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The other bonus of travel insurance is that most reputable companies offer 24-hour global assistance. Those contacts can act as your advocate in terms of securing last-minute hotel rooms, finding a local doctor, dealing with lost documents or even arranging for your evacuation. More comprehensive plans may include emergency medical, dental and car rental insurance on top of trip delay, cancellation and baggage coverage.

But that brings us to the dreaded fine print. No two travel insurance policies are built alike, and some have loopholes so big you could drive a Hummer through them. Always find out what is included and, more important, what's excluded in your covered benefits. You might be surprised to see how long that list of exclusions is—civil unrest, acts of war, pandemics and natural disasters (also known as the exact reasons you need insurance).

You know those folks stranded by clouds of Icelandic volcanic ash? Guess what some companies are filing that under? You guessed it, it's a natural disaster. Fortunately for other travelers, this being (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime event, other companies decided that the wind carrying the ash is "adverse weather," not a natural disaster. But guess what? Even when the policy does cover natural disasters, you might not be covered if your location is still habitable and the airports are still open! 

Read more about travel insurance in the wake of the volcano eruption at PeterGreenberg.com.

Getting stranded by volcanic ash is unlikely. But getting caught in a hurricane is much more common, especially now that the Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. This comes with its own list of exclusions. You cannot purchase travel insurance once the storm has been named by the National Hurricane Center—after it's been named, a hurricane is considered a "foreseen event." And you certainly won't be reimbursed if you get to your destination but your tropical vacation is ruined by gusty winds and torrential rain.

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