Winter weather in all its forms—snowstorms, blizzards, ice storms, sleet, freezing rain, and more—can pose serious risks to health and safety. Beyond the obvious risk of hypothermia lie many indirect risks and consequences of extreme cold. In the U.S., about 70% of injuries related to ice and snow are caused by automobile accidents. You could also slip and fall on a patch of ice and break a bone, or you could have a heart attack while shoveling snow. It’s important to be mindful of potential dangers and protect yourself against them.
Fortunately, if you’re worried about a winter storm ruining your vacation, a good insurance plan would provide something of a safety net. Depending on your specific needs, we highly recommend purchasing travel insurance, travel medical insurance (for travel outside the U.S.), or visitors medical insurance (for visitors to the U.S.) in case the worst should happen.
Types of Winter Weather
There are many kinds of winter weather and winter storms to be aware of:
- Snow: Snowflakes are simply accumulations of ice crystals that stick together as they fall. Snow can come down as flurries (light and for a short duration), showers (various intensities for short periods of time), or squalls (brief but intense snowfall joined by heavy wind).
- Sleet: Sleet is made up of slushy, partially melted snowflakes that refreeze before they hit the ground and bounce as frozen rain drops.
- Freezing Rain: Freezing rain falls as water droplets and immediately freezes on contact with any object at or below freezing temperatures. These drops create thin layers of ice on the ground, power lines, trees, and more.
- Blizzard: A blizzard is a winter storm with winds of more than 35 mph (56 kilometers per hour) for at least three hours and sufficient snow to limit visibility to 0.25 miles (0.4 km) or less.
- Ground Blizzard: Ground blizzards occur when heavy wind picks up fallen snow and blows it around at ground level.
- Ice Storm: An ice storm is a winter storm resulting in the accumulation of at least 0.25 inches (6.35 mm) of ice on exposed surfaces.
- Lake Effect Storm: Lake effect storms occur when a cold, dry air mass moves over a lake, picks up an excess of moisture, and dumps it as snow onto the surrounding area.
Travelling during winter weather poses its own set of risks. The CDC advises to avoid travel when the weather service has issued advisories. However, if you do have to travel through an extreme weather event—especially by car—please keep the following tips in mind.
Tell a friend or relative about your intended route and an estimated time of arrival. If you get into an accident along the way, they will be able to alert authorities quickly and provide helpful information if they don't hear from you.
If you get stranded in your car, make it visible to rescuers: Tie a colored handkerchief to the antenna or lift the hood (if it's not still snowing). Remain in your vehicle unless safety is less than 300 feet away. Move anything you might need from the trunk into the passenger compartment. Keep warm by wrapping your body in extra clothes or blankets, and huddle with travel companions to preserve body heat. Make sure to stay awake and moving; even if you're sitting, move your arms and legs to maintain circulation. Run the motor and heater for about 10 minutes per hour, but be sure that your car's exhaust pipe is clear of snow and ice to reduce the chance of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Winter weather by itself brings the chance to participate in many exciting winter sports. Whether you’re snowboarding down the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, skiing in the Swiss Alps, or snowshoeing across a U.S. national park, there are plenty of outdoor recreational activities that require a good layer of snow on the ground. Maybe you’re simply hiking or taking a scenic drive, and what appears to be a small snow flurry doesn’t bother you.
However, destinations that feature winter weather are also prone to severe winter storms. Keep an eye on the weather forecast and be aware of any weather advisories. Stay smart and stay safe. For outdoor activities, dress appropriately. Wear multiple layers of light, warm clothing underneath a water- or wind-resistant jacket, as well as a hat, scarf, gloves, and waterproof shoes. Whatever the activity, do it as slowly and carefully as you can. For outdoor recreation, bring a companion, an emergency kit, and a cell phone in case you need to call for help. And if you’re planning to participate in a potentially dangerous activity like skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, sledding, or anything else, it would be helpful to purchase adventure sports coverage in travel insurance to keep yourself protected.
Winter Weather and Travel Insurance
Insurance companies categorize the severest of winter storms as natural disasters and include them in their policies’ natural disaster coverage. However, not every instance of snowfall or icy roads qualifies as a natural disaster. In order for you to be eligible for the benefits, the storm and its effects must meet certain criteria.
The generally accepted policy is that the weather must result in widespread and severe damage that renders the destination uninhabitable. One company's definition of natural disaster states that it must result "in migration of the human population for its safety." Another states that the policy holder's location in the destination country must have been made uninhabitable. Another company explains that a natural disaster is a "storm (wind, rain, snow, sleet, hail, lightning, dust, or sand)...that 1. is due to natural causes and 2. results in such severe and widespread damage that the area of damage is officially declared a disaster area by the government in which the Covered Person's Trip occurs and the area is deemed to be uninhabitable or dangerous."
In other words, if your flight is delayed due to a snow flurry, the natural disaster coverage policy doesn’t apply. If you get stuck in a blizzard, however, you have more options at your disposal. The natural disaster coverage policy in travel insurance, travel medical insurance, and visitors insurance plans would help you recoup some of your financial losses if extreme winter weather were to infringe on your vacation.
Travel insurance is for both U.S. and non-U.S. residents. Travel insurance covers prepaid, non-refundable trip expenses like airfare, rental cars, and hotel reservations. Travel insurance benefits in the event of a natural disaster-level winter storm include trip cancellation and trip interruption.
Trip cancellation coverage applies if a winter storm prevents you from following through on your travel plans. If the storm shuts down your destination airport or your hotel, you'll be covered. If the storm causes flight cancellations for at least 24 hours, you will likewise be covered. You will be eligible for benefits only if you are unable to make alternate travel arrangements. Trip cancellation allows you to cancel your trip only for the covered reasons included in the policy's certificate wording. It does not cover matters of personal choice like anxiety about going, disliking cold weather, or changing your mind. For this degree of freedom, you would need to purchase cancel for any reason travel insurance, for which only U.S. residents are eligible.
If a winter storm were to strike during your vacation, trip interruption coverage could protect your remaining non-refundable trip costs. It can also, if your particular policy allows, fund alternate lodging arrangements and transportation home. On the other side, if extreme weather were to damage your home while you're away on vacation, trip interruption coverage could cover the cost of a one-way, economy-class ticket home so that you can view the damage. Again, be sure to consult your policy's certificate wording for the availability of and limits on this coverage.
As insurance is meant to protect against the unknown, there are limits to what it would cover. Benefits may not be payable if a snowstorm or blizzard has been named on or before the effective date of the policy.
Travel medical insurance provides coverage for trips and vacations outside the U.S. It is available to U.S. and non-U.S. residents both whose travel plans do not include the United States. Visitors medical insurance provides coverage for trips and vacations to the U.S. Most people who purchase visitors medical insurance are foreign nationals, although some are U.S. citizens who live outside the U.S. and are visiting temporarily for a short duration. In the event of a major winter storm, both of these types of insurance would provide benefits including trip interruption (or interruption of trip), natural disaster evacuation, and natural disaster replacement accommodations.
Different plans provide different levels of natural disaster evacuation coverage. If you have to end your vacation early due to a blizzard or another severe winter storm, you might be eligible for reimbursement for the cost of evacuation. Submit proof of payment to the insurance company for the accommodations and activities from which you were displaced, and also for any expenses directly or indirectly related to items included in your plan's General Exclusions certificate wording.
Lastly, visitors medical insurance plans sometimes include a natural disaster replacement accommodations benefit. Should a winter storm render your accommodations inhabitable (snowed out, power outage, fallen tree branches damaging the building), insurance would pay for alternate accommodations through a daily stipend for a limited number of days.
Winter weather is inevitable. Losing your non-refundable trip deposits doesn’t have to be. Try to use your best judgment in the event of a winter storm; dress warm, stay informed, have your emergency supplies nearby, and never assume you’re invincible. But a good insurance policy will help mitigate the damage caused by circumstances beyond your control. If you need any further information or have any questions about natural disaster coverage in travel insurance, travel medical insurance, or visitors insurance, please contact our licensed, experienced representatives.