What You Need to Know About Travel Health Insurance

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At the end of last year Heather Leikin travelled from Los Angeles to Mexico for a birthday and New Year's celebration. But what was planned as a pleasant getaway turned sour when she became ill. The emergency room required payment with a credit card before treating her. Fortunately, her health insurance policy reimbursed the nearly $3,000 cost -- but only after 10 months. Ms. Leikin now expresses some regret about having passed on the chance to buy travel health insurance.

Whether travelling abroad for fun, school, missionary work, or business, your physical wellbeing is paramount. As Ms. Leikin's experience shows, an accident or an ailment can hit anyone, anywhere. You certainly don't want to be left stranded, unsure how or where to find a good doctor or how to pay for treatment.

We recently researched the benefits of general travel insurance with an eye on the needs of business travelers (although the tips apply universally). Here we'll dive into travel health insurance, which covers medical-related contingencies only.

Don't Count on Your Regular Health Insurance.

You may have the good fortune to be enrolled in a generous health insurance plan, probably one obtained through your place of employment. But even the best plans rarely stretch beyond the national border. There may be exceptions for serious emergencies -- as in Ms. Leikin's case -- but there are plenty of non-life-threatening medical situations requiring a visit to the doctor. Joe Cortez, a travel insurance and safety expert for About.com, cautions that even if your insurance policy covers you while traveling abroad, local hospitals and care providers might not accept it, leaving you responsible for the bill.

If traveling overseas for work, check with the human resources department to see what is, and isn't, covered by your plan. Emergency evacuation to receive specialized or higher-quality care, for example, may not be covered. And don't blithely expect to receive free treatment in countries with universal health care. While you may luck out, there is no obligation to treat non-citizens at no cost.

The Travel Health Insurance Route.

If you're worried about coverage while overseas, consider buying travel health insurance, perhaps from your current provider. While such a policy would pay out benefits associated with medical care on foreign soil, a good travel insurance provider should also help you navigate the local healthcare system and recommend nearby specialists.

How to Buy Travel Health Insurance.

Carefully research the options. Many travel health insurance plans are tailored to the specific needs of business travelers, students, expats, etc. There also are plans that provide coverage for multiple trips within a given time period.

Some insurance carriers may be better suited for your needs than others. If you're comparing medical evacuation coverage, for example, any given company may have experience and resources only in select regions. A list of different providers and plans is posted at Travel Insurance Review. Square Mouth, an insurance comparison site, is another useful resource.

The cost of a travel health insurance policy is based on several factors, including the length of the trip, the traveler's age and medical history, the destination, and the coverage limits. The services covered vary by carrier and plan. Many, but not all, offer emergency phone lines that are manned 24/7. Some include medical evacuation while others don't. Some plans extend cash advances or pay for medical costs up front while others reimburse outlays backed up by official receipts.

We priced out policies at FrontierMedEx for two tourists of different ages, heading to different parts of the world. For a 25-year-old with no underlying medical conditions traveling to Western Europe for two weeks, the premium ranges between $20.50 and $70.50, depending on coverage limits and deductible. A 50-year-old voyaging to Southeast Asia for the same duration would pay between $59.98 and $70.50. Note that travelers with an underlying medical condition may not qualify for coverage and many providers reject applicants who are pregnant or who have AIDS.

Take Precautions.

Pre-trip preparations are an important part of remaining healthy while traveling. Read up on current health conditions and concerns in the target countries and obtain all the recommended vaccinations and medications. Take all tests or undergo examinations that may be required for entry.

The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT) posts a wealth of information. This nonprofit organization also maintains an e-library with how-to guides and links to useful resources, such as world immunization and malaria-risk charts.

Even if you can't or choose not to buy travel health insurance, do what you can to protect yourself. Bring along a list, written in the local language, of all your medications and diagnoses. Store medications in their original bottles (and make sure they're not illegal where you're traveling), and create a backup file of your medical history on a flash drive or secure online platform. If you do have travel health insurance, store photos of the documents digitally and always carry copies of the card and policy information. Also, carry a list of local medical providers who will accept your travel health insurance.

The Fine Print.

Be sure to read the fine print before buying a plan. Common exclusions from travel health insurance include injuries that occur from risky sports (e.g., scuba diving and skydiving), as well as accidents that occur while you're intoxicated. And note that getting reimbursed by plans that don't pay up front can be a hassle. Susanne Wilder, a resident of Perth, Australia, says she has sent countless emails, letters, and faxes to the provider and has yet to receive the final $372 payout for a $1,200 claim arising from medical problems in Bali.