July 01, 2018 EXPERIENCE

How to Get Good Medical Care While You’re Traveling

By Joel Ohman

Traveling and all the logistics that go with planning your trip can bring its own special set of headaches. A common refrain for those who travel extensively, especially internationally, is: How do I get proper medical care while I’m traveling?

Of course, we all wish that our trips go off without a hitch and that we won’t ever face an accident, injury, or unexpected illness. But, well, you know how the old saying goes—failing to plan and all that.

So while you have many different things to remember and tasks to juggle before you head out the door on your next trip, here’s how to set your mind at ease when it comes to your medical care while you’re traveling.

Assess your current coverage

The first thing you should do in your quest to ensure adequate medical coverage while you’re traveling is to check your existing policies, programs, memberships, and benefits to get an accurate picture of your current coverage.

It’s amazing how many people find out that the travel rewards credit card they signed up for years ago has a cardholder travel insurance component that already covers them up to a certain limit automatically.

If you haven’t done this proper self-evaluation, you may find yourself in the common position of paying for an unnecessary and sometimes expensive duplication of benefits.

Some items you should evaluate include:

  • Your health insurance policy
  • Your credit card member benefits
  • Any membership and association programs to which you belong
  • Standalone accident and other ancillary insurance policies
  • Other insurance policies

Once you’ve determined what you have and don’t currently have, then you can immediately proceed to step two: Determining what you need to look for in travel insurance coverage.

Your emergency may not be your insurer’s

First, a caveat: Don’t just gloss over your current coverage once you see the words “travel insurance” or “international coverage.”

Most major medical health insurance policies, along with other benefit programs, provide international travel insurance coverage only for emergencies. Usually, that’s enough for most people, but run a few common scenarios by your insurance agent to make sure that’s what you want and need.

The last situation you want to be in once you finally embark on your long-awaited vacation is that of expecting something to be covered, only to find out later that it didn’t fit the insurer’s definition of emergency—and now you’re stuck with a large bill.

One of the single largest problem areas arises when you’re traveling with “emergency only” coverage and the unexpected happens. Maybe while traveling you realize you need medical care, and you need it promptly.

Yet, yet, your situation isn’t considered an emergency by your insurance provider, so you’re forced to either pay out of pocket or end your trip early to go home to get the medical care you need—or to experience some other combination of unexpected stress and frustration.

This type of surprise has ruined many a trip abroad. Is falling and hitting your head while abroad an emergency? What about forgetting to take your medication? How about suffering a mild reaction to a new food or allergen? Spraining an ankle? Wrenching your lower back?

The list of maybe an emergency/maybe not an emergency situations could go on and on.

Feeling underinsured?

In short, many people elect to purchase some form of additional travel insurance coverage because they realize that relying on emergency-only coverage can all too often leave them exposed to costly and frustrating scenarios they’d rather avoid.

What should you look for in a travel insurance policy? Here are tips to help you do a thorough evaluation of your coverage options:

Know what’s in your major medical policy.

This type of coverage is the type that you (should) already have as the primary component of your “regular” health insurance policy.

It provides coverage for emergency care but also all the other inpatient and outpatient and prescription benefits, along with other minimum benefits you’d typically expect to see in that “regular” health insurance policy.

The passage of the Affordable Care Act (colloquially known as Obamacare) is a step toward codifying a definition of major medical insurance that means providing for at least some baseline level of minimum essential benefit standards.

Consider an accident policy.

This type of coverage is pretty self-explanatory: If you have an accident, medical expenses related to the accident will typically be covered. It’s important to note that even some non-emergency care items will typically be covered, provided they relate to the accident.

For example, checkups, prescriptions, even special lodging, or other requirements can sometimes be covered, in addition to, of course, any emergency care needed as a result of the accident.

A typical travel accident policy costs $25–$50 if you purchase on a per-trip basis and up to $250 for an annual policy.

Costs vary based on the age of the primary insured, the number of family members covered and their ages, the length of travel, the frequency of travel, the location to which you travel, and other factors.

Do you want evacuation coverage?

Sometimes you face a true medical emergency, and the best course of action is to go somewhere else, often another country, or even all the way back home, as quickly as possible to get the treatment you need.

Depending on where you’re traveling, sometimes this is better said than done, at least within an appropriate time frame and for a reasonable price.

This is where evacuation coverage comes into play. Often an airvac—a plane or helicopter—or some other form of emergency transport will swoop in to take you away to receive the treatment you need as quickly as possible.

Unless you can easily drop $25,000–$50,000 or more, and you have the appropriate contacts to whom to reach out in the middle of a stressful situation, paying a reasonable premium to receive a card with a number you can call for evacuation is a wise decision.

Typically, evacuation coverage is as low as $10 per trip, and it covers up to $300,000 in transport costs.

Is trip cancellation or interruption insurance important to you?

This type of coverage is a little different than the others, and it’s not directly related to any type of medical coverage. But it’s certainly a part of the picture and an option worth considering.

Have you ever booked a flight, a cruise, or some other type of travel package and then taken a big gulp at all the non-refundable terms? If so, this type of coverage is designed to alleviate those concerns.

Can you use this coverage only when you’ve experienced a medical emergency? No, the policy language is typically much broader, but here’s an example where reading the fine print is well worth your while.

Some policies allow a “cancel for any reason” option, while others offer coverage only for very specific reasons. How the insurer defines an unexpected illnesses, what it means to have a death in the family, what qualifies as a weather incident or natural disaster, and other items like these are typically spelled out in great detail.

Trip cancellation policies range from 4–10 percent of your prepaid, non-refundable trip cost, though you’ll typically pay more for a “cancel for any reason” policy.

While a travel insurance policy can be helpful, reading the fine print is important. Beware of overly restrictive language that won’t provide coverage in 90 percent of situations travelers find themselves in. For example, some policies cover only issues directly related to air travel. Once you reach your destination safely, you’re on your own until your return flight. This might be fine if this is all the coverage you determine you need. But the last thing you want is to buy a policy and think you’re covered when you’re not.

The peace-of-mind factor

In the end, deciding whether to purchase some form of travel insurance coverage is often like any other insurance decision—it’s more about whether a particular choice will allow you the peace of mind to sleep well at night than it is about dollars and cents.

Are things like cost, benefits, deductibles, coinsurance, and the like important? Yes, but sometimes the decision to purchase a particular insurance product or option ends up being triggered by the peace-of-mind factor.

Ask yourself: Will I sleep better at night and be better able to enjoy my trip if I have this additional travel insurance coverage? If the answer is yes, you likely know the decision you should make. Choose and travel wisely!

Joel Ohman

Joel Ohman, CFP™, is a serial entrepreneur and author based in Tampa, Fla. He’s the founder of CarInsuranceComparison.com, InsuranceProviders.com, and a number of digital media startups.