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When you need medical insurance for travel (what your card won’t cover)

by on Fri April 18, 2014 • 5 Comments

Medical travel insurance

No one likes to think about becoming sick or having an accident during a much-anticipated vacation. Just because we don’t like to think about it, doesn’t mean a jellyfish won’t sting you or that delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurant won’t give you food poisoning. Even if you don’t believe in Murphy’s Law or aren’t injury-prone, it’s always wise to be prepared for the unexpected when it comes to your health. The good news is you needn’t pay a fortune in case of emergency—including if you’re med-evaced home.

Don’t make assumptions when it comes to your insurance

Your current medical insurance plan may cover you overseas, but you shouldn’t assume it does. If you use Medicare, then know that does not cover you overseas. Even if you have a comprehensive plan that provides international coverage, supplementary medical insurance may still be prudent since:

  • Domestic benefits may be more limited abroad
  • Getting timely approval for emergency medical evacuation or treatment outside the U.S. can be difficult
  • Up-front hospital and medical service fees can cost thousands of dollars
  • Receiving reimbursement for overseas medical expenses due to treatment by someone “outside the network” could be impossible after the fact

How do you get coverage without drastically upping the cost of your trip?

Fortunately, medical travel insurance is quite cheap so there isn’t really an excuse to avoid planning for such contingencies, especially if you are older, have a history of illness, or will be undertaking an adventurous trip (bungee jumping, anyone?).

Costing a mere $15-20 per trip for an average aged traveler of 35 (the older you are, the higher the price), many medical-only travel insurance plans I found through provide up to $50,000 in emergency medical insurance when traveling overnight at least 100 miles from home. And just in case you’re really unlucky, they cover up to $25,000 for accidental death and dismemberment occurring within a year due to an accident on your trip.

Note that expenses due to certain pre-existing medical conditions are not covered unless an insurance waiver is purchased within 10 to 15 days of initial trip payment.

Most plans also cover up to $500,000 for medical evacuation to the nearest treatment facility of the insured’s choice or a trip home if required by a physician, which should make you feel better about taking the plunge to become SCUBA-certified on your next trip to Cancun.

Daredevils can still be protected

Those looking for adventure may need to fork over a little more money for travel insurance coverage, depending on the type of activity – but it’s probably worth the cost if your travel style is anything-goes.

An adventure sport upgrade is available with some plans for as little as $4 extra and provides medical evacuation and medical expense coverage for higher-risk activities such as skiing, mountain biking, bungee-jumping, and SCUBA (though certain activities such as skydiving may not be) that are typically excluded in standard travel insurance plans.


If you’re worried about your pearly whites, dental coverage is also available as part of most travel medical plans, ranging from $100 to $500 in reimbursement fees (minus your copay or deductible). The insurance covers emergency repair to your natural teeth, so you can say cheese with gusto in your next selfie.

Still want a little extra coverage?

If you want the added peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ll also be reimbursed for the unused portion of your trip in case of a medical emergency or evacuation, know that many travel medical plans also offer trip disruption coverage equivalent to the comprehensive travel plans offered by major insurance companies. Typically these boost the cost to around $50 for a single traveler aged 35.

Can you afford not to have purchased supplementary medical insurance?

With such a low cost it seems riskier to not purchase travel medical insurance than to take that extreme heli-skiing vacation you’ve been planning.

However, before buying supplementary coverage, contact your health insurance company to find out what benefits are provided overseas (remember to ask about special exclusions for high-risk activities or travel destinations you may be planning).

You should also check your credit card terms and conditions to see if they provide some of the benefits and you may save yourself that extra cash—unless you splurge on surf lessons.

These actively marketed credit cards currently offer emergency evacuation coverage:

They’ll pay for your transportation back home if it is deemed medically necessary, which can sometimes cost tens of thousands of dollars. But they won’t cover the bills for your treatment.

With the Chase and Citi cards you have to pay for your trip with your card to qualify.

With the American Express Platinum Card the coverage is part of overall card membership for you, your spouse / domestic partner, and kids up to age 23 (26 if they are students), so anytime you travel far from home the benefit can apply. And they’ll escort your kids back home while you’re in the hospital if they are unattended while you’re being treated.

So if your personal medical insurance covers medical expenses abroad and you carry one of these cards you’ll have most of what a separate paid medical travel insurance policy provides without having to buy one.

Christina Tincu has spent the majority of her life dreaming and scheming to travel the world and recently made that dream a reality by finding a job that sends her abroad for months at a time. In the past year or so, she has traveled throughout Timor Leste (East Timor), South Africa, Brazil, Jamaica, and Thailand for work, with weekend trips to Bali, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. She is lending her travel savvy (aka lessons learned from making honest mistakes and being duped) to keep everyone else safe. She loves to swim in open waters, following a new journey wherever it leads, and the word “tiny”.

*The information related to the United MileagePlus® Club card has been collected by and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.

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5 thoughts on When you need medical insurance for travel (what your card won’t cover)

  1. maikehasi2014

    Hello sir,
    Thank you for your nice is very interesting and informative daughter is injured or gets sick while in Jamaica, how does the trip insurance handle covering costs that the medical provider is asking for upfront.


      @maikehasi2014 – Generally you need to be reimbursed afterward. Your card may be able to help you get cash for a fee though.

  2. maikehasi2014

    Hello sir,
    Thank you for your nice posting.your personal medical insurance covers medical expenses abroad and you carry one of these cards you’ll have most of what a separate paid medical travel insurance policy provides without having to buy one.

  3. Pattie Pinchbeck

    If my daughter is injured or gets sick while in Jamaica, how does the trip insurance handle covering costs that the medical provider is asking for upfront? She could cover SOME of the costs, but it if was a costly accident, she doesn’t have that kind of cash to pay.

    1. MileCards

      @Pattie – All they can do is assist you with transfering money to Jamaica for example via a wire to the hospital, though many credit cards and banks can provide similar assistance.


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