The Guide to Overseas Health and Travel Insurance
Why You Likely Need Coverage
|Airlifts overseas are expensive
in case of those rare mishaps.
“I wonder how much this is going
to cost,” I muse silently as I sit in the spacious
hospital room in northern Thailand. I have called this room “home” for
seven days now, while my boyfriend endures and eventually
recovers from a bout of crippling Dengue Fever.
While my boyfriend flirts with a near-comatose
state over the course of the week, I befriend the nine attending
nurses, one doctor, administrative staff, and two translators,
all of whom are invaluable and offer attentive service during
our stay. Out of pocket expenses have racked up already
in the name of initial hospital out-patient visits, canceling
non-refundable train tickets, extending our expiring tourist
visas, and so on. I can only imagine what the hospital bill
will be when we are released.
And although I am concerned about the
cost of this vacation debacle, I am not worried about losing
my shirt; we have travel insurance.
Incidentally, this is not the first
time we have seen the inside of a hospital room since we
started traveling years ago. In Hawaii, my boyfriend’s
crushed toe found us in the emergency room, a little worse
for wear. As Canadians with government-subsidized health
coverage, a trip to the hospital doesn’t even bring
on a financial sweat at home; the charges are few if any.
But a hospital visit in the United States where health care
is very big business is an entirely different matter, and
we prayed that our travel insurance company would see fit
to pick up the tab.
Three-quarters of an hour and a $900
bill later, we were anticlimactically released with nothing
more painkillers and instructions to keep the foot elevated.
It seems that big business also means big profits. Luckily
for us, we didn’t have to pay for it; our travel insurance
Making the Decision to Have Insurance…or
Many travelers, especially those on
the road for long periods of time or with limited funds,
choose not to travel with medical insurance. Instead, they
decide to roll the dice and take the gamble that nothing
will happen. And in many cases that is exactly what happens:
nothing. Even if medical assistance is required, it often
costs less in other countries. In some cases, a simple
trip to the pharmacist will result in a free consultation
and an inexpensive diagnosis and prescription on the spot.
Pharmacists in many countries are often very proactive and
knowledgeable, able to help with what ails you without directing
you to a doctor pro forma. All the while, the travel insurance
premiums sit in the traveler’s pocket and are enjoyed
in other ways, or used to subsidize any necessary trips
to the pharmacy.
But when disaster strikes—and
it can indeed strike, as I have been witness to more than
once—those travel insurance premiums may seem tiny
in comparison to the medical bills you could be faced with.
Making the decision to apply for travel
insurance should extend beyond the simple analysis of general
health and predisposition towards illness. Anything can
happen at any time, and what you should analyze is your
ability—financially and otherwise—to cope with
that event on the road.
Here are some key questions to ask yourself
when evaluating your travel insurance needs:
- Do I have the financial resources
to pay for an unexpected and extensive hospital visit?
- Do I have family members or friends
who can bail me out, fly me home, or visit me in a time
of medical need while I am traveling?
- Do I have family members at home
who are ill or ailing, such that I may need to return
home for an untimely death?
- How will financial stress or worry
affect my ability to recover if I am ill and uninsured
- Am I traveling to a country where
health care is expensive, and a health crisis may force
me into financial duress?
- Am I traveling to a country where
access to good health care is difficult? Or in remote
areas where I may need to be airlifted out (at great
expense) if there is a problem?
- Am I getting on in age, such that
an illness or injury may take a greater toll on me?
- While traveling, will I be participating
in any activities that may increase my chance of getting
You know better than anybody else possibly
can whether the answers to the above questions should lead
you to apply for travel insurance or not. However as a full-time
traveler since 2007, and with claims experience, my solid
recommendation to any traveler is to indeed incorporate
travel insurance into the budget.
Different Types of Insurance Coverage
Not only are no two policies the same
(so read the fine print, really read it carefully), but
within each policy you will discover many different kinds
of coverage and options to choose from. The three main kinds
of travel insurance include:
1) Trip Cancellation
If you need to cancel your trip or
cut it short due to a personal or family medical emergency,
trip cancellation insurance will reimburse you (in full
or in part) for the non-refundable portions of travel
expenses spent. It is often only available prior to or
at the time of booking your flights, and once they are
booked you may be unable to apply. This type of travel insurance
is rife with stipulations and conditions depending on
when and how you purchase it, but if you are planning
an expensive long-haul flight, it may be worth your while.
2) Baggage Loss/Theft
With this type of travel insurance, you
will be reimbursed for all or part of the value of your
travel belongings if they are lost, stolen, or damaged.
The method of valuating your possessions varies, as does
the level of reimbursement depending on how or where
it was lost. You will be expected to provide proof of
ownership, including original purchase receipts or photos
as part of the claims process. You won’t immediately
get a check for lost baggage, and will likely have to
spend some money out of pocket to even function while
enduring the claims process. Unless you are traveling
with some really expensive items, this form of insurance
is often more hassle than it is worth. You may also already
have this coverage and not know it; we will address that
|Don't forget travel insurance
for lost luggage.
3) Emergency/Accidental Medical
As the most common (and arguably
most practical) form of travel insurance, this should
be your choice if you are only to choose one kind. You
are reimbursed or covered directly for medical (and related)
expenses incurred during your trip, and in some insurance
plans for long-term travelers you are even covered for
an entire year. The circumstances surrounding your falling
ill or becoming injured are important, as your policy
may or may not cover your participation in certain sports,
and almost certainly won’t touch you if your medical
condition was an issue prior to your trip departure.
Also in many cases, claims will be rejected if you are
in a country in political turmoil or if your injury can
be related to acts of war or terror. Be sure to read
very carefully the fine print for this type of insurance.
Editor's note: In this period of unrest and unspeakable actions in what were previously always seen as very safe destinations, many will feel safer knowing that they are covered by the necessary insurance. We do not claim that you should always take out such insurance, as the odds of certain acts of extremism remain minimal compared to the risks in most home countries, but many prefer peace of mind or have family that may need reassurance. Just make sure you are not overpaying, know how to contact your insurer, use common sense in your travels, and have plans to notify relatives about your location and safety should there occur any conceivable unexpected events.
Making Insurance Claims
In the descriptions above, you may already
have detected a number of loopholes which allow the insurance
company to get out of paying your claim; from visiting war-torn
regions to the impossible task of providing receipts for
your belongings to a potential loose connection between
your illness and a pre-existing condition, it often seems
that insurance companies are dedicated to not helping
you out. And admittedly, personal experience with filing
claims twice now has been responsible for more than a few
gray hairs. But difficulty in extracting money from an insurance
company is not reason enough to throw your hands up and
either not file a claim or not apply for insurance to begin
In the cases of both our claims, we
were reimbursed for a large chunk of our expenses. The Hawaiian
hospital bills were paid directly by the insurance company,
but we first had to fill out reams of insurance paperwork
and received a few nasty letters with overdue bills from
the hospital. We were disappointed at how long it took the
insurance company to cover the costs, but in the end, they
did. Of the $900 in expenses, we were on the hook for $72—for
In Thailand, the claims process was
even more involved. The hospital bill for the week-long
stay was paid by the insurance company directly and relatively
easily (thankfully, as it was the most expensive part of
our claim). The out of pocket expenses were also eventually
covered, but due to the sheer number and complexity of the
receipts, it was like pulling teeth. One arm of the insurance
company rarely seemed to communicate with the other, and
repeated requests came through to file papers and forms
that were already sent. Finally upon escalation of the problem
to upper management, the claim was processed. Corrections
still had to be made due to administrative oversights, but
I do not necessarily fault the examiners: it would have
been a tough claim to process.
You may wonder why on earth I would
continue to recommend travel insurance if having the claims
reimbursed was so painstaking. But the upshot is that indeed
the claims were eventually processed, and hundreds upon
hundreds of dollars were saved by having the insurance.
Our claims were relatively innocuous in nature; a crushed
toe and temporarily debilitating illness were tough to endure
but ultimately not as serious as they could have been. But
having extensive surgery, requiring remote airlifts, or
any number of unimaginable tragedies are real possibilities—and
expensive ones at that.
So how do you make claim-time easier
on yourself? Here are some tips:
- Carry the claims phone number
for your travel insurance company, along with the
policy number with you at all times. Leave
the same information with a family member at home
so they can advocate on your behalf if you are incapacitated.
- As soon as the illness or
injury befalls, call the insurance company–even
before being admitted to the hospital if possible.
Sometimes you won’t be covered if you do not,
as impractical as it may seem.
- Keep a written log of absolutely
every communication with the insurance company for
posterity, and possibly as ammunition if
you experience trouble later on.
- Keep copies of everything
you mail in. They will require original documents,
but sometimes things are lost in the mail and you
may need to resend them. This way you can also reference
the same documents in front of you if you need to
talk to somebody at the insurance company about your
You May Already Have Overseas Insurance
By booking your plane ticket with your
credit card, you may already have baggage loss/theft coverage,
as well as trip cancellation insurance without even knowing
it. You may also have a health insurance plan at home that
covers you overseas, even if you are on a sabbatical. Here
are some forms of insurance you just may unwittingly have:
- Credit Card: Auto
rental insurance, baggage loss/theft, trip cancellation,
some accidental medical.
- Health Insurance: the
level of potential coverage you may have run the full
- Life Insurance: If
you die in another country, expenses to ship your body
home may be covered. You may also receive money if you
are simply injured too
Insurance: Many aspects of baggage loss/theft
insurance may be addressed with your homeowner’s
In all cases, phone your existing insurers
and inquire about the level and availability of coverage.
You may be able to save yourself the expense of getting
a separate policy.
As I alluded to earlier, no two policies
are the same, even if they are from the same travel insurance
company. As tedious a task as it may seem at times—the
best companies are going out of their way to be more transparent
and customer service oriented—do read the fine print
thoroughly; it may be the difference between walking away
from the hospital with money in your pocket, or not.
For More Information
on Travel Insurance of All Kinds
Applying for travel insurance
through the internet is a common, acceptable, and
easy way to find and get coverage. Here are some
resources for the sake of comparison, and there
are many others:
Guard: Travel Medical & Medical Evacuation Insurance — MedEvac
Plan offers insurance and emergency medical
assistance with durations of up to a year for
those who travel long-term. The policy covers
aspects of your health care that typical travel
insurance does not. Single and annual trip plans
cover either specific durations of up to 90
days for a trip or durations of up to 365 days
for hard-core travelers.
My Trip is a great resource for comparing
different insurance companies worldwide based
on your trip itinerary and needs.
World Nomads is an Australian company with affiliates
worldwide. The conscientious company appeals
to long-term and adventurous travelers. You
can apply from abroad once your trip has already
started and extend your policy while still traveling.
They offer a website with an excellent interface
allowing easy access to many different policies.