Travel Medical Insurance: Emergency Coverage While You Travel Internationally

Stand-alone travel medical insurance may be able to cover unexpected medical costs that your health insurance can't.

Elina GellerSeptember 11, 2020
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If you’re looking for a policy that protects you in the event of an unexpected illness or injury while traveling abroad, then you need to learn about stand-alone travel medical insurance. While this type of insurance is sometimes provided by the benefits of certain premium travel credit cards, the coverages can be both limiting and low in value.

Emergency medical coverage is included within some comprehensive travel insurance policies but can also be purchased on its own. Even if you have a primary U.S. insurance plan, including Medicaid or Medicare, odds are it will help very little (or often not at all) while out of the country. Checking all the different sources of information can get confusing, and it's easy to misunderstand what type of medical insurance you have when traveling or accidentally duplicate your coverage by purchasing a policy when you already have those benefits covered from another source.

In this post, we are going to demystify stand-alone travel medical insurance. We’ll explain how it differs from comprehensive travel insurance and the medical coverage you may receive from your credit cards.

What is travel medical insurance?

Travel medical insurance provides reimbursement for emergency medical expenses, including medical evacuations, while you’re traveling. These policies do not provide coverage for routine expenses.

So, if you break your leg while you're on vacation internationally, emergency medical coverage will protect you. However, if you decide to get a teeth cleaning while you’re abroad, you will not be covered. Travel medical insurance is meant to protect you in case of emergency.

Expats, frequent business travelers or individuals who spend significant periods of time living outside the United States can purchase a comprehensive health care policy meant for long-term travelers (more on this below). These policies offer routine medical coverage for those living abroad (generally for one year or longer) rather than vacationers. Long-term international health insurance policies should not be confused with travel medical insurance.

Travel medical insurance products and comprehensive policies may also include coverage for family members who are traveling with you, or coverage for a family member to visit you if you become hospitalized. The definition of "family" can vary, but it commonly includes your spouse, children, siblings, parents, grandparents and more. So if your travel companion gets sick or injured during the trip, trip cancellation benefits may kick in. Or if you get hospitalized in a foreign country, the insurer could pay for a flight and hotel accommodations for a designated family member to visit you.

Although natural disasters that impact your plans are usually covered, travel medical insurance policies often exclude pandemics from coverage. Since the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, plans with pandemic exclusions may not cover emergencies related to COVID-19. Some travel insurance companies also exclude from coverage countries that have a ‘Level 4 Do Not Travel’ advisory issued by the U.S. Department of State. If U.S. citizens travel to those countries, travel medical insurance services may not be available. It's important to check the fine print of your policy to determine what may or may not be covered.

How does travel medical insurance differ from comprehensive travel insurance?

Coverage Type

Travel Medical Insurance

Comprehensive Travel Insurance

Trip cancellation

Trip interruption and delay

Limited

Emergency medical evacuation/repatriation

Emergency evacuation/repatriation

Lost luggage

Limited

24-hour assistance services

Accidental death and dismemberment

Rental car coverage

As seen above, a comprehensive travel insurance policy will include more protections than stand-alone travel health insurance. Travel medical insurance plans will have protections related to emergency medical events, while comprehensive trip insurance policies cover everything from medical care to trip cancellations. Although travel medical plans can include coverage for benefits like trip interruption, the covered amounts will usually be limited.

With travel medical insurance, there are no trip cancellation benefits, so the cost of the trip is irrelevant. This makes the policy cheaper compared to purchasing comprehensive travel insurance, where you’ll need to include the entire nonrefundable cost of your vacation when calculating your quote. With a comprehensive plan, the higher the trip cost, the higher the premium.

What is covered by travel medical insurance?

You will be reimbursed for unplanned, emergency medical costs that you incur during your trip. We reviewed several travel medical insurance plans on InsureMyTrip and found that they offer the following protections:

Coverage Type

Examples

Coverage Amounts

Emergency medical expenses

Needing hospital X-rays after suffering a bad fall.

$50,000 to $2,000,000

Emergency dental expenses

Visiting a dentist if you’ve chipped your tooth and you're in pain.

$100 to $500. In certain instances it can be part of the medical expense total.

Medical evacuation

You've suffered a head injury and need to be airlifted to a medical facility in a nearby town. The evacuation must be ordered by a doctor.

$500,000 to unlimited

Accidental death or dismemberment

You die or lose a limb while on vacation.

Up to $50,000

24-hour emergency assistance

You're in a foreign country, do not speak the language and need to find a doctor. If you call the emergency assistance line, your insurer will help you find a doctor.

N/A

Trip interruption

You were airlifted to a hospital in a nearby town for medical coverage. The medical care has concluded and you now need to be flown back to where you were evacuated from or back home.

$0 to $10,000

Baggage loss

Your luggage was lost by the airline and you need to purchase toiletries and clothes. Usually there is a monetary cap on each item purchased.

$0 to $1,000

In the chart above, for each benefit, we included an example of a covered event. We’ve also listed the amount of coverage you can expect to receive under each benefit. The coverage limits depend on the policy you choose. Since we reviewed several policies, these limits show a wide range.

The key areas of coverage across most plans are emergency medical expenses, medical evacuation and accidental death or dismemberment. Although these are high limits, many of them apply only once you’ve submitted a claim to your primary medical insurer. Before you can submit a claim for reimbursement to your travel medical insurer, you’ll need to know what type of policy you have.

What are the different types of travel medical insurance policies?

Both the type of trip and type of coverage determine which travel medical policy makes the most sense. You’ll need to become familiar with four terms: primary coverage, secondary coverage, single trip and multi-trip.

Primary vs. secondary coverage

Travel medical insurance plans will refer to medical coverage as primary or secondary. Primary means that you can submit a claim to your travel medical insurance company before submitting to any other insurer. When the policy is secondary, you will need to submit your claim to your primary insurance provider before you can submit a claim to the travel insurance provider.

For example, say you break your leg on vacation and have to go to the emergency room right away. If your travel health insurance is primary, you can pay your medical bill with your credit card and then submit a claim directly to the travel insurer.

However, if your travel medical coverage is secondary, you will first have to submit this claim to your U.S.-based medical insurer even though they may deny the claim (because the policies limit coverage abroad). You may even be required to include the refusal notice from your primary insurance along with your claim to your secondary travel health insurer.

Single-trip vs. multi-trip

Whether you’re a frequent traveler or go on vacation only once a year, you can choose a policy that is tailored to your travel needs. You can purchase either single- or multi-trip coverage, and it's important to know the difference between the two types.

  • Single-trip coverage: You leave home, travel internationally and return home. You can visit as many countries as you like while traveling, but when you return home, the coverage ends. These plans are purchased for each trip, whether you’re gone for four days or four weeks.

  • Multi-trip coverage: You can leave, travel and return home as many times as you want during the covered period. You can, for example, leave home, travel to France for a week, return home for a month, travel to Panama for three weeks and return home. The coverage continues no matter how many times you return home as long as each trip does not exceed the allowable period (usually 30 to 90 days). These plans must be purchased on an annual basis, and they require you to have health insurance in the United States.

Multi-trip coverage makes sense (and is usually more cost effective) if you travel frequently and do not want to purchase a single policy each time you go on an international trip. However, if you do not have medical insurance in the U.S., you will not be covered under multi-trip plans.

Do I need to have primary health insurance in the U.S. to be eligible for travel medical insurance?

The answer to this question is: maybe. It depends on the type of coverage you have. If your single-trip plan refers to your medical coverage as primary, you don’t need another health insurance policy. However, if the coverage provided under your single-trip plan is secondary, then you must have primary health insurance.

As noted above, all multi-trip plans require that you have primary medical insurance coverage in the U.S.

How do I purchase travel medical insurance?

You can search for medical travel policies on insurance comparison sites like SquareMouth, InsureMyTrip or Travel Guard. Policies differ by state, and availability may change during or after the pandemic, so verify that the state you reside in offers travel medical insurance in light of coronavirus.

Who needs travel medical insurance?

If you plan on traveling and your existing medical insurance will not cover you in the country you are traveling to, it may make sense to consider getting emergency medical coverage for your trip. You could either purchase a comprehensive travel insurance policy or one that only provides medical coverage.

Purchasing a policy strictly for travel medical insurance makes sense for those who want emergency coverage while traveling but:

  • Have a premium travel card that already provides trip cancellation and trip delay coverage the individual deems sufficient.

  • Do not need trip cancellation, trip delay or the other benefits provided by a comprehensive policy because the traveler will remain in one location for a while and is not worried about a canceled trip.

If you do not have a travel card that provides adequate trip cancellation benefits and you also want emergency medical coverage, then you’re better off with a comprehensive travel insurance policy.

How much does travel medical insurance cost?

The cost of the policy varies based on a number of factors including:

  • The country you’re going to.

  • Your age.

  • The state you’re from.

  • Coverage provided.

We did a search on InsureMyTrip for a one-month trip to Costa Rica in June 2020 for a 30-year-old, and found the following four single trip policies:

The cost of the policies range from $28 to $43. Although the trip is for a month, the cost is fairly reasonable. This is because travel medical insurance does not include trip cancellation benefits.

If you were to look for a policy offering comprehensive travel insurance, the price would be higher. To test this, we’ve used the same example of a one-month trip to Costa Rica in June 2020 for a 30-year-old, but changed the policy type to comprehensive and input a trip cost of $5,000:

The plans shown above range from $78 to $147 — significantly more expensive than those that include only travel medical coverage.

How do I use my travel health insurance?

If you encounter a medical emergency while traveling, contact your travel insurance provider about how to proceed. You will likely need to pay for your medical expenses using your credit card and subsequently file a claim for reimbursement with the insurer. Some coverage (e.g., emergency evacuation) may need to be arranged by your travel medical insurance provider to be eligible for reimbursement. So in all instances, it's best to contact your insurance provider before making any arrangements or paying any bills.

What you need to know about limits, exclusions and deductibles

Similar to your regular health insurance, travel medical coverage also comes with limits, exclusions and deductibles.

Exclusions are specific events that are excluded from coverage. For example, some plans may exclude coverage for activities (e.g., skydiving) that are deemed risky. Check the policy to make sure that the activities you plan to partake in are not excluded.

Limits are monetary caps on coverage. For example, the policy may cover emergency dental treatment but only up to $500 worth. Anything over that maximum you would be responsible for paying.

A deductible is an amount you need to pay before your policy will reimburse. For example, if you have a policy with a $250 deductible and you submit claims for eligible expenses totaling $400, the insurer will reimburse you only $150. Policies can often be customized to increase or decrease the deductible. The screenshot below includes the same four travel medical policies for a one-month trip to Costa Rica in June 2020 for a 30-year-old, with the option to change the deductible.

The lower the deductible, the more expensive the policy and vice versa. For Atlas International, you will pay $27.84 for a policy with a $250 deductible. However, if you’d prefer a $0 deductible, your policy will increase by only $7.83.

Long-term travel insurance options for expats

Individuals who live or work abroad and spend a considerable portion of the year living outside the U.S. are eligible for a health insurance plan that provides coverage for routine medical care. These policies are different from travel medical insurance, which is meant to cover only emergencies.

Long-term international insurance plans usually have higher limits than travel medical insurance policies and are available on a long-term basis only (one year or more). For example, the three plans listed below are provided by IMG Global.

The policies are only available for one year or longer and have high maximum limits of $1,000,000 to $8,000,000. The plans are customizable and allow you to receive worldwide medical treatment.

Travel medical insurance FAQ

I have health insurance in the U.S. Do I need to purchase a standalone medical plan for international travel?

For the most part, your U.S.-based medical insurance provider will not cover your medical treatment when you’re abroad. If you want peace of mind while you’re on a trip away from your home country, a travel medical insurance plan is your best bet.

When should I purchase travel medical insurance?

Anytime before your trip begins.

I have a premium travel credit card; do I still need travel medical insurance?

Generally, the emergency medical insurance coverage on credit cards offers fewer protections and lower limits than a stand-alone policy. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers emergency medical coverage up to $2,500 with a $50 deductible. The policies we looked at above offered medical coverage from $50,000 to $2,000,000. If you want a higher limit, you may want to purchase a travel medical insurance policy.

Should I buy a comprehensive travel insurance policy, or is a stand-alone travel health plan enough?

It depends on the type of coverage you’re looking for. Generally, if you’re only concerned with emergency medical benefits and don’t need trip cancellation, trip delay, rental car coverage or any of the other benefits provided by a comprehensive travel insurance plan, a medical plan should be enough for you. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, and your particular circumstances determine which policy is most suitable.

The bottom line

Travel medical insurance can protect you if you experience an unexpected medical emergency during a trip. Although this is a topic no one wants to think about, it's important to know your options. Depending on the coverage you’re looking for, you can either pick a stand-alone medical policy or get a comprehensive travel insurance one. Deciding what policy is best depends on your situation and any additional protections you may already have through your premium travel credit card.

Do you purchase travel medical insurance? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments!

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