Don’t get sick on vacation (unless you have one of these)

sick on vacation

Every day brings new reports of tourists dying in the Dominican Republic. Airlines have loosened their refund rules to accommodate the wave of cancellations, but a lot of visitors are wondering: What happens if I get sick on vacation?

“Many domestic health care plans may not be accepted outside the U.S., and Medicare won’t cover medical expenses abroad,” says Daniel Durazo, a spokesman for Allianz Travel Insurance. “So it’s especially important to get travel insurance with medical benefits and emergency medical transportation when traveling internationally.”

But if you want to know what happens when you get sick on vacation, maybe you should ask someone like Deborah Binder, who broke her ankle on a recent visit to Cape Town.

“I needed to have surgery right away and the hospital could not verify my insurance quickly,” she recalls. “I had to use my Visa to pay for the hospital before they would do surgery.”

Fortunately, she had an insurance policy that covered hospitalization through World Nomads, a travel insurance company.

“They paid for everything,” she says.

Or Cynthia O’Leary, whose husband suffered a pulmonary embolism the first day of their 10-day trip to Lake Louise and Banff in Canada. She’d purchased a Generali insurance policy through InsureMyTrip. The policy covered her husband’s hospitalization.

“All we had to pay was a $250 deductible,” she recalls.

Or Dianne Zeitler, who purchased a travel insurance policy through Trip Mate for her recent Viking River cruise. While in Vienna, she broke her arm and needed emergency surgery, plus four days in a hospital.

“Upon our return, we received a notice that our claim was being processed by Trip Mate,” she says.

These stories are an important reminder that you don’t want to travel anywhere without adequate insurance. Especially health insurance.

Don’t get sick on vacation — unless you have this

“Coverage and benefits will vary depending on the travel insurance plan that is purchased,” says Durazo. “It’s important to review the level of coverage and benefits you’re offered so that you are comfortable with your coverage. Plans purchased in ecommerce booking paths or from travel agents are often tailored to the trip, so travelers can be confident that the coverage is appropriate.”

Durazo says not all travel insurance health benefits are equal. Up to half the retail travel insurance plans in the market only provide secondary medical payouts. In other words, you have to file a claim with your primary medical insurance provider first.

“This can cause lengthy delays and a lot of extra work, leaving you hanging in uncertainty when and how your medical bills will be covered,” he says.

Other travel insurance policies don’t come with enough support. He says you should look for an in-house team of experts that can help with medical problems around the clock. At Allianz, people who call in with a medical problem even get their own case manager to help.

“We take care of all the details to ensure you receive the best possible care around the world, from guaranteeing payment and coordinating care, to arranging your safe return home,” he says.

Also, look for a policy that offers access via technology, such as a smartphone app that you can consult during your trip.

When it comes to travel insurance, there are a lot of options. For example, Allianz has a full featured plan called OneTrip Premier which offers emergency medical benefits up to $50,000, as well as emergency medical transportation up to $1 million. It also has another plan called OneTrip Emergency Medical, designed for travelers who are only looking for benefits for emergency medical expenses and mishaps while they’re traveling. It covers medical expenses while abroad, including up to $50,000 in emergency accident and sickness medical expenses, and $250,000 emergency evacuation benefits.

How to find the best medical travel insurance

But how do you find the right policy? Here are a few expert recommendations.

Wait! You may already be covered. “A huge mistake is not double-checking with your card issuer on what your card’s insurance covers and what it doesn’t,” says Oliver Browne, a credit industry analyst for Credit Card Insider. “Before booking a trip, be sure to check with the credit card issuer about the travel insurance benefits that are provided by your card, and for what cash amount you’re covered up to.”

You probably need medical insurance — especially if you’re traveling far. A lot of travelers are confused about what travel insurance covers, when it comes to medical benefits, says Phil Sylvester, a spokesman for World Nomads. He says you probably need health insurance when you travel abroad.

Cheaper is not always better. In fact, buying the least expensive policy is one of the biggest mistakes travelers make. “In many cases, neither the cheapest or most expensive is the best,” explains Zeshan Jeewanjee, director of marketing at G1G.com, a travel insurance site. So what’s the best policy? It’s one that takes into account your trip activities and health conditions. “Speak to a licensed customer representative if you do not know what benefits to look for, and they will help you decide which plan gives you optimal coverage,” he advises.

Mind the exclusions. “Policies vary by carrier,” says Scott Ackerman, a senior vice president at Travel Leaders Group, a travel agency. “General exclusions may not cover professional athletic events, motor sport or motor racing, mountaineering if specialized equipment is needed to ascend or descend from a mountain, being under the influence of drugs or narcotics or if intoxicated.”

Cover your pre-existing conditions. One of the biggest mistakes — if not the biggest — is failing to get adequate coverage for an existing medical condition. PK Rao, president of INF Visitor Care, a travel medical firm, says his company sees a lot of travelers in their 60s and 70s who neglect to enroll in pre-existing condition coverage. “Travelers assume that issues that come with age are considered normal, and will count as a new sickness,” he says. “These issues are certainly pre-existing- and our claims data tells us that if you are age 60 plus, the doctors will more likely than not discover some type of pre-existing issue.” You can buy coverage for a pre-existing issue, and you should.

If you need more, consider a medical evacuation membership. When it comes to evacuation, for example, most policies only transport you to the “nearest acceptable facility” — which may mean you have to recover in a foreign hospital. “Luckily people are getting a little more educated as to the limitations of their travel insurance evacuation coverage,” says Mike Hallman, the CEO of Medjet, which offers evacuation plans.

What you need to know about filing a medical claim when you’re sick on vacation

You can follow all of these steps and still find yourself mired in unexpected red tape. That’s because travel insurance companies have their rules — and on the other side, hospitals and medical facilities have theirs, too.

Consider what happened to Bianca Malata, a travel blogger from London, when her husband had a skiing accident in Italy.

“Our experience from the accident and claiming has taught us some lessons that we didn’t expect,” she says. Her travel insurance company wanted all medical records of the accident sent to them before it could authorize any treatment.

“They had to get their medical staff to review as well as translate from Italian to English,” she recalled. “This caused lots of delays.”

In the end, Malata decided to return to the U.K. and her husband had a necessary operation there, covered by NHS.

Malata still thinks travel insurance is necessary, just in case you get sick on vacation. But like many other travelers who have needed to use their insurance, it’s important to have the right insurance.

 

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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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