The global picture continues to shift geopolitically, culturally and economically, making it more important than ever for business travelers to understand their insurance needs, corporate security programs and best practices for personal safety. This is especially relevant today in light of the coronavirus outbreak that has catapulted the travel industry into disarray.

According to a report in Bloomberg News, “It’s the biggest setback for the travel industry since a downturn that accompanied the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the SARS outbreak and the war in Iraq two years later.” As tourists and business travelers alike fear being both quarantined and becoming infected, staying at home seems like a safer option.

It is still unclear how refunds on flights, hotels and insurance claims are being handled in this fluid situation, but for now, there are several things to keep in mind: Reports indicate that many airlines are waiving all change fees, while others are allowing travelers to change or cancel flights at no charge but only on itineraries involving certain destinations. Hotels, cruise ships and other tour operators must be contacted individually as there is no one across-the-board policy.

In case of travel insurance, some providers are honoring cancellation coverage. However, it’s important to note that usually, travel insurance protects against unexpected events, so if you buy a policy for a destination where an outbreak has been reported, your trip most likely is not going to be covered. Additionally, your typical national standard medical insurance policy is likely to exclude infectious disease outbreaks, in an effort to keep costs low.

Our best advice: Check with your provider, and then double check again.

Pandemics aside, according to a recently released survey from SAP Concur, nearly one third (31 percent) of business travelers prioritize their own safety as the most important factor on a business trip. For female travelers, the risks are particularly acute; more than three in four female business travelers report having suffered harassment while traveling.

Everyone in the travel value chain – travel providers, organizations and individual travelers – has a part to play in travel safety. However, realizing that the burden of safety is largely the traveler’s own, it’s vital for a traveler to constantly stay vigilant and “travel-aware” (i.e., be monitoring the news, managing their fatigue, figuring out the safest place to eat after hours, and conducting business, all at the same time).

Tools for the Traveler 
Fortunately, there are several ways travelers can streamline their traveler safety protocols. Enter technology, which is making life easier for the traveler both in small to medium enterprises, as well as major corporations with massive security departments.

For example, in December 2019, AIG launched an updated app through a partnership with GeoSure (geosureglobal.com), which provides travelers who are insured through a group AIG business travel policy with access to hyper-local safety awareness functionality for more than 65,000 cities and neighborhoods. The data is broken down into categories of Physical Harm, Women’s Safety, Theft, LGBTQ+ Safety, Political Freedoms, Health & Medical and an overall safety rating.

Another tool is simply exercising common sense safety precautions. “It’s so important for travelers to understand safety conditions at their intended destinations,” states Michael Becker, CEO of GeoSure in Boulder, CO., who recommends the following tips:

• Be prepared and do your homework. Understand what’s happening at the neighborhood and street level around meeting venues, hotels, restaurants or other points of interest.
• Familiarize yourself with the culture and customs of your destination. ‘Business casual’ in the US might mean some completely different attire elsewhere. Dress accordingly. This will help minimize the chance of accidentally offending someone and keep you safer.
• Backup your travel documents. Take photos of your passport and other documentation and store them in an online backup service, and give a copy to a trusted coworker, as well.
• Stay in a well-known district of the city with shopping or dining amenities. Take daytime and nighttime safety into consideration. Stick to populated areas and carry your valuables close to your body (or leave them at home). Only venture out after dark with a group.

Bruce McIndoe, CEO of WorldAware (worldaware.com) in Annapolis, MD, agrees: “Given the dynamic world that we live in and the shifting political alliances, travelers need to be aware, more than ever, about the geopolitical, social, health and security situation in the countries they are visiting.” He advises travelers to follow several easy rules:

• Before leaving home, don't take anything of value that you don't truly need. Clear out your wallet or purse and keep only the essentials required on your travels.
• While on your trip, don't let your guard down. Pay extra attention when crossing roads – especially when traffic is driving on the opposite side of the road than what you’re used to.
• If you don't need to be out and about from midnight to 2 AM, avoid this time; especially in areas with a lot of tourists and bars.

Where to Turn for Help 
In addition to these common sense steps, McIndoe advises, “Having someone you can turn to for assistance, whether travel, medical or security, is even more important these days. Obtaining proper insurance that matches your travel profile can give you that piece of mind. Insurance policy aggregators like insuremytrip.com make buying the right insurance at a competitive price easy,” he adds.

Why is this so important? Most travelers don’t realize that their national health plan probably doesn’t cover them overseas. Even if a company has a comprehensive travel protection plan for their employees, there can be significant gaps in coverage, especially for situations such as pandemics, acts of war/terrorism, natural disasters, pre-existing conditions and accidents related to adventure/leisure activities (mountain climbing, scuba diving, and so forth).

Medical transportation, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether. “In the case of a medical emergency, most travelers assume that the medical evacuation coverage of their platinum credit card benefits (or travel insurance if they take that out) will get them all the way home if they are hospitalized while abroad. This is not necessarily true,” cautions Michael Hallman, CEO of Birmingham, AL-based Medjet (medjetassist.com), a global medical transport and travel security membership program.

“If you read their terms of service carefully, you’ll find that most insurance policies will only get you to what the insurer deems is the ‘nearest acceptable facility,’ and that’s where you’ll stay until you are well enough to be repatriated via a common carrier,” Hallman says. “What’s acceptable to the insurance company may not be acceptable to you. Subpar services and facilities, language barriers and capping out on insurance limits are very real risks if you can’t get home.”

Additionally, “with the platinum credit card travel benefits, a lot of people are shocked when they find out most of those only cover injury and illness if it happens while you’re actually on the plane you bought the ticket for,” he continues. In other words, once you step off that plane, you’re no longer covered. And this even applies to domestic travel.

“While health insurance will likely cover ER visits and the hospital bills in another state, families really don’t think about the hardship an extended stay to recover would create. Additionally, people want to get back to their own doctors, local hospital, and family. But footing the bill for a domestic transport can still be upwards of $30,000. We have so many members that have purchased a Medjet membership for their big international trip, but then ended up requiring a transport within the US,” Hallman says.

Empowering Travelers
There’s no doubt that tech tools, using common sense and other travel preparedness efforts can make a huge difference. “Real-time data helps businesses and their employees track and evaluate risk, and understand relative safety, so that you can travel confidently. An empowered, engaged, confident employee is more productive during travel, as well as at the office,” explains GeoSure’s Becker.

Safety and security is a team effort, and while corporate policies and processes are an integral part of the equation, individual travelers must seize responsibility for their personal safety. “Traveling for either business or leisure can be both rewarding – and distracting, taking your attention away from the potential dangers that come with it,” according to Stephen Barth, founder of hospitalitylawyer.com in Houston, TX. “If you often travel for business, the repetition or tediousness of travel can desensitize you to the risks.”

Barth offers his own set of tried-and-tested recommendations:
• In the cities you’ll be visiting, Google “high crime areas” and avoid any potential trouble spots. For international travel, download the Smart Traveler App provided by the US Secretary of State's office which will send you travel alerts.
• If at all possible, avoid hotels that allow smoking or e-cigarette/vapor use, as the risk of fire is much greater at hotels where this is allowed on the premises.
• Do not get into a ridesharing service car until you have verified the car’s make, model, color, license plate and driver’s name with the information on your app.
• When inside your room, always keep the deadbolt and/or security bar engaged. Some guests also travel with a door stopper that can be placed under the door. Travel with a sticky pad and place a note over the viewer.
• When going for a stroll or run, if you must use earphones, only use one. Pedestrian accidents resulting in injuries and deaths are the most frequent kind of trip-related incidents.