Podcast #173 — What’s New in Travel Insurance; Keeping Ahead of Expiring Miles

People Camping Out on Airport Cots

Wait Here ’til Your COVID Test is Negative

As travel bookings beginning to rise with vaccination rates, we talk with Michael Giusti of InsuranceQuotes.com to find out what’s changed over the last year. I make the rounds through all my frequent traveler programs to reset impending expiration dates. We also talk about yet another travel data breach, a favorite beer bar is a COVID casualty, and bankrupt Hertz is starting to let its cars get old. All this and more – click here to download the podcast file, go up to the Subscribe section in the top menu bar to subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #173:

This Week

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you again from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois on what has been a nice week. Temps got into the 60’s at the beginning of the week, so I broke out the bike for a ride along the lake — sunny in most parts, but a bit chillier in the shady parts, riding narrow paths cut through 5-ft ice and snow mounds, the remnants of what were really impressive pile-ups of shore ice during the February deep freeze.
  • No travel since the last episode, but heading out next week to hang out on the beach in San Diego, reloading from our January pivot away from California because of their lockdown. A couple of months on, COVID cases are down, the state’s order banning hotel and Airbnb hosts from renting to out-of-state’er is gone, outdoor dining has re-opened and, most importantly, the craft brewery taprooms are open again. I pointed my little Python Untappd script at San Diego and can see a lot of Brewery check-ins. In between those taproom visits, I think we’ll manage to squeeze in some biking and kayaking. 
  • And like many folks, we’re building our travel calendar for the rest of the year. Nashville, New York City, Northern Michigan, and Maine written in pen through the first half of the year. We’re penciling in the UK for November, booking it now to lock in no-fee cancelations in case of another winter spike, or what might be more likely, lingering resistance to dropping international quarantine requirements. But I’m optimistic (hopeful?) that the US and UK will get enough people vaccinated by then.
  • I was on a Zoom call a couple of nights ago with a bunch of college friends. “Do you think we can all get together in person in September for Homecoming?” someone asked. “Absolutely,” I said, “we just need to lean into it.” And it feels like that’s what more people are doing — leaning into visits to physically get together with family and friends they haven’t seen for a year now. It’s always dangerous drawing a straight trend line, but it feels like travel might come back quicker than expected. 
  • Bridge Music — Madrugada(rmx) by savoyard (c) copyright 2007 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/savoyard/10743 Ft: Curve

Following Up

  • I finally pushed out the refreshed website last week. First change since 2006. Figured website aesthetics have changed a bit over the last 15 years and so changed things up a bit. Thanks to everyone who responded to my request on Facebook and Twitter to hit the new site for a bit of crowd-sourced end-user testing. A bit like the meme you’ll see posted in a lot of IT shops; a picture of Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world” with the line — “I don’t always test my code, but when I do, I test it in Production.” There’s still some tweaks I need to make, but it seems pretty solid. Check it out if you get a chance — travelcommons.com — and drop me a line at comments@travelcommons.com with your thoughts.
  • Following up on last episode’s rant about the guy living unnoticed in ORD for 3 months, I tweeted out an article about people living years in airports. Written by a history prof from University of Dayton who researches the history of airports (hey, everyone’s gotta have their niche), the article talks about other airport residents, an Iranian refugee who lived in CDG for 18 years, and most recently, an Estonian guy who was transiting through Manila Int’l Airport last March as the shutdowns hit was stuck there for 100 days until the Estonian embassy could get him on a repatriation flight. That one is brutal. I spent 3 hours in that airport a few years back and even, with everything open, it felt 2½ hours too long. Check out the article — there’s a link in the show notes and at the top of the Twitter and Facebook feeds. It’s a good read.
  • Jim McDonough hit the Facebook page, responding to last episode’s margarita instruction story with one of his own.
    • I know how you feel about teaching the bartender how to make a margarita. We ended a week-long trip to Switzerland by staying our last night at a hotel by the Zurich airport. At dinner, we each asked for a Scotch and water. They brought out this big tray, with a bowl of ice cubes, a pitcher of water, a bottle of Scotch, and two glasses. A crowd of hotel employees gathered to watch. Evidently, they don’t do Scotch and water in Zurich. When I filled the glasses with ice, they gasped. I explained that we live in a hot climate. I went ahead and added Scotch and topped off with a little water, and they winced when I took a sip. A cultural exchange, I guess.
  • Jim, I love you, man, but I gotta tell you — I’d probably be wincing with the hotel staff. My usual Scotch order is — Scotch and glass. But you paid for it (and in Zurich, it’s not going to be a small amount), so even if they couldn’t quite figure out what you wanted, they at least gave you all the tools you needed.
  • One of my absolute favorite beer bars, Bailey’s Taproom in Portland, Oregon, has shut off their taps permanently. I started a project in downtown Portland in January 2013. Found Bailey’s the second night I was there and just settled in; my last beer there was my last night in Portland. The owner said “After reopening to limited seating (after the initial shutdown), it was clear that people were not interested in coming downtown. When the PPP money ran out, I decided to close the doors”  Another reminder that we should try to be purposeful about where we spend our discretionary dollars, thinking about what businesses we would miss if they closed up and then go out of our way to buy something from them. In my case, it helps rationalize a rather full beer shelf in our pantry.
  • After Hertz declared bankruptcy at the end of last May, I predicted in episode #164 that I’d be paying more attention to the mileage on the cars in the Five Star aisle because that’s the first place I see signs of financial distress — a lot less 500-mile cars and a lot more 24,000-mile cars. And while 24,000 miles on a car doesn’t seem like a lot, remember that rental car miles are kinda like dog years — you gotta multiply them by, like, 7 to get to regular car miles. And true to form, when picking up our Hertz car in PHX at the end of January, every car I looked at had over 24,000 miles, a few with a lot more. Will be interesting to see what’s on offer at SAN in a few weeks. 
  • If you have any status on a Star Alliance or One World carrier, you probably got an email from your carrier about a data breach at SITA. I got them from United and American saying my name, account number, and status was potentially exposed and that I should change my password, which I did. And then thought about how this is yet another data leak from some unknown player in what is an incredibly fragmented travel tech tool chain. We talked about this back in November in episode #169 when an obscure Spanish company used by hotels to update information on on-line booking sites leaked 24 GB of names, emails, credit card data and reservation records. And in this case, if you’re not in the airline industry, you probably don’t know about SITA. It’s a industry consortium started back in 1949 by 11 European airlines to share infrastructure costs and has expanded to provide all sorts of travel technology including the exchange of passenger data between airlines — in this case, the exchange of frequent flyer status so that, say, Lufthansa recognizes your elite status with United on your flight with them. It’s one thing when the breach is from a company that you did business with — the Marriott hacks in 2018 and 2020, the 2018 breaches at British Airways and Cathay Pacific. But it’s a whole other thing when you find out some unknown third party coughed up your data. But actually, when you get a look at the spaghetti that is travel technology, and see all the places your data is getting sent to — often small companies that can’t afford state-of-the-art cybersecurity, it’s kinda surprising — in a sad way — that not more of this happens.
  • Type “plane mask” into the Google search box and one of the first 5 suggestions is “plane mask fight”. Click through and you get what seems to be an endless stream of news reports and cellphone videos of passengers fighting about having to wear a mask during a flight. What is getting a lot less coverage, though I’m hearing snatches of it here and there, are people getting chewed out by their row mates when taking their masks off to eat or drink something, getting something like “Hey, can you not drink during the flight? I’d rather not die for your convenience.”  And I’m afraid this is going to get worse as more people start traveling again and aircraft load factors get back into the 80% range. But honestly, both sides are being idiots. You know the rules before you buy your ticket and you’re reminded of them by emails before you travel, and again by gate agents before you board the plane. If you can’t handle the rules — all of them, not just the ones you agree with — then don’t walk down the jetway. Drive; charter a jet. But don’t try to bend the rules to your own personal belief system and hassle the rest of us who are just trying to get from Point A to Point B on-time and with the minimum amount of heartache.
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send a Twitter message to mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or the Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on our fab new web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge music — Tools of the Trade by Doxent Zsigmond (c) copyright 2017 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial  (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/doxent/56512 Ft: Abstract Audio, Mr Yesterday, Martijn de Boer, Speck

What’s New in Travel Insurance

  • A little over a year ago, the first coronavirus lockdowns started, and the execution of them was, to be charitable, mostly a mess. Borders were quickly shut; planes grounded. People were stranded in foreign countries with no way home; we just talked about the Estonian guy stuck in Manila airport for 100 days. And all of a sudden, people started paying attention to travel insurance. What was once a check box at the bottom of a booking webpage that most of us clicked “no” on so we could finish our reservation quickly became very important. Last May in episode #163, as people were beginning to think about their first post-lockdown trips, we talked about the state of travel insurance. Now, with travel bookings beginning to rise as vaccination rates rise, I wanted to check back in and see what’s changed with travel insurance. So I asked Michael Giusti, senior writer at InsuranceQuotes.com, to come onto the podcast and give us an update: 
    • Mark: Michael, last May, Eric Josowitz of InsuranceQuotes.com was on the podcast. We were talking about travel insurance after the initial lockdown. Back then, in the midst of all that travel disruption, many travelers were finding:  a) they didn’t actually know what their insurance covered; they’d just checked the box at the end of their booking process, paid some additional amount moved on; and  b) the insurance that they had bought had exclusions for communicable diseases, WHO-declared pandemics, cancellations in cases of fear. And then, after that, insurers stopped offering travel insurance. So, Michael, that was May. This is now the end of February. What’s the current situation regarding travel insurance?
    • Michael: Not many people were thinking about pandemics back when this started. But the few people who were thinking about it were insurers. They saw the SARS epidemic and they started writing in pandemic exclusions from that point on. And then there’s a second little provision in these insurance policies called the Known Events Provisions. So once the pandemic declared, even if there wasn’t a specific exclusion, they can turn around and say, “Well, we’re not going to cover because it’s now a known event.” It would be like there’s a hurricane that’s bearing down on your city and you buy a plane ticket while the hurricane is there, and then you get mad because you can’t fly. It’s a known event, and so they’re not going to cover that. So that’s where we came from. And then, you’re right, they stopped and they said, “Well, we have no idea what’s going on, so let’s regroup.”  And now they’ve regrouped, and it’s really interesting because in a lot of the insurance industry, they’ve stopped covering pandemics. But in travel insurance, they specifically started including Covid 19, saying “We will cover it under these conditions.”
    • Mark: Michael, travel requirements have been changing quickly; the restrictions have been going in and out. I mean, most recently, the need to provide a negative COVID test just to be able to get on a plane.  If you look at what Canada did, they basically gave travelers one-week notice of the rule change at the end of 2020. But if you’ve bought a travel insurance policy when you booked travel six weeks prior, what’s the best way to cover these late breaking requirements that pop up a week or two before our trip?
    • Michael: Two main things… One is the policy language. You do need to say what’s specifically included, what’s specifically excluded? Because whether they’re going to cover not having a negative test very much depends on the policy language. The other thing that it’s going to come down to is whether it’s out of your control. If it’s something that you’ve neglected to do, it’s never going to be covered. The policies I’ve reviewed, I haven’t seen any that specifically kick in if you haven’t got a negative test. So if you’re worried about that, you really do need to ask the agent or really read that fine print. I do know that if you’re delayed at security while you’re being tested, that’s not covered. So you do have to get there in time to make sure if they do rapid tests on the spot, that you’re going to have time to get through security.
    • Mark: Okay, let me unpack that just a little bit, Michael. So I booked my flight, and I’ve booked it a month ago. And now I go to take my test 72 hours before departure, and I come up positive. If I’ve bought the right policy, would that typically cover delay or cover cancellation?
    • Michael: Delay is always the first preference. So if we can just push this trip back a week or whatever, that’s going to be everyone’s favorite outcome. But there are cancellation provisions where, say, you can’t move it because the wedding is not going to be moved, in which case the cancellation provisions might kick in.
    • Mark: So now let’s flip that. I’ve taken my test, it’s been negative, I get on the plane, I fly down to Costa Rica. And now a week on, I’ve taken my test to get back into the US and now that test comes out positive. So now, potentially, I can’t get back into the US. How does insurance help me there?
    • Michael: There’s a couple places where this insurance is going to really beneficial in that situation. First and foremost, the medical provisions in most of these comprehensive policies are going to actually help you pay for your healthcare. Many of them are going to be secondary coverage, meaning they’re going to want your primary health care to kick in first and then they’ll jump in and cover anything that’s not covered. Some of them are primary, especially with the overseas trips. So, that’s a really nice benefits that are built into a lot of these policies. The other place that will help is, if you’re delayed because you can’t travel because of a restriction like that, and that’s outside of your control, a lot of them will cover a hotel while you’re waiting and meals while you’re waiting, and they’ll get you back home safely. So that’s actually a really positive outcome that can happen with these policies.
    • Mark: Michael, how do I make sure that I’ve actually got one of those policies? If we go back to the April/May timeframe, people were finding that they didn’t actually know what they had. How do I make sure I’ve actually bought that coverage?
    • Michael: Well, best case scenario would be if you found a human and you asked them in plain English.
    • Mark: Yeah, good luck with that, right?
    • Michael: I know, calling 1 800 numbers anymore – that’s not in the cards. What I would do if I was doing that, I’d click through the terms of service and see who’s offering that policy. If it doesn’t really go into much detail, or if it’s really garbly legalese, I’d go through to the provider’s website. Most of them have FAQ pages that specifically address COVID. So that’s gonna be probably your best resource.
    • Mark: Michael, people are starting to think about big trips as vaccination rates start to step up. You know, the back half of the year, if I’m thinking about booking, say, a week’s biking tour in Tuscany or Provence in September/October, what kind of travel insurance should I be looking for? Should I pony up for a cancel- for-any-reason rider? Or are there some cheaper alternatives for more limited scenarios like, “Hey, the EU still isn’t letting Americans in” but won’t cover the more generic “Oh, I’m afraid to travel” kind of reason.
    • Michael: The question of “if you’re afraid to travel” is never going to be covered unless you do have that cancel-for-any-reason policy. But travel insurance is meant to cover things that are out of your control. So you know, if it’s not laid out your policy, it’s not gonna be covered. So that’s kind of the most expensive option. You know, you’re going to pay the most for a cancel-for-any-reason policy. That middle ground is the standard policy where you say “I’m taking a little bit of the risk on myself. I’m going to bravely travel wherever I’m allowed.” The least expensive option is really kind of a DIY. And a lot of the destinations that I’m seeing, they’re waiving cancellation and change fees. And so you can kind of make your DIY travel insurance by only booking places that would let you change for no fee. That’s kind of the cheapest “I’m feeling brave” policy. “I’m feeling skittish” policy Is that cancel-for-any-reason.
    • Mark: Super. Michael Giusti, senior writer at InsuranceQuotes.com, thank you very much for joining us. This was a great update.
    • Michael: Thank you so much.
  • Bridge music — Crazy Love-The Alex & Lang mix by J.Lang (c) copyright 2007 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/djlang59/10579 Ft: FHC and Alex & Bradsucks

Keeping Ahead of Expiring Miles

  • Like most road warriors of a certain tenure, I have cards in my desk of some 30-odd frequent traveler programs — those that I know of — and am probably a member of another dozen or so that I’ve forgotten about. Of those, I have meaningful balances — enough for at least one free flight or a free hotel night — at the Big 4 US carriers, a couple of European carriers, and two of the big hotel chains. Most of the rest are random programs like IcelandAir or AirBaltic or Omni Hotels that I used for a specific trip or project but had some spiff, like seat selection or free WiFi, that was reason enough to put in the effort to sign up.
  • When I was traveling every week or so, keeping those main programs active wasn’t a big effort. And if I hadn’t flown, say, BA for a while, I’d code maybe a short American commuter flight, something where my status was a bit meaningless, to my BA account to reset the expiration clock.
  • But now, hitting the first anniversary of the first travel lockdown and with business travel still mostly on hold, some of those expiration cliffs are starting to become visible
  • Last episode, I talked about getting emails from BA and Iberia warning me of pending Avios expirations, and so I transferred my Iberia points to my BA account. But I can’t tell from the BA website if that was enough activity to change the BA expiration. So I spelunked some more thru the website and found where they call out Airbnb bookings as “recognized activity” that’ll reset the 36-month clock. So, I booked our San Diego Airbnb through a link on BA’s site, just had to enter my BA account number before moving to the booking screen. It’ll be interesting to see if the activity flows seamlessly into my BA account or if I’ll have to chase it down through a manual credit claim. I’m betting on the latter, but am hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
  • But that got me cycling through my other accounts. I wasn’t worried about my US carrier accounts. The trend there has been to do away with expiration dates, first Southwest, then Delta, most recently United. American, not surprisingly, is the knuckle dragger, clinging to their stingy 18-month policy, but I flew them last fall to PHL, so I’m fine there.
  • But Flying Blue, the KLM/Air France program? I last flew KLM the fall of 2018, so that had to be coming up. I hit the website; those miles were also expiring at the end of this year. And, they, like BA and Iberia, have managed to make resetting that data way overly complex.  First, there’s “overall extending activities” which are flights or purchases on their co-branded credit card; they extend all Flying Blue miles by 2 years. “Partial extending activities” extend miles earned through, say, hotel or car rental partners. Please note, says the website, “‘Partial extending activities’ do not extend the validity of Miles earned from ‘Overall extending activities’”. OK, then. Looking at it this way, I only had 500 miles from that 2018 flight, but 38,000 miles from when I had to quickly stash points from a corporate Amex account before leaving a company. So, a “partial” activity should suffice. I set myself a reminder for Dec 1st to push the minimum 1,000 points from my personal Amex.
  • And the expiration periods are kinda all over the place. BA is 36 months; KLM, Marriott, and Hyatt are 2 years; American is 18 months; Hilton is 15 months (weird number); and IHG is the stingiest at 12. 
  • Seems like there should be a technology solution to this, right? There are a few. If you use TripIt to consolidate your trip itineraries, the $49/year upgrade to the Pro version gives you program tracking. I had used it one year when they upgraded me for free; probably by mistake. AwardWallet is another popular tool, but there too, you need to upgrade to the paid version (a little cheaper at $30/year) to track expirations.
  • But beyond the cost, for these programs to work, you have to give them access to your accounts — your account numbers and passwords. And cycling back to what I was saying at the top of the show, with the travel industry’s kinda poor track record on data protection, and just after having to reset passwords to United, American, Lufthansa, BA, and Iberia because of SITA’s leak, do I really want to put all my frequent traveler logins into one spot? I think a simple spreadsheet on the hard drive of the PC in my office can do the job just fine.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #173
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • Nothing new on the tech front this month, but I should have the website freshened up by the next episode. I’ve had the current look since the beginning of 2006 courtesy of TravelCommons listener Hilary Baumann and her Fascination Design firm. The change is absolutely not a knock against Hilary’s work. It’s just that, after 15 years, I wanted to freshen things up a bit. So look for that by the end of February or beginning of March.
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