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Travel insurance for spring break

For college students, spring break is a time to kick back and relax, travel with friends, and be away from the demands of college classes. For parents whose kids are traveling, spring break can be a week's worth of worry.

As spring break approaches, some travel insurance companies are offering programs aimed at young travelers that may help ease parental worries.

Most travel insurance companies don't have a specific program for students but do offer coverage for travelers under age 30. Travel Guard International has a program called StudentGuard, available to any traveler under 29 years of age, that particularly appeals to the college student because it can cost as little as $29 per trip per person, depending on the cost of the trip.

Your health insurance won't cover you outside the United States in most cases.

Champion Insurance offers a policy called Liaison International, also beneficial to college students planning to travel abroad during spring break. The policy averages $47 for 15 days of coverage and has the added benefit of a "high-risk activity" rider. For an extra 15 percent, or a total cost of about $54, students can be covered for activities like white water rafting, rock climbing, or bungee jumping.

Roy Milan of Champion says that travel insurance is a must for students who are traveling out of the country: "People really need to be aware that whatever their insurance is in the U.S., it won't cover them outside the country," he says.

Most travel insurance policies cover you, with policy-specific exceptions, for trip cancellation, emergency medical treatment, travel delay, and lost baggage. Students may assume they don't need most of that coverage, but others like the reassurance of knowing there is someone to call who can help right away.

Nearly every travel insurance company has a 24-hour emergency number for policyholders to call for immediate help. Those numbers can provide services like assistance in locating a medical facility, translating across language barriers, and replacing lost documents like passports or airline tickets.

For students who get into more trouble than they bargained for, policies like those under StudentGuard can even provide emergency funds for bail bonds.

Insurance also becomes more important in travel to remote sites that are removed from medical facilities, since travel insurance usually provides for medical transport to the nearest appropriate medical facility. In addition, travelers have to consider possibilities like death while they're away.

"I know it's something no one wants to consider, but if someone dies in another country, that country's traditions apply, not the traditions of the US," says Milan. "Repatriation, getting the remains back to the states, can be very difficult at a time when a family is already having to deal with grief. Check your travel policy to be sure repatriation costs are covered."

John Noel, CEO of Travel Guard International, says that policyholders should also look for pretrip assistance. StudentGuard, like many other travel insurance companies, offers advice on passports, visa and immunization requirements, travel-safety and health advisories, embassy contacts, weather, and currency information.

Spring break travel alternatives popularity increasing

In an departure from tradition, a number of students are turning to what is known as the alternative spring break. Last year, students from the University of Southern California built school furniture in Guatemala and planted trees on Isla Mujeres near Cancun. When not working, they relaxed, partied and earned college credit at the same time.

According to Break Away, a nonprofit organization based at Florida State University, 38,000 students did volunteer work over the 2005 spring break, an increase from 23,000 only 5 years ago.

"Our overall mission is to connect campuses and communities," said Jake Brewer, executive director of Break Away. "We're trying to facilitate an educational experience that promotes lifelong citizenship, a way of life that's aimed at giving back to the community in a way that's beneficial to both."

Founded in 1991, Break Away has expanded to 123 campuses nationwide. "From Maine to Hawaii and everything in between," Brewer said. Break Away helps student groups organize what it calls "alternative breaks" during holidays and weekends.

"We take students out of their comfort zone," Brewer said. "We open their eyes and give them new ways to see the world."

"I've got a stack of student testimonials a foot high. Any of them would tell you that you will have more fun on an alternative spring break than you will going to Cancun. You'll laugh, you'll cry sometimes and the experience will be life changing. It's something you'll never forget."

Travel Institute offers students spring break travel insurance tips

If they don't do their homework, many of these students may unwittingly end up the victim of Spring Break travel scams.

"It is important to be an educated consumer," said Alexis Benson, CTA, spokesperson for The Travel Institute. "There are certain steps to follow to ensure that you are dealing with a legitimate travel operator and not a scam artist."

The Travel Institute's advice to students researching Spring Break travel includes:

  • Check Your Travel Agent's Credentials: Before signing a contract with any travel agent or company, check to make sure that they are professionally certified. Ask if there is a Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) on staff. This designation is the travel industry's most well-respected, professional accreditation, and it assures that you are dealing with a highly trained and experienced travel expert. CTC certification indicates that a travel professional has completed a rigorous academic study program and has years of experience. You can find a CTC in your area by visiting the The Travel institute's Web site at www.thetravelinstitute.com.
  • Do a background check. Always inquire about a company's history, including how many years it has been in business, how many times your contact person has visited the destination, and whether or not it has extensive experience dealing with students. Don't hesitate to call the Consumer Affairs Department or Better Business Bureau, and always ask the company if it has professional liability insurance. Also, you should feel comfortable asking to speak with previously satisfied customers. If the agency refuses, perhaps there aren't any, a clear signal to reconsider doing business with it.
  • Get Everything in Writing. Before even putting a deposit down on a trip, insist that all details be put in writing, including the name of the air carrier and hotel, amenities, restrictions and cancellation policies involved in the package. Make sure that the total cost is listed, including any add-ons or last-minute charges that the company anticipates. Your vacation contract should also outline the conditions under which operators can change your flight schedules and hotel accommodations (Operators can sometimes put you in an alternate hotel listed in the contract that is not as nice as the one advertised in the package materials).
  • Purchase Travel Insurance. There are many travel insurance packages available to student travelers, some which even cover cancellation by either party. A Certified Travel Counselor can assist you in finding the right insurance coverage for your trip.
  • Pay by credit card. This can help to protect you against fraud. If you pay by check or cash for a charter package, make sure it is payable to an escrow account (as required by federal law) and call the bank handling the escrow account to verify its validity. Be cautious of companies that hesitate or refuse to provide you with this information.
  • Know the facts about charter flights. Charter flights are very popular during Spring Break and often operate under very different rules than traditional commercial airlines. It's legal for them to cancel up to ten days prior to departure and to change schedules at the last minute. They are also allowed to delay flights for up to 48 hours with no mandated compensation or alternative transportation and do not have reciprocal agreements with other airlines. Check the contract you sign to see if the charter operator will cover any costs associated with flight delays if they do occur.
  • Know your rights. You have the right to cancel a charter flight without penalty if the operator changes your itinerary (different flight or hotel) and you are dissatisfied with the change, or if it increases prices at the last minute.
  • Consider an all-inclusive vacation. All-inclusives usually include airport transfers, meals, various activities and more all on one property. The entire package can be conveniently booked through one operator and, though some packages may appear expensive at first, they may ultimately offer the best value for students who are trying to avoid hidden expenses. Certified Travel Counselors can help students determine which resorts offer what they are looking for.

If college students heed these various warnings and advice, they will be well on their way to a more worry-free Spring Break. Their parents will rest easier as well knowing that their children have a strong safety net and help if problems arise. Whether traveling internationally or within the U.S. on Spring Break, travel insurance is a necessity that no college student should be without.

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