What you need to know about travel health insurance
Travel is almost a universally popular pastime. Most people enjoy taking car trips to nearby getaways or flying to see entirely new vistas. There’s snow skiing in winter, beach vacations in the summer, and for some, the experience of a lifetime would be a trip to Europe, Africa or the Far East.
*Do you need travel health insurance?
Most vacations go smoothly, with only the occasional inconvenience: incorrect driving directions, perhaps, or a restaurant that doesn’t live up to recommendations. Because we don’t expect anything bad to happen on our vacations, most people travel without thinking about their health insurance.
But imagine becoming ill while staying in a distant place – even a foreign country. What if your spouse breaks a leg while skiing? Or a fishing trip ends in a boating accident? In a medical emergency far from home, would your health insurance cover all of your needs?
*Your current health insurance may travel with you
If you already have health insurance, review your contract, call your agent or contact the company’s customer service department to find out if your benefits travel with you. Some major insurance carriers do provide access to medical care for their customers who are away from home, but restrictions and exclusions may apply. Carry copies of your insurance policy and ID card with you, and find out if you should bring additional forms of identification. Also be sure you have any special contact information for your insurance company’s out-of-town benefits program.
Get details on what services are covered when you are out of your home area, including hospital care, emergency room services, doctor’s office visits and prescription drugs. Something as simple as a prescription for an antibiotic could cost hundreds of dollars if your insurance is not accepted by an out-of-town pharmacy. In addition, many standard insurance policies do not cover the cost of transporting you or your loved one home after a medical emergency.
*How to choose a travel health insurance policy
If you are not currently insured, or if your current policy does not offer travel benefits, consider a travel health policy. There are four general policy types, ranging from basic to deluxe international policies.
1) A basic policy may be enough
When shopping for travel coverage, you will find several types or levels of protection. A basic travel medical policy should protect you (and your spouse and family, if applicable) from the financial consequences of an illness or accident that strikes when you’re far from home. The policy should cover hospital and surgical costs, physician visits, medications and dental care, and should also include evacuation insurance. You should be able to choose from several coverage amounts, ranging from as low as $35,000 per person to as high as $1 million, and you should also have a choice of several deductible amounts.
Basic policies can be further divided into single-trip plans and multiple-trip plans for frequent travelers, which are designed to cover unlimited trips within a certain time period, such as 12 months.
2) All-inclusive travel insurance gives you more
The next level of coverage in travel health insurance is a trip protection policy. These comprehensive plans provide all the hospitalization and office visit coverage that a basic policy would, but add trip cancellation and interruption insurance, medical evacuation services, baggage protection and other benefits to the mix.
You can also choose add-ons like emergency cash advances, translation services, access to legal assistance, extra protection for airline accidents and acts of terrorism, and help in recovering lost tickets or passports. These services come at a higher price, but when traveling overseas, you may appreciate the peace of mind they provide.
3) Specialized insurance for those who travel to study
Americans age 64 or younger who are studying or conducting academic research abroad – or international students traveling to the United States to study – may be interested in a travel health insurance policy designed especially for international students. These policies usually offer benefits comparable to a traditional major medical plan, renewable annually as long as you are eligible and subject to similar deductibles, exclusions and pre-existing condition limitations.
In addition to the familiar benefits, an international study policy will likely include medical evacuation coverage, repatriation (sending home) of remains in the event of your death, translation assistance and specialized health and security information related to the country you’re visiting. An interesting benefit of some of these policies is reimbursement for a loved one to travel from your home to come and visit you if you are hospitalized while in a foreign country.
These premium services are not for everyone. But most companies that sell travel health insurance offer a wide range of options in an effort to meet the needs of every potential customer, from an individual taking a short business trip to a family going on a month-long adventure in an exotic locale.
4) International travel health insurance for long-term visits
A fourth type of travel health policy is a renewable international plan for individuals or families who will be staying in a foreign country for a year or more, such as for an extended job assignment. These policies are comprehensive, traditional major medical plans, usually providing coverage for hospitalization, surgery, office visits, lab tests and X-rays, physical therapy and prescription drugs.
These policies usually have an annual deductible and a lifetime benefit maximum and pay at different levels depending on whether you visit an in-network or out-of-network provider. If you’re considering such a policy, shop around just as you would for your “regular” comprehensive health plan. In fact, if you already have family health insurance with a major carrier, again be sure to check with that insurer first to find out if they have a program for long-term travel away from home.
As an example, many Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans participate in a global network called the BlueCard program that offers in-network benefits in 200 countries. Other major carriers have similar international networks.
*Buying travel health insurance online
The internet can be a great place to start your “homework,” but it has advantages and disadvantages:
*Thousands of destinations and tourist attractions maintain their own websites, giving recommendations on activities, climate and weather information, and much more. Just remember that these websites will seldom offer a “downside” to your destination.
*Travelers can book flights and cruises, reserve rental cars and hotel rooms and put together entertainment packages with the click of a mouse. Internet travel sites can offer some great deals and discounts. But, many of these sites are weaker when it comes to second choices – that is, seeking out an alternative flight or package if the preferred choice is not available.
*Information and convenience are the biggest benefits of the internet. Customer service is less strong.
*Many internet travel sites also offer access to travel insurance policies, including travel health insurance. But insurance is not their main focus, so you may find you have fewer choices of benefits or rates.
*Buying health insurance through a travel agency
If you use a travel agent, ask if the agency also sells travel insurance policies and if so, what types. Many licensed travel agents offer access to travel health insurance, and because travel is their specialty, they can help advise you on what type of policy and what level of benefits are right for you.
Customer service is the heart of a travel agent’s business. Your agent can be a valuable source of personal help in a crisis. He or she will likely have industry contacts and experience in dealing with people and organizations in distant places. If you have forgotten to bring important documents or contact information on your trip, the travel agent will have that information available, and should have a toll-free phone number that you can call for help.
Look for a travel agent just as you would any other professional:
*Ask friends, relatives or coworkers to recommend an agent who has provided good service and who is familiar with travel health insurance.
*Check with one of the professional trade associations for travel agents, such as the American Society of Travel Agents (www.asta.org) or the The Institute of Certified Travel Agents (www.icta.com).
*Use the industry website at www.TravelSense.org to search for an agent with the specialized credentials you want.
*Ask your state’s department of insurance for a list of companies that sell travel health insurance, which may include travel agencies.
*The U.S. Department of State also offers a list of companies that sell travel health insurance on its website at www.state.gov.
*Inquire with ASTA and/or your local Better Business Bureau to be sure your potential agent, as well as the insurance carrier underwriting the health policy, has not had any complaints lodged against them.
*Buying travel coverage through your credit card
Some credit card companies offer health insurance as an addition to other services. For example, travelers who hold American Express business cards may be eligible for travel accident insurance and the company’s “global assist program” for international emergencies. If you are booking your trip using a credit card, check with the company’s customer service to find out about these added services.
Here’s hoping the worst thing that happens on your vacation is something as simple as a misplaced suitcase – and that your travel insurance policy includes the baggage replacement benefit to cover you!