The right policy will cover your expenses if you become ill or injured while on vacation, and include Covid-related expenses
Being adequately prepared for international travel has always been important; during a pandemic having a sufficient travel medical insurance is crucial. If you are ready to travel again, having the right coverage in place will enable you to set some of your worries aside and enjoy the trip you’ve been waiting for.
I was planning a 3-week trip to Europe in the fall of 2021, my first big trip during the coronavirus pandemic, and knew I needed to carefully consider what coverage I required to be adequately protected.
While this article touches on trip protection plans, the focus is on the medical coverage needed for an international trip. I’ve outlined the difference between them, and what to look for in a policy. I’m also sharing my experience with getting quotes from six companies, which one I went with, and why.
What is Travel Medical Insurance?
“Travel medical” is insurance that will cover your medical expenses in the event that you become injured or sick during your international travels. This is not insurance for routine healthcare such as a physical, and it can’t typically be used in your home country. It is intended to cover the costs of an unexpected health emergency – ideally you will never have to use it.
How Does Trip Protection Insurance Differ?
Trip protection insurance is meant to reimburse you for a cancelled, delayed or interrupted trip. Typical “covered reasons” include illness, injury, or death of a traveler, a traveling companion, and/or an immediate family member.
It’s important to understand the difference between the two types. Let’s say you break your leg on day 2 of your vacation and can’t partake in the rest of a two-week dream trip that cost $5000. Trip protection insurance is meant to reimburse you the $5000 cost of the trip and an earlier flight home. It will not cover the cost of a hospital visit. Note that trip interruption can also include coverage for lost bags and flight delays, among other things.
Sometimes both types are bundled together and this is often referred to as comprehensive insurance. There is nothing wrong with a comprehensive policy, but if this will be your only medical coverage, read the fine print so you know exactly what travel medical coverage you are buying (more on that below). A medical emergency is your largest potential liability. A cancelled flight or the contents of a lost bag might cost you $1000. A hospital stay following a serious accident could cost you $50,000. And having to be flown home in an air ambulance could cost $100,000 or more.
Why Buy Only Travel Medical Insurance
One reason to buy medical insurance only is if you already have coverage for trip interruption. I have an American Express card that gives me coverage of up to $10,000 if I have to cancel my trip for any of the covered reasons (this is where reading the fine print is important), as long as I paid for my trip with this card. It also gives me some coverage for a trip delay and lost baggage
Another reason not to buy trip interruption insurance is if you are not concerned about the costs associated with a cancellation. For example, if your trip is entirely refundable, or your flight is on points and your hotel can be canceled up until the last minute.
But keep in mind you could still have costs associated with trip interruption – if you are already at your destination and have to leave early because of an emergency at home, for example.
What is Covered by Travel Medical Insurance
Almost all accidents and illnesses will be covered, with some exceptions. Many policies will not cover pre-existing medical conditions, defined as an illness or injury you had before or when you purchased the insurance policy. This includes physical conditions as well as non-physical conditions such as anxiety and depression. Understanding whether something is considered pre-existing or not, is important if you have a chronic condition or have had a recent surgery. It’s important to read your policy carefully or purchase a policy that perhaps covers pre-existing conditions, more on that below.
Some policies include coverage for an emergency evacuation – an air ambulance to move a patient to their home country or another of their choosing, for treatment. Check the amount – $75,000 might sound like a lot, but I’ve heard air ambulance transport can cost as much as $150,000 during the pandemic because of the additional complications with travel.
Some medical policies have coverage for dental emergencies and yes, they do happen. I got an awful toothache in Milan and found myself in the chair of a very nice Italian dentist. He spoke no English but his assistant offered some basic translations. I am still not exactly sure what he did, besides polish my teeth when he found out I was in Italy for a friend’s wedding. But he resolved my toothache and my dentist at home was very impressed.
Check Your Existing Insurance Coverage
Before you begin getting quotes, check what coverage you already have, such as with a private health insurance policy in your home country. An example for people who live in the US – I live in the US and am insured with Cigna Health. While my health coverage does extend to anywhere I might travel (so it essentially becomes travel medical insurance) if I made a claim, it would be considered an out-of-network expense, so I would have to meet my annual deductible before the insurance paid a penny. My deductible is $8,000, so I opt to purchase travel medical insurance, but it’s nice to know I have this as a backup.
Travel Medical Insurance Quotes - What to Look For
Coverage amount: This is the maximum amount the insurance company will pay if you have a medical emergency and make a claim. It can range between $50,000 to $1,000,000, with $100,000 being a common offering. Personally, I prefer more coverage and opt for at least $250,000. If you are travelling to the US from elsewhere, keep in mind how expensive healthcare is here. The intensive care unit of a US hospital can cost $10,000 a day, depending on the severity of your illness. At that rate, a $100,000 policy would be maxed out in 10 days. I would not travel to the US with less than a $500,000 policy.
Deductible: The amount you will have to pay if you make a claim, also known as out-of-pocket. This is your share and it will be the same regardless of how much your claim is. Typically, the higher the deductible the lower the policy cost. This is similar to auto insurance. You can choose your deductible when you get your quote and will only have to pay this amount if you make a claim.
Primary or Secondary: Every policy quote should say if it’s a primary or secondary. Primary means they pay regardless of what other insurance you have – such as your home medical insurance, in my case the coverage I have with Cigna in the US. Secondary means they will only pay after your primary insurance has paid – they will pay anything that’s left up to the maximum of the policy. This latter option can involve a lot more headaches as you are dealing with two companies in the event of a claim. I typically prefer to go with primary coverage.
Premium: the one-time cost of your policy. This will vary based on the length of your trip, the level of coverage and your age.
Obviously we want travel medical insurance to include coverage for Covid-19. Look for language that says Covid is covered in the same way as any other illness. If you don’t see it, ask. Most companies I spoke to are covering Covid-19 illness in the same way as any other illness.
A side-note regarding trip cancellation insurance (the non-medical type). Covid is now considered a “known event”. That means you can’t expect to be reimbursed simply because you decide Covid rates have gotten too high in the country you plan to travel to. If you want that type of cancellation coverage you will have to purchase “cancel for any reason insurance.”
Quarantine coverage: In the case of contracting Covid-19, beyond needing to see a doctor or be hospitalized, the other consideration is if you aren’t sick but test positive and have to quarantine for 10 day or longer, until you test negative. If the possibility of this and the related expenses are a concern to you, I recommend you look for coverage for this. (More info below, in the quotes section.)
Insurer: Often times the company selling you the insurance is not the same as the insurance company who the policy is actually with. For example, if you buy your policy through AAA they are the “retailer”, but the policy is actually with the insurance company Allianz. That’s fine – you just want to know who is underwriting the policy. If it’s a name you’ve not heard of you may want to learn more.
Check for Exclusions in Your Insurance Policy
Are coverage of special activities such as sky diving and moped riding covered? In the course of researching this story I learned that downhill skiing and scuba diving are both considered hazardous activities and not covered by some policies. If you are planning any special sports or adventurous activities check if they are covered.
Medical Evacuation Insurance
Most medical policies will include some coverage for Medical Evacuation which means returning you to your home country, or another or your choosing, in a medically equipped “airplane ambulance”. If it’s not included or you want more insurance you can purchase a separate policy through Medjet.
Travel Insurance with Coverage for Pre-Existing Medical Conditions
If you have a pre-exisiting condition it’s important to understand if there are any potential health issues for you which relate to an existing condition, and you wouldn’t be covered for. When I’ve read about disputes with insurance companies over a claim, this is often at the core of the matter: a disagreement over whether the claimed illness or accident is related or unrelated to a pre-existing condition.
There are policies that cover pre-existing conditions such as GeoBlue’s Trekker Choice Plan.
Travel Medical Insurance for a Europe Trip During the Pandemic
I planned to travel to Europe for 3 weeks in the fall of 2021. I felt I had adequate coverage for cancellation or interruption, but needed travel medical insurance. I knew I wanted primary coverage of at least $250,000 and the policy had to cover any Covid-19 related medical issues. I was also looking for coverage in case I tested positive while away and had to quarantine. I got quotes from six companies; here’s an overview.
Safety Wing markets itself as insurance for digital nomads with pricing in 4-week periods. They currently offer insurance for people up to aged 70 and are working on increasing that. Check for updates info. I had heard about them through several travel bloggers who promote their service.
I liked their website navigation and thought they would be great for longer-term travel, with policies ranging from 5 to 364 days. I filled in the online form and got a quote of $101.64 for 28 days (my required 22 wasn’t an option) with up to $250,000 medical coverage and a $250 deductible. They also did offer “quarantine coverage” of up to $50/day for a maximum of 10 days.
Their website was very user-friendly and their policy coverage mostly fit my criteria. But I decided their $500 maximum quarantine coverage wasn’t enough for me.
I’ve purchased insurance through SquareMouth twice before and had a good experience. They are an insurance retailer that allows you to easily compare options from multiple insurers.
Their site has great functionality for filtering results. I filtered so I would only see policies with medical coverage of at least $250,000 and was presented with five options that all met my criteria. These were comprehensive policies (they included trip interruption) as opposed to medical only. For the right price, I wasn’t opposed to that. I had the option to include coverage for cancellation due to Covid-19. What I couldn’t see was whether there was coverage due to contracting Covid and having to quarantine. There was $1000 for trip interruption and when I read the fine print that said it included quarantine. But it also said “airline only”. This is an example of why you need to read the fine print.
The best policy option for me was $500,000 “primary” coverage with an insurer called “Seven Corners” which claimed a perfect 5-star rating from Forbes as one of their Best Travel Insurance Companies in 2021. I hadn’t heard of them so checked their reviews on BBB Better Business Bureau. Definitely mixed. I decided to eliminate this option because the Covid-related disruption was limited to $1000 and Seven Corners was not an insurance company I knew.
GeoBlue (Blue Cross in Canada)
I liked the GeoBlue website right away. To start, you only enter your dates and age and are presented with a screen with sliders which allows you to select the amount of the coverage and deductible. By moving the sliders, you can see how the rate changed. I loved that their policies included emergency Medical Evacuation Transportation of up to $500,000. I read the fine print about hazardous activities, even though I wasn’t planning any, and noticed that any medical needs resulting from downhill (alpine) skiing and scuba diving were limited to a maximum payout of $25,000. I ski and would love to get back to diving one day, so it was a reminder to carefully check exclusions for a trip involving either.
I marked it as an option – GeoBlue’s quote was in the running.
I have a AAA membership so filled in my info to get a quote. Did they offer the coverage I was looking for? I have no idea. It was such a poor experience I was not even sure if the plan included medical coverage, never mind how much medical coverage I would be getting. The quote I received for the “Indiviual Travel Insurance Policy” outlined the other elements of the plan but as far as medical coverage this is what it said:
Finding a Doctor or Medical Facility – If you need care from a doctor or medical facility while you are traveling, we can assist you in finding one.
Monitoring Your Care – If you are hospitalized: our medical staff will stay in contact with you and the doctor caring for you. We can also notify your family and your doctor back home of your illness or injury and update them on your status.
So they will help me find a doctor and keep my family updated on my status but not cover the cost of any of my medical bills? I tried calling to get clarification but after being on hold for 10 minutes and then getting disconnected, I gave up on AAA.
Maybe you’ve had a better experience using their insurance and I am missing something, if so please share your experience in the comments. I love AAA for roadside assistance and hotel discounts, but my initial experience with their system for quoting travel insurance was disappointing.
Wanderwell is a small Portland-based travel insurance company committed to sustainable business practices.
They sell both “Trip Protection” plans which either include travel medical or travel medical only. I proceeded to get a quote for medical insurance and got a quote for a policy with their “Safe Travels Outbound plan”.
When I reached out to clarify the coverage I heard back quickly with a detailed answer and was also offered the option to schedule a 30-minute Zoom call to go over policy details and ask any additional questions.
After a few more emails back and forth, I had clarified the coverage details. It was primary coverage of up to $5o0,000 that included Covid-related medical coverage and $100,000 for emergency medical evacuation to my home country. The plan also included a $2000 “Trip Delay” benefit which would cover the costs associated with contracting Covid-19 and having to quarantine. I also had the choice to increase that to $4,000 or $7,000.
The Travel Medical Policy I chose...
And I went with Wanderwell. They had great customer service during the quoting process and I loved that they offered a 30-minute Zoom call to explain the policies.
As an added bonus they are a certified B Corp and employ sustainable business practices. I liked that they were a small business, although the insurance policy itself was underwritten by a company I knew: Nationwide.
The fact they are a Certified B Corp and were committed to environmental conservation and sustainable business practices was a bonus.
To recap, for my 22-day Europe trip I chose a policy with $500,000 in medical insurance, $100,000 for emergency evacuation and $7000 in “trip delay” coverage. The policy cost was $112 with a $100 deductible. This did not include “Trip Protection” for a cancellation or interruption.
If you are shopping for comprehensive insurance, Wanderwell also offers the “Safe Travels
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Travel Insurance Tips
Email a copy of your policy coverage to your emergency contact at home so they also have the details, in the event of an emergency.
Print off the insurance card with the policy number and company contact information, and keep it with you at all times. Most accidents happen when you are out, not in the hotel room.
In the event of illness or an accident, if you are able, call the insurance company for advice on which hospital to visit. They have resources to help you find the best option.
If you are already at the hospital, contact the insurance company as soon as you are able to let them know what has happened. The earlier they are involved the better. They can also be a resource for you during treatment.
Keep all documentation and receipts. Make sure the invoices are as detailed as possible regarding your treatment. It will help immensely if you have to be reimbursed or if there are disputes.
In the case of smaller amounts, the hospital may ask you to pay the cost at the time of treatment. If possible, bring a credit card for this purpose.
And so, equipped with my insurance, I went on a lovely three-week trip to Europe, and feel very grateful that I could travel during the pandemic. As for my insurance, I had the best possible outcome – I never had to use it. But that $112 gave me piece-of-mind that was invaluable.