Travel insurance doesn’t always work. 

There, I said it. 

Sometimes, travel insurance is worthless. I know, because a few weeks ago, I wrote a column about how travel insurance can sometimes save the day, and many of you, dear readers, begged to differ.

More: Travel insurance can save the day

Diane McGrew says she always buys insurance and assumed it would protect her vacation when she canceled her trip to Europe last year after terrorist attacks in Belgium. 

“It didn’t,” says McGrew, a retired print manager from St. Joseph, Minn. “We were shocked. It was a $4,500 loss to us. We never received one penny back.”

That’s the thing about travel insurance. It covers you — except when it doesn’t. 

Most policies place strict limits on terrorism-related claims. In McGrew’s case, she canceled because of worries about terrorist activity in Belgium. “The denial was based on something regarding known terrorist cells as opposed to an actual event,” she recalls. 

Right now, during one of the busier times of the year for insurance claims, it helps to know what that shiny new policy will really do — and won’t do — for you.

“Travel insurance means different things to different travelers,” says Mike Kelly, a risk consultant with AHT Insurance, an insurance brokerage and consulting firm. “Most travel insurance policies vary widely.”

That’s true. What do you do when a policy fails to deliver as advertised? Insurance insiders might argue that there’s no such thing, that the real problem is travelers who don’t take the time to read the policy. 

“I’ve never heard of insurance that did not work as advertised,” says veteran travel agent Michelle Weller, who works for Travel Leaders in Houston. “But I have noticed some people do not read the fine print.”

Before you write off your policy as a failure, take a moment to read everything. Remember, only the more expensive “cancel for any reason” policies actually let you cancel for any reason — and even those policies have rules.

Reading before a purchase can be a frustrating experience. Tom Moore, a retired college professor from Grinnell, Iowa, sometimes considers travel insurance for his trips. Then he reviews the policy. 

“I get into the morass of verbiage, that seem to be spelling out dozens of things not covered by the policy,” he says. “I generally just opt out and cross my fingers.”

If your travel insurance claim has been denied, you have options. Remember, a rejection isn’t the insurance company’s final word. It just means that based on the information it has, it isn’t going to pay your claim. 

“If a claim is denied, insurance carriers will adjudicate the claim against the specific policy,” says James Page, the chief administrative officer for AIG Travel. A company such as AIG operates on what it calls the “fairness principle” that requires each denied claim to go through a quality-control process to make sure it was adjudicated properly. 

“Instead of simply sending a denial letter, an AIG Travel representative will call the client and explain the reasons for the denial,” Page says.

A brief, polite, written appeal with any new information that you believe is relevant to your case is the first step in getting the company to reverse its decision.

Appeals are taken seriously by insurance companies and are typically reviewed by several adjusters at a senior level. Their goal is to make sure nothing was overlooked the first time. This process can take as long as the initial claim, according to many travelers.

You can lean on your travel agent for help. Christina Ernst told me the story of a young couple who booked their honeymoon through her travel agency, VIP Southern Tours in Sautee-Nacoochee, Ga. “The fiancé died in a horrible car wreck eight days before their wedding and honeymoon,” she recalls.

Her surviving client was distraught and would have missed the deadlines for canceling her vacation and filing a claim. Ernst jumped in and took care of the paperwork to secure a refund.

What if your agent can’t help? There are several third parties that could turn a travel insurance company’s “no” into a “yes”  (see below). That can be a long road, but I’ve seen claims honored after a lengthy appeals process.

The best way to avoid the headache of a travel insurance appeal is to buy the right policy. The time to make that determination is before you travel — not after you have to file a claim.

Who do you call?

• Your state insurance commissioner. If your claim was rejected without cause, your state insurance commissioner may be able to help. To find your insurance commissioner, visit the National Association of Insurance Commissioners site: naic.org/index_members.htm. Some travelers have reported that their claims were honored after copying their state insurance commissioner on their appeal.

• The Better Business Bureau (BBB). The BBB investigates claims of this nature, but it has little sway over the final outcome of your appeal. 

• A consumer advocate. Even though travel insurance companies operate “by the book,” they can be prodded into changing their minds by an outside party. USA TODAY’s Traveler’s Aide column addresses consumer complaints (email travel@usatoday.com). Your local TV station’s “on your side” segment is also a good place to start. Check out the National Association of Consumer Advocates site for a referral: consumeradvocates.org.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and editor at large for National Geographic Traveler. Contact him at chris@elliott.org or visit elliott.org.