can purchase to have more coverage.

Related: Tampa Bay holiday travelers, be wary of flight delays and cancellations

How much has travel insurance changed in the past two years?

We’ve seen a lot of providers already come to the market with quarantine coverage. There’s a focus on coverage for domestic trips or what additional benefits will be applicable to domestic travelers in 2020. And then quite a few have added or increased benefit limits for travel delay to cover quarantine.

We’re also seeing new providers come to the market with ‘cancel for any reason’ coverage. Like it says, you can cancel for any reason. It was hugely popular last year. Our percentage of sales on these policies went from less than 4 percent up to about 30 percent.

A lot of providers are trying to find ways to cover border closures or airline disruptions, but it just takes time. It has to be approved in every state. It has to be rated.

What else should travelers know right now?

If you have a trip booked, months in advance or even just a month in advance, reach out to your travel suppliers and understand your options. The more recently your trip was booked, the more likely you are to have additional benefits that can cover basically anything that can impact your trip. But if you booked your trip months in advance — like we’re seeing from most of our travelers when everyone was pretty confident prior to Thanksgiving weekend — reach out and see what your options are.

Don’t just jump to buy a travel insurance policy. We don’t want you to spend money if it’s not going to have the coverage that you need.

Christopher Lewis

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