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Many people have made the mistake of thinking travel health insurance, also known as travel medical insurance, isn’t necessary. After all, what are the odds of experiencing a health issue while overseas? But according to Consumer Reports, 15 percent of travelers encounter a medical problem on their trips. And in the majority of cases, that U.S health insurance card might as well be a library card. For example, it’s not going to cover an X-ray on your foot after you tripped and fell while hiking through a rain forest in Costa Rica, or any other emergency medical issues that might come up while you are traveling abroad.

Many travelers mistakenly believe that their health insurance works wherever they are, which is usually not the case, and skipping travel health insurance is a bad idea as you could lose out on the entire remaining value of your trip if you get injured while traveling, not to mention the expensive emergency medical costs. If you end up with a serious medical condition while out of the country, the cost of being evacuated – something that can exceed $250,000, could even bankrupt you.

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What Travel Health Insurance Is

Travel health insurance typically covers emergency evacuations, medical expenses incurred related to an injury or illness suffered during your trip, a car accident, and in-flight medical emergencies. It generally will not cover trip interruptions and cancellations, lost luggage, the loss of a passport, wallet or other valuables, assistance in the event of a natural disaster and other types of potential risks, unless you purchase a comprehensive travel insurance plan.

With travel health insurance, coverage often goes beyond the financial compensation. For example, if you have an unexpected health issue arise while overseas and don’t know the local language but need to find a local resource, your provider may be able to help by facilitating emergency services. Having someone to assist in what can be a complex and scary situation can be a huge help in getting through the ordeal.

Medicare Probably Won’t Cover Your Medical Emergencies Overseas

If you have Medicare, you might think your insurance is the exception, and that travel health insurance isn’t necessary. But Medicare probably won’t cover you either, with some exceptions. If you’re traveling through Canada directly on your way to Alaska and have a medical emergency, you’re usually covered for services at a Canadian hospital. Medical services received on board a ship within territorial waters that adjoin land areas of the U.S. are also covered, according to Medicare.gov.

According to Medscape, some of the most common travel diseases include COVID-19, Ebola, malaria, dengue, cholera, tuberculous, and the Zika virus.

What that means is that if you’re on that dream trip in the Amazon and develop a gastrointestinal infection (one of the most common traveler illnesses), symptoms of COVID-19, or maybe you’re hanging out under the Mediterranean sun sipping cocktails in Greece and break your leg on the slippery poolside – any one of those scenarios among countless others could cost you your life savings.

While Medicare recipients can purchase a Medigap policy to cover emergency care received outside the U.S., the policy pays 80 percent of billed charges for certain medically necessary emergency services after meeting a $250 annual deductible. It also has a lifetime limit of $50,000, which depending on the issue at hand, could easily be exceeded with just one incident, especially if medical evacuation is necessary. By choosing the right travel health insurance policy, you may not have to pay anything out of pocket at all or worry about exceeding that lifetime limit.

Medical Emergencies While In-Flight

According to recent research from the University of Toronto, in-flight medical emergencies are on the rise, which is partly due to the increase in long-haul flights, subjecting passengers to physiologic stressors over longer periods of time. The experts involved cited another study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that estimated one medical emergency occurs in every 604 flights. While the airline usually eats the cost of landing for a medical emergency, which can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 or more, who pays for the other expenses depend on whether you have travel insurance, and where the flight landed.

Quick Stats: Top In-Flight Medical Emergencies (per New England Journal of Medicine study)

  • 37.4 percent of in-flight emergencies are loss of consciousness or light headedness
  • 12.1 percent develop respiratory symptoms
  • 9.5 percent experience nausea or vomiting
  • 7.7 percent suffer cardiac symptoms
  • 5.8 percent have seizures

If the flight lands in the U.S., your regular health insurance will cover the expenses according that the policy. If it lands in a foreign country and you have travel health insurance, it was designed to provide emergency medical coverage while you’re abroad so the plan would pay for medical transportation and costs for medical care up to the plan limits. Another plus is that travel insurance companies often have relationships with overseas hospitals which means you can receive treatment without having to pay for it out of pocket first and wait for reimbursement. Of course, without having purchased travel health insurance at all, you would be forced to pay all expenses involved.

It’s also important to keep in mind that if you purchased trip insurance without any health insurance coverage, it would not pay for any of the medical costs, but it might reimburse you for expenses related to cancellations and help you rebook tickets to get back home when you can travel.

The bottom line: Travel health insurance provides both emergency medical coverage and emergency evacuation coverage. If you’re traveling and develop an unexpected medical condition, illness or suffer from an injury that is covered by the policy, the plan will reimburse you for reasonable and customary costs of both emergency medical and dental care up to the plan limits.

Choosing the Right Type of Travel Health Insurance

Of course, you don’t want to just randomly choose any type of travel health insurance as you could find yourself with unexpected bills anyway, depending on the situation that arises. It’s important to do your homework in researching the various options, ensuring that you have the coverage that you need. You’ll want to compare not only the cost but deductibles and what specifically will be covered.

When planning travel for 2021 and beyond, it’s become a must to purchase a plan that covers COVID-19. But just because a policy covers the virus, it doesn’t mean it covers everything related to it. Some state that they will cover testing, but not treatment – what happens if you test positive and develop symptoms that lead to a hospital stay? Or perhaps they’ll cover COVID but only in certain jurisdictions. You need a plan that covers COVID testing and treatment as well as any pre-existing conditions that might worsen due to the virus. For example, you might have borderline diabetes and develop complications like a hypertensive emergency or acute renal failure after contracting COVID, only to find out that your travel insurance doesn’t cover a worsening condition. Oftentimes travel health insurance policies don’t cover pre-existing conditions but you’ll have the option to buy or qualify for a waiver of that exclusion.

Another important consideration is that many travel health plans require you to pay upfront and get reimbursed later, while others will pay providers a certain amount on the spot so that you can be admitted and treated.

When conducting your research, rather than reaching out to each insurance company individually, you can save hours and hours of time while simplifying the process by comparing on a site like TravelInsurance.com, which is a member of the US Travel Insurance Association. The organization works with many top-rated insurers, so all you have to do is fill out one form – that form is then sent to multiple insurers and you’ll get a quote from each one making it much easier to compare the pros and cons of each, determining the best value.


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