Planning an international trip is an exciting experience. Where to go? What to do? Where to stay? However, overlooking vital questions about safety, logistics, and money, is a mistake.
One critical question you must ask – Will my health insurance cover me? Like most things in personal finance, it depends. I’ve laid out the different scenarios below for your review.
If you are too young for Medicare, you likely have a policy through your employer, the Health Insurance Marketplace, or a private insurance company. Each policy will be different, so I recommend locating your policy documents to review and your insurance company’s customer service number to investigate any questions you may have.
You should be covered for medical emergencies in another country. However, you must check with your insurance company before you leave to verify. Even if you’re covered, there will most likely be differences between receiving care at home and internationally.
Check your policy for exclusions based on travel destination or activity. If you plan to go skydiving in a war-torn country, a standard health insurance policy will not cover you. Also, check for any additional exclusions that may be contained in your policy.
Your insurance provider will want to be contacted as soon as possible by you or a travel companion if there is an emergency. Often within the first 24 hours, so carry their number with you.
Expect to pay for emergency services out of pocket in a foreign country. Your insurance company will then reimburse you for all covered expenses at a later date.
If you are taking an extended international trip, check how long your coverage will last. It will not be an infinite amount of time. A quick look at my health insurance policy shows coverage for the first 90 days of travel.
If your health insurance coverage is inadequate in any area, add supplemental insurance. If you have a travel credit card, it may offer some coverage. As always, read the fine print.
You can also buy a separate travel health insurance policy. Decide whether you need a primary or a supplemental plan and for how long you will need it. Insurance can be purchased for a single trip, multiple trips, or on a continuous basis. Before buying, check for the same exclusions discussed earlier. Some policies cover pre-existing conditions, and some do not. You can decide whether this is important to you, but make sure the policy’s terms meet your needs. Also, if you’re concerned about pandemics, make sure they are covered.
If you want to compare travel insurance plans, the Point’s Guy website has a list of recommended insurance providers that is frequently updated. Shop for policies based on fit, reputation and financial strength of the policy writer, and price.
American Express Travel Insurance has a nice feature where you can customize a policy to meet your insurance needs. For example, you can obtain travel health insurance without paying for other types of coverage you may not need, such as trip cancellation or baggage protection.
Your U.S. health insurance will most likely not cover you for non-emergencies in a foreign country. Always check your policy or call your insurance company to get the details.
Even if your health insurance does not cover an in-person visit with a doctor in a non-emergency situation, it might offer telehealth services. These services are convenient and becoming more common, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
An added bonus of using remote services is you can sometimes speak with your doctor back home, who knows your medical history. A U.S. doctor can send a prescription to a foreign country such as Canada in some instances. Or your doctor can recommend a drug where a prescription is not needed.
Each country has its own rules and regulations regarding health care. In some countries, pharmacists can write prescriptions or recommend over-the-counter options. Other alternatives are clinics or a visit with a local doctor. Foreign health care costs can vary widely depending on the country, so always ask about prices before receiving treatment in a non-emergency situation.
If you have a travel insurance plan, the company will have a phone number for you to call. The company will help you receive the medical care you need and make a stressful situation better by organizing your care. It may make your life much easier if your first step is to call your travel insurance provider.
Original Medicare will not cover you when traveling outside of the U.S. unless you find yourself in a few narrowly-defined situations. Medicare Advantage plans may offer coverage, but this is dependent on the policy you have – check your paperwork. Some Medigap plans will cover you while traveling during your first 60 days. Be careful, though, as not all Medigap plans offer international coverage, and there is a lifetime limit of $50,000 for those that do. Expect to be reimbursed for emergency care after the fact.
If you need supplemental insurance, there are many travel health insurance options, including ones specifically targeted to seniors using Medicare. The travel insurance alternatives discussed earlier apply here as well. These policies are critical for international travelers that aren’t covered by their regular health insurance or will be traveling past their plan’s cut-off date.
The non-emergency information discussed previously applies to travelers on Medicare as well. Access to health care becomes even more important the older we get, so Medicare participants should take extra care to ensure there are no holes in their coverage when traveling.
I want to highlight the importance of medical evacuation insurance. It can be part of a travel insurance policy or can be purchased on its own. Medical evacuation insurance covers the cost of getting you to a medical facility for treatment in the case of an emergency. Some plans also cover transportation home once you are stable, which can be of significant importance when traveling internationally. Make sure the policy you choose includes the exact coverage you want.
A medical evacuation can be expensive. It can run well over $100,000, and the more remote your location, the more costly an evacuation can be.
Unlike some less-important parts of travel insurance that might cover inconveniences such as lost luggage or a trip delay, medical evacuation insurance can help you avoid a catastrophic blow to your health and finances.
Medical evacuation insurance is included in some travel insurance policies. It is also a perk offered in some higher-end credit cards marketed to travelers. If neither of these options suits your needs, stand-alone medical evacuation policies are available for either a single trip or on an annual basis.
As with all types of insurance, read the fine print. Make sure you are comfortable with the limits on your medical evacuation policy. Understand the conditions for when it will kick in and who makes the decisions on where you will be transported. Policies often have exclusions on locations, activities, and pre-existing conditions, so be aware of these limitations and find a plan that will cover your unique situation.
Don’t assume your health insurance will transfer seamlessly to international travel. Fill in any gaps in your coverage through travel health insurance that meets your needs. Don’t forget medical evacuation insurance, especially if you travel to a destination with poor health care facilities or is remote. As always, check each policy you are considering carefully, ensuring you understand the benefits and exclusions that apply.
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David Tuzzolino, CFA, CFP®, is the Founder and CEO of PathBridge Financial, a firm that specializes in providing comprehensive financial planning and investment management services for clients that are nearing retirement and love to travel.