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Here's the Scoop on Travel Insurance

Updated: Feb 20

Travel insurance is the most important thing for travellers, unfortunately, it is often overlooked or poorly researched. Travel insurance is financial security against accidents, illness, lost luggage, stolen items, cancellations, or sudden emergencies that require a quick return home.

Graphic with toy plane, shell, aand cllipboard with papers labelled Travel Insurance

It's important to understand that travel insurance is accident insurance, designed to protect in emergencies. I have made minor claims: a doctor's visit, prescription medicine, and a claim for a stolen bag and contents. Each time I was reimbursed for my expenses for everything except the stolen cash.



Why Buy Travel Insurance?

Few domestic health insurance plans cover you outside of your jurisdiction. The insurance that may be offered with your credit card is often minimal. Choosing a travel insurance company is very complex and confusing -- it requires digging into the fine print and carefully reading what is and is not included. I won't travel without insurance. It provides comfort knowing that if I get sick or injured, I won't rack up ruinous bills. In some countries, hospitals can refuse treatment if you can't provide proof of valid insurance.

Cost of Travel Insurance

The price can vary depending on your age, medical history, where you are going, how long you will be travelling, what you plan to do during your trip and whether you are looking at a single trip or, because you travel frequently, an annual plan. Higher-risk activities such as mountain climbing, scuba diving, and sometimes even horseback riding may require additional charges. Generally, however, insurance costs a few dollars per day and is much less expensive than a hospital stay and a medical evacuation home. This post will cover some of the things that you should consider when choosing a company. I will not make any specific company recommendations as your choice will be personal to your location, your travel plans, and the country in which you reside.

A maan with a cast on is leg and a crutch to the side lying on a couch

What Coverage is Needed

Insurance is a huge industry with way too many companies with multiple policies that include confusing terminology. A dive into the fine print will often reveal many exclusions and limitations. I travel frequently and have purchased an annual plan. Many travellers assume with an annual plan, they are covered for an entire year of unlimited travel. This is not the case. Annual plans include limits on the number of trips and the length of a trip. It will take some searching to find a plan that allows travel longer than 60 days -- most allow for trips of less than 30 days. Many policies I looked at only covered 3 trips per year. It took me a lot of research to find a plan that suits my style of longer and more frequent trips.

Your first step is to read the fine print of a policy before purchase. When researching, I created a list of what I was looking for in a policy. My must-have list includes the following:

  • High coverage limit: This is important if I get sick, injured, or need serious medical attention -- possibly requiring a prolonged hospital stay or surgery. A friend recently broke her leg while travelling in Central America. Her policy only covered $25,ooo USD. This was quickly spent and she soon hit the limit with more bills to be paid.

  • Covers injury and sudden illness: Injuries can happen at any time. A sudden bout of appendicitis or a vehicle accident could cause an abrupt shift in plans causing me to not only have to deal with the injury/illness but may prevent me from catching that flight or require changing hotel reservations.

  • Covers emergency evacuation and care, so if I get injured while in a remote location, it will cover the expenses to get me to the hospital.

  • Will pay for transportation back home, if necessary

  • Includes the activities that I enjoy and plan to do while away.

  • Covers the countries I want to visit. Make sure your insurance covers you in high-cost countries like Japan and the US if you are travelling there.

  • Can be extended while travelling if my travel plans change while away.

  • Covers my most important valuables should they get lost or stolen, including some coverage for my electronics. Most companies only have a small limit that will not cover the price of the device. Supplemental insurance may be required to get a higher amount of coverage.

  • Has a twenty-four-hour emergency contact number

  • Covers any political unrest or emergencies that may result in the trip getting cut short (more on that later)

  • Claims can be filed online

  • Financial protection if any company I'm using goes bankrupt, leaving me stranded

Graphic of crystal globe wrapped by a stethoscope

What’s Not Covered By Your Travel Insurance

Even the best policies include limitations and exclusions. Insurance will not cover altered travel arrangements because you change your mind. It will not cover you if your injuries occurred because you were inebriated or under the influence of illegal drugs. It will not cover damages that YOU do to your lodgings. Some policies prohibit high-risk adventures. (and the definition of "high risk" varies between companies.) Repatriation home is rarely covered for non-life threatening injuries. Transfers between different medical facilities are only covered when the first facility is "medically inadequate" for your care or if a transfer is "medically necessary". Pre-existing conditions are often explicitly not covered, although some companies will offer coverage for an additional cost. Coverage often includes limitations if you've been careless with your belongings. A lost or unattended bag due to your negligence is rarely covered. Your theft coverage generally will not cover lost or stolen cash. If a destination is under a high travel advisory issued by your nation's government before travel, most insurance will not cover anything. If an alert is issued after your arrival, you may be covered but it's best to read the fine print carefully.

A recent addition to clauses that need careful reading is the "pandemic" and "travel to war zones" clauses. Most companies are including some limited coverage for pandemic issues but none for war or civil unrest. Insurance is not generally in effect for wars, military operations, civic unrest or plenty of other synonyms for armed conflicts. However, it's all about timing and the plan that you purchase. If your government has issued an "essential travel only" or "avoid all travel" advisory at the time of departure, then insurance will NOT cover you under whatever plan purchased. Again, read the clause carefully so you understand what is and is not included.

Scene of a riot with protesters in front of a street fire

Buy Your Travel Insurance Early

Insurance can be purchased up until the day before you travel but it's better to take time to make decisions earlier to ensure you have time to read and consider your options. This will also give you time to read the requirements for accessing insurance. Most companies require you to contact them before accessing healthcare, can assist in locating English-speaking doctors and will act as a liaison between you and the medical staff, as needed. Make sure you take a copy of your policy and contact numbers with you when travelling.

Final Thoughts

It may be tempting to think "I'm healthy and careful, I don't need to add this expense to my trip". I have seen and heard travellers say that they are "self-insuring" -- choosing to gamble they won't have any issues... as I'm sure every traveller who has ever made a claim thought before needing it. Insurance provides me peace of mind and I would never consider travel without insurance.

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