You hope and pray this one never happens to you, but it's not all that uncommon: A family member gets sick, an unexpected hurricane hits a resort or some other unforeseen circumstance strikes out of the blue and cancels your trip at the last minute. If this is a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, you may have invested a large sum of money well in advance. How do you protect your investment?
The first step, as with preventing other unexpected costs, is to do your research. Airlines, cruise lines and hotels all have their own cancellation policies. Can you simply call and reschedule? If so, how much advance notice must you give to ensure you don't lose money? Will there be an additional charge for changing a reservation? You should know the answers to all of these questions before taking out the credit card to make any payment.
You may find that certain situations, such as a last-minute cancellation due to an illness, are not covered by one of these services' refund policies. In this case, you might want to consider purchasing travel insurance.
Travel insurance is exactly what it sounds like: an insurance policy that guarantees a refund of part or all of your vacation investment if you have to cancel the trip. These policies are available from a number of insurers, and often charge a small fee for the peace of mind they offer. They also come with stipulations, however: Be sure to read the fine print before buying a policy so that you understand exactly what reasons for cancellation are covered [source: REI].