Travelers

Your dream vacation is just days away. You’re already packed and ready for some much-needed R & R. There’s nothing left to do but enjoy, right?

Not to be a spoilsport, but what happens if you sprain your ankle hiking a gorgeous backwoods trail, come down with a case of swimmer’s ear, or eat an exotic meal that ends up making you sick while you’re traveling?

Chances are, all will be well, but if you do get injured or ill while you’re away, here’s what you need to know to protect yourself.

One of the essential benefits of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is that when emergency strikes, you don’t have to worry about being out-of-network, as long as you’re in the United States. Your insurance company can’t charge you higher copays or require prior approval for emergency care, so you’re free to go to the nearest emergency room and focus on getting the help you need. (Read on to learn about hospitalization coverage if you need to be admitted for care.)

This benefit may not apply to grandfathered health plans created prior to March 23, 2010. If you have a grandfathered plan, it’s risky business to assume you’re covered when traveling, so read your policy materials. If the wording isn’t clear, call your insurance company, insurance agent, or plan administrator and get the straight facts. Be specific about your travel plans. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Am I covered for travel within the United States? For foreign travel?
  • Will I be covered if I need to be admitted to the hospital? If so, do I need preauthorization?
  • Are high-risk activities like white-water rafting and rock climbing (name your sport) included?
  • Are pregnancy or pre-existing medical conditions excluded?
  • What if I need to be transported somewhere else for treatment? Does my policy cover medical evacuations?
  • Is there a dollar limit I should know about?

If you’re on Medicare you’ve got the same protections the ACA offers — and the same restrictions, meaning you’re not covered outside the country. (Exceptions are made if you’re in the United States when emergency strikes but the nearest hospital is across the border, and also if you have an emergency while traveling directly between Alaska and another state and a Canadian hospital is closest.) Some Medigap plans and Medicare Advantage plans do provide international coverage, but you’ll have to check the specifics of your policy.

Temporary travel insurance policies that cover emergency healthcare are generally quite affordable. The best time to buy is when you book your trip, but you can usually manage to get a policy up to 24 hours before you leave. Depending on your destination and your health, here are some options to think about:

Medical Evacuation Coverage

One thing you don’t want to overlook is medical evacuation coverage. If you’re traveling off the beaten path, or to a foreign country where medical care may be lacking, you might need to be moved before you can get treatment. Have you ever priced an emergency airlift? If you’re in a remote area and need transportation to a medical facility, those twirly birds can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Some insurance will pay part of the cost of transportation, but don’t take it for granted — check your policy.

When buying supplemental travel insurance, check to see that it specifically covers medical evacuation. Keith Heger, senior guide at the Northwest Passage and Polar Explorers, leads extreme expeditions to the North Pole, among other places, and he shared that last season, two people had to be evacuated from remote areas. So it pays to be prepared.

Extra Protection for the Thrill Seeker

If you’re an adrenaline junkie who loves jumping out of airplanes, scuba diving, or even skiing, you’ll also want to do a little research. Some insurance policies specifically exclude competitive or “extreme sports,” so if you’re not properly covered, you might find yourself experiencing a whole other kind of rush when they hand you a bill for your broken leg. Talk about a buzzkill.

Check your policy materials for exclusions and find out what the deal is. According to Heger, “Policies often have an extra rider or upgrade to cover extreme sports. For our adventures, travel insurance is required, with medevac for most of the polar adventures. Travel Guard offers a good adventure policy, and I also recommend Travelex.”

Hospitalization Coverage

Even when you’re traveling within the U.S., being admitted to a hospital (following an emergency room visit) means you’ve transitioned out of what insurers call “emergency care,” so you may not be covered, or you may have limited out-of-network coverage. Look for a travel policy with “inpatient hospital services coverage.”

Pre-Existing Condition Coverage

Some travel policies specifically exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions like diabetes or heart disease, even in an emergency. If you have a condition that could require medical attention while you’re traveling, look for “pre-existing medical conditions coverage.”

Where can you get travel health insurance?

  • The U.S. Department of State provides a list of travel medical insurance providers.
  • Some tour companies offer temporary travel insurance, or can at least point you in the right direction.
  • Some credit card companies offer travel coverage, but it’s usually limited and may exclude evacuation coverage. Make sure you know what you’re getting before signing on the dotted line.

Pricing for travel insurance depends on where you're going, how long you plan to be away, and the type of coverage you want, but it usually doesn’t cost more than a few dollars per day. If your travels include any business, coverage may be included through work, so check with your employer before making any purchases.

Carry Documentation

Whether you’re traveling within the United States or abroad, it’s a good idea to carry copies of your insurance cards with you. In an emergency, contact your insurance company as soon as you can.

Know Where To Go

Do a little research prior to your trip. If you’re traveling outside the country, locate medical services in the area. Carry this information with you. Also, carry the contact information for the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate where you’re going. They can help you navigate emergency situations.

Be Prepared to Pay

When you’re in a foreign country, you can’t be sure how healthcare will be handled. Even in countries with nationalized healthcare, you’re a foreigner, so you can’t count on it. There’s a good chance you’ll have to use cash or a credit card when you receive care. Make sure you keep copies of all bills and receipts so you can settle up with your insurance carrier later.

Being prepared will give you greater peace of mind, so you can relax, see new sights, and enjoy your time off. Bon voyage!