Travel insurance primer: Why you might want coverage.

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Julie on scooter in China
Julie scooters in China. One reason to have travel medical.

When we were younger, we never gave a thought to having health insurance for traveling. We were lucky, because nothing happened. But if something serious had cropped up — whether it was severe traveler’s diarrhea or injuries caused by a kamikaze taxi driver — we would have had to pay for medical costs out-of-pocket. And, most likely, before receiving care.

The problem is that most standard U.S. health insurance policies either don’t provide coverage abroad, or only reimburse certain emergency medical expenses once you’ve paid the healthcare provider and returned home.

This is true for American seniors on Medicare as well. Medicare — with a few, specific exceptions — does not provide any coverage beyond U.S. borders. Some Medigap and Medicare Advantage policies may provide some coverages when traveling outside of the U.S. but they have quite a few limitations.

I bought my first travel medical policy for a mountaineering trip in Mexico, because I thought I was putting myself in riskier-than-usual situations while trekking cross country and climbing at high altitude.

Yet real risks face us when we’re doing simple, touristy stuff like sampling street food or walking on damaged sidewalks. So for peace of mind, we now make it part of our standard plans to purchase short-term medical insurance for travelers, before going abroad. Fortunately, we’ve never had to use the insurance but it seems worth it for the price.

Of course, I can’t really give you advice on whether you should buy travel insurance or not. It’s like any other insurance: you have to decide if you can cover the costs if something happened without it, or if you want to take a chance that you won’t need it.

The exception to this is when certain countries require proof of travel health insurance in order to get a visa, such as getting a Schengen visa.

Types of travel insurance plans

Package — Comprehensive plans that provide reimbursements for trip cancellation and lost baggage in addition to medical, dental, evacuation and accidental death coverage.

Medical — You can choose from short-term or long-term plans, and coverages can vary. Many include some coverage for trip interruption and baggage, emergency evacuation, pre-existing conditions and riders for adventure sports.

Accident — Provides coverage if you are injured or killed in an accident. You can get plans for accidents due to flight and hazardous activities.

Evacuation — These plans only cover the costs of emergency medical evacuation and repatriation of remains (getting your body back home).

A few things to know

  • Travel insurance is available to non-residents traveling to the U.S. as well.
  • Check your current health insurance first to see what coverage you do get when you’re out of the country.
  • Plans are more expensive for seniors; For example, a 70-year-old could pay more than double for the same plan a 50-year-old purchases.
  • Your credit card may provide some benefits for trip cancellation, lost baggage and accidental death if you used it to buy plane tickets or pay for tours.
  • Try to get at least three or four quotes on plans from different companies.
  • Read and understand the coverages of the plan before you buy. Make sure you understand the limitations of coverage, how claims are paid (do you need to pay for services upfront?), and if you have any deductibles.
  • Buy only from reputable, financially strong companies rated “A” or better by A.M. Best.

Where to buy travel insurance

Some well-known plan providers include Travel Guard, International Medical Group, FrontierMEDEX, Medjet Assist, and HTH Worldwide.

You can also save time by comparing travel insurance quotes at comparison sites like InsureMyTrip.com and SquareMouth.

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