Is Travel Health Insurance Necessary?

Travel health insurance can come in handy if you need care overseas

Travel health insurance is a special policy designed to cover medical expenses if you get sick or injured on a trip. A common question from those that do not travel often is if travel insurance is necessary. 

A woman packing a suitcase on her bed
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Travel health insurance is usually purchased for foreign trips, and although it's designed to be used for a limited period of time, there are travel medical policies for ex-pats that can be purchased for trips that last multiple years.

Whether you need travel health insurance depends on how likely you think it is that you might need medical care during your trip (keeping in mind that this can be hard to predict, and medical needs can arise out of the blue), how well your existing health insurance policy covers you when you travel abroad, and on your ability to pay for medical care if the need arises.

For most people—and particularly for people who are older or are traveling to a less-developed area—the answer is probably yes. Here's why:

Expenses of Foreign Medical Care

Before you plunge into a travel insurance policy, check your existing health insurance. Some companies will pay what they refer to as "reasonable and customary" medical costs if you need care in a foreign country, which means you don't have to duplicate that kind of coverage in a travel policy.

But pay close attention to what's not covered in your policy. Most domestic insurers will not pay to have you evacuated out of a foreign country for a medical emergency. The U.S. State Department says an evacuation can easily cost more than $50,000.

If that's not a cost you are capable of paying—or are willing to pay—for the consequences of something as simple and unpredictable as an auto accident, for example, you might want to buy extra insurance.

Many countries offer taxpayer-funded health coverage for their own citizens, but you may find that care is still expensive if you're a visitor. In the UK, for example, visitors from most other countries would be charged 150% of the regular British National Health Service prices—although some services are provided free of charge to anyone, regardless of where they live.

In New Zeland, the country's Accident Compensation Scheme covers most of the cost of treatment for accidental injuries, but visitors need to have their own health coverage to pay for the treatment of illnesses. 

In Japan, the public health insurance system is not available to non-residents, which means visitors need to arrange for their own medical insurance.

These are just some examples, but they illustrate some of the variations that exist from one country to another in terms of access to health care. If you're traveling to another country, it's essential that you understand how that country's health care system works, how your current health plan will (or will not) cover the cost of care you might need overseas, and what options are available to you in terms of supplemental travel coverage that you can buy for the duration of your trip.

Where to Obtain Travel Medical Insurance

Travel websites offer a way to compare prices and coverage offered by a variety of providers. One well-known and frequently used online travel insurance company is IMG Global. Another is USI Affinity Travel Insurance Services. The companies' websites offer a good overview of the types of travel insurance available and how much the various plans cost.

The U.S. State Department maintains a page that lists numerous insurers that offer travel medical insurance and/or medical evacuation insurance. The page is clear in noting that the insurers and plans are not endorsed by the State Department, nor can the agency vouch for their reliability. But the list will provide you with a good place to start if you want to compare lots of different travel insurance options.

When you're comparing travel health insurance plans, pay particular attention to how the plan handles pre-existing conditions. A general rule of thumb is that travel health insurance plans will not cover pre-existing conditions, but some plans offer applicants the option to purchase a rider that will allow for at least some level of pre-existing condition coverage. If you have a pre-existing condition, you'll want to carefully check the details of the plan you're considering, and understand exactly what would be involved if you were to need care for that condition during your trip.

Travel Health Insurance for Older People

Older people should take particular note—Medicare does not pay for hospital treatment or medical care outside of the United States, except for a few very limited circumstances. That means that you'll be on your own unless you have other healthcare insurance providers or you buy a travel policy.

Some Medigap policies and Medicare Advantage plans provide foreign travel emergency health care coverage when you travel outside the U.S. And if you have employer-sponsored insurance (a retiree plan or a plan from a current employer) that supplements Medicare, it might provide some coverage overseas. Before traveling outside of the country, check with your supplemental plan or Advantage plan regarding travel benefits.

Risks of Illness

Foreign travel can be rigorous for anyone, given the changes in elevation and climate, and the presence of unfamiliar microbes. In some parts of the world, questionable water quality and sanitation compound the hazards.

The State Department recommends that anyone with a pre-existing medical condition, ranging from a heart problem to allergies, carry a letter from their physician that describes the condition, the treatment for it, and any prescription drugs that are being used, including their generic names. Prescription drugs should be carried in their original containers with their original labels.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has tips on the immunizations that are required for trips to foreign countries and special conditions that may exist in those countries.

If you do get sick while you are abroad, an American consulate will help you locate the medical care you need and help arrange for travel back to the U.S. You will need to pay the bills, however, so be sure to pack your regular medical policy's ID card and confirmation of your travel policy, if you decide to buy one.

Combine Health Insurance with Travel Insurance

In addition to travel health insurance, you may want to consider travel insurance plans that combine travel medical insurance with coverage to protect your travel investment. Things like lost luggage, cancellation of flights, and cruise line or hotel bankruptcy can ruin your travel plans. Along with your health insurance, travel insurance agencies can provide you with cancellation insurance, which may cover all or some of your costs.

Don't Forget Your Medications!

If you plan to travel to a foreign country, it is important that you provide for your medication needs before leaving. An illness in the middle of your trip can ruin your vacation and cost you money to get needed medications.

Before you leave for your trip, see your doctor to get an ample supply of all your prescription medications. Also, talk to your doctor about your change in schedule and ask when to take medications if you are moving through different time zones.

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  1. U.S. Department of State. Travel.State.gov. Your Health Abroad; Check Your Health Insurance—Are You Covered Abroad? Updated September 13, 2018.

  2. U.K. National Health Service. How to access NHS services in England if you're visiting from abroad.

  3. West Coast District Health Board. Healthcare for tourists and visitors to New Zealand.

  4. Dgi-Joho Japan. Health Care Services for Tourists.

  5. Medicare.gov. Your Medicare Coverage. Travel (when you need health care outside the U.S.).