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Five travel insurance tips for international travelers

You've got your passport, the tickets are booked, and your luggage is packed. In short, you're all set to take a whirlwind trip around the globe — or are you?

Have you thought about what would happen if you were to get hurt or fall ill on your international tour, or if a terrorist attack interrupted your itinerary?

Have you thought about what would happen if you were to get hurt or fall ill on your international tour, or if a terrorist attack interrupted your itinerary?

Perhaps the most important reason to purchase a travel insurance policy for your overseas trip is the medical coverage and emergency medical evacuation insurance that comes with most travel insurance policies.

"International travelers, even in these unpredictable times, simply do not have appropriate insurance protection," says Zain Jeewanjee, Founder and CEO of Go One Global, an insurer specializing in travel insurance and medical insurance for Americans on extended stays overseas. The following 5 tips are key to making intelligent travel insurance choices before you even think of boarding that plane.

1. You’re taking a serious risk traveling without travel health and accident insurance

Employer-sponsored health insurance programs rarely cover medical care received in a foreign country, and many private health insurance plans (whether provided through employers or purchased individually) limit overseas coverage to emergencies — and it can be your responsibility to prove the emergency. Do you know the difference between "emergency" and "urgent care" under your health insurance plan? Regardless you would need to pay for the expenses out of pocket, and file for reimbursement when you return.

The best idea is to check with your health insurer to see what is covered before you go overseas. If you're concerned that your health insurance might not be enough on your trip, you’ll want to find a travel medical insurance policy to fill in the gaps.

Also remember that, in some parts of the world, your health insurance might not be accepted as a guarantee of payment, which is required by some hospitals before they’ll treat you. So while your insurance might reimburse you after the trip, you could be stuck first paying out of pocket for your medical care. Most travel insurance policies, however, will provide these guarantees and even offer the option to pay from the very first dollar in medical expenses you incur.

Along with health and accident insurance, many travel insurers provide a 24-hour assistance telephone line to help international travelers find their way to the local pharmacy, get a replacement set of glasses, and find an English-speaking doctor or reputable hospital.

2. Medical evacuation coverage is essential

As you read through your health insurance policy to see what medical care is covered on international trips, also check the limits of your emergency medical evacuation coverage.

A typical health insurance policy will cap payments for emergency medical transportation between $500 and $1,000, which is fine if an ambulance is all that is needed to bring you to your hometown hospital. But that will usually fall far short of your needs on an international trip, says Jeewanjee, who founded his company after a particularly difficult experience with insurance in his own family.

"It's the sort of insurance you hope you never have to use, but you sure are glad when you have it in times of need."

Jeewanjee has seen countless cases of an injured traveler arriving at a small hospital in a foreign country, and their attending physicians immediately realizing the need for an "air ambulance" (a jet with a doctor and medical facilities on board) to take the patient to a Western hospital for essential treatment. Medical evacuation coverage takes care of those costs, which can reach as high as $50,000.

"It's the sort of insurance you hope you never have to use, but you sure are glad when you have it in times of need," says Dan McGinnity, vice president of communications for the Travel Guard Group Inc.

Jeewanjee notes that medical evacuation insurance is even more important for travelers going on a cruise. Considering the added price of a helicopter airlift from a cruise ship, on top of the air ambulance flight back to the United States, his reasoning is clear.

3. Always protect yourself from the unexpected

If you become too ill to travel, trip-cancellation insurance will pay for any nonrefundable costs for the trip.

If you've ever had a head cold on an airline flight, you know that traveling when you're sick is no fun at all. No one wants to take a vacation when they're ill, but your airline, cruise company, or tour operator isn't likely to be sympathetic to your plight.

That's where trip-cancellation or interruption coverage as part of a travel insurance policy can come in handy. If you become too ill to travel, or if one of your family members gets sick and you need to stay home to care for them, trip-cancellation insurance will pay for any nonrefundable costs for the trip — from hotel bookings to air- or cruise-line cancellation fees.

The same reimbursements would also apply if you fell victim to an illness that wasn't serious enough to require an air ambulance flight but still forced you to cut your trip short and come home.

4. Terrorism coverage may be a wise buy

Most travel insurance policies now include acts of terrorism as a reason to cancel or interrupt an international trip, though before you buy this protection, be sure you know how it works.

If the U.S. State Department issues a travel advisory recommending that Americans avoid a certain country, many travel insurance policies will pay for cancellation fees if you want to cancel your vacation or cover the cost of a ticket home if it cuts your vacation short.

Other travel insurers focus on the city instead of the country. These types of policies will reimburse you if you cancel or cut short a trip due to an act of terrorism at your destination either while you are there or within 30 days of your scheduled arrival.

If the U.S. State Department issues a travel advisory recommending that Americans avoid a certain country, many travel policies will pay for cancellation fees if you want to cancel your vacation or cover the cost of a ticket home if it cuts your vacation short.

Neither of these options is substantially better than the other, but they are different, so you do need to know when you'll be covered by your travel insurance policy, as well as when you won't.

Speaking of not being covered, if a policy you are considering says that it covers acts of terrorism but then has a huge laundry list of exceptions, you might want to look elsewhere, says McGinnity of Travel Guard.

"Some policies have one line describing the coverage and then two paragraphs of exclusions — you're covered unless there is an event with more than 5,000 people in the same city, unless the attack involves a chemical, nuclear, or biological weapon, and so on," says McGinnity. "If you have to say, 'All right, when am I covered?' then how much protection are you really getting?"

5. Other travel insurance services could come in handy

Many travel insurers also offer a host of other helpful services through their emergency contact numbers. Often a travel insurer can help you replace lost travel documents and passports, provide translation services, and assist in money transfers. “Always be sure the insurer you choose has solid availability in customer service,” notes Jeewanjee.

He also notes the importance of not adding coverage that you don’t need. Most travel insurance policies, for example, will bundle in coverage for lost or delayed luggage. Lost or stolen luggage, however, is often covered under general home insurance policies or paid for by the airline itself. It’s common knowledge within the industry, in fact, that the lost and delayed luggage portions of travel insurance are among the least used. On the other hand, if you’re bringing along especially expensive items with you, then having additional coverage as part of your travel insurance policy may be desired.

Most travel insurance policies are comprehensive, automatically including coverage that might be redundant, for convenience and simplicity, says McGinnity. You have one phone number to call regardless of the type of trouble you encounter on your international trip, and it often comes as a bargain. “If you try to purchase each type of coverage separately, you'll find that the whole is a lot less expensive than the sum of the parts,” adds McGinnity.

When asked about his own practices, Jeewanjee himself makes it clear that he always buys a travel insurance policy when traveling outside the US. “I wouldn’t recommend them, much less sell them, if I didn’t know how valuable travel plans can be,” he explains.

Remember that, as with any insurance policy, it’s important to shop around and get the plan that best fits your needs. Some agencies will now even allow you to assemble a plan with them that has just the coverage you want, often for much less than a standard comprehensive plan. This level of customization is especially suited to online purchasing, which is bringing a new level of accessibility to travel insurance.

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