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Travel insurance

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    This article is a travel topic

For most people, travel insurance is short-term insurance available specifically against travel-related emergencies and expenses. International travelers will almost always want to obtain travel insurance because it covers medical expenses, but even other travelers may find it useful depending on their plans.

This article describes common items covered by travel insurance policies and what to check for on your policy. With any policy, it is important that you read the terms and conditions carefully and that you especially review the exclusions (things that the policy definitely does not cover).

This article is a general guide to travel insurance policies, including some possible terms but is not a substitute for careful review of the specific policy you may purchase. Travel insurance policies differ markedly in their terms and conditions.

How It Works

Basically, using insurance begins as you encounter any problem on a trip that puts your plans at risk and/or that threatens considerable cost beyond what you had arranged. (This won't include coverage for essential steps on your trip that you failed to arrange for yourself, e.g., lodging, meals, fully adequate connection times between flights.)

Once you know the details of the problem (and cost), you promptly contact the claims people for the company that issued your policy. You explain the situation, and they instruct you on what to do.

  • For problems with modest cost that are covered, you'll likely be told to pay the costs (preferably by credit card), keep all supporting bills/invoices/receipts, and to file a claim with the company after your trip is over.
  • For problems with great cost (e.g., medical evacuation), the insurer may do the same...though such costs can easily exceed the maximum "draw" allowed on your charge card. For major problems, some travel insurers have "preferred providers", one of which may be able to help you at lesser cost than others...or even provide the service you need and directly bill the insurer.
  • If you do not have the means to pay for what you need (and then wait for reimbursement), some insurers will transfer funds to help. They do so only after being satisfied about costs encountered, and that they are sending the funds to or for someone who is covered.

See also "Making a claim" below.

To wisely purchase coverage, carefully read the policy before buying to assure it provides coverage you need...per the discussions below.

To be able to use your policy and procedures, print copies and take two or more in separate bags. In addition, take copies of the instructions on how to contact the insurer's claims section...at least in two separate bags.

Where to buy

You purchase travel insurance for international trips through an insurer in your country of residence, which means the country to which you'd want to be evacuated to or return to after a serious medical emergency and/or the country you'd need to travel to if a family member became very ill (these are assumed to be the same country).

If traveling within your country of residence, you can buy cheaper domestic travel insurance within that country, but you may decide that you do not need it at all if you are willing to risk losing costs associated with cancellations and so on.

You can obtain travel insurance through your travel agent, your normal insurers, or any one of a number of specialist travel insurers. Travel agents sometimes sell overpriced policies as you are something of a captive audience. Shop around. Because travel insurance policies are somewhat interchangeable, there are a number of websites where you can compare policy costs. This article does not list specific insurers as they are both numerous and country-specific where based.

Sometimes you may be insured via an existing deal. Some credit card companies insure any trip you take as long as you buy the tickets on a particular credit card. Business travelers may be covered by a company-wide insurance policy, but if you intend to take any side trips or have a personal holiday, check the coverage: usually personal holidays on the side must be of a fairly short length to be covered by a business policy. Be sure to check these existing deals carefully and ideally get confirmation in writing of your coverage. credit card insurance deals, for example, have been known to be invalidated by, say, travellers who paid a deposit amount in cash.

If you are a member of a travel association or large professional group, you may find that it offers or endorses an insurance provider that provides extra coverage or better rates. You may find coverage through on-line search. But take care that the company has a good reputation, e.g., from friends/family that have had to file claims; mere on-line reviews/ratings may not be genuine.

Very regular travelers may find that "ongoing" or "periodic" travel coverage, typically purchased a year at a time, can be cheaper than insuring each trip individually. Most travel insurers offer this option, and major businesses often purchase such coverage for their key or frequent travelers.

When to buy

Some travel agents will offer travel insurance when you book travel, but you can purchase travel insurance between then and shortly before you depart. However, if you have a "pre-existing condition" you need covered, you need purchase it promptly, for some insurers within 2-3 days, others within 10-14 days of first booking (not final purchase of) the travel. Otherwise, between the booking and departure date or anytime during travel, if you are injured, become ill or have other reason disallowing or cutting short your travel, you're out of luck. Virtually all policies list the specific risks any covers. An insurer may offer different policies for different levels of coverage. Or particularly costly risks may be offered under extra-cost options. Carefully examine all to suit your needs. After noting the discussions throughout this article, consider the coverage tables below for examples.

As you buy, the number and age of travelers and the total known plus estimated costs of the trip will primarily determine the cost of insurance, though other factors influence it. Do not understate any facts as you apply, or your claim for reimbursement for some "covered" cost may later be denied.

What to buy

There are two major classes of travel insurance:

  • international travel insurance, covering travel outside your country of residence. This is an essential part of international trips because many healthcare arrangements won't apply in other countries and you either need insurance or to be able to pay all medical bills out of pocket; and
  • domestic travel insurance, covering travel inside your country of residence. These policies are generally cheaper than international policies because they usually don't include medical coverage--in your own country, you presumably have other arrangements. They focus on compensating you for purely travel-related problems like cancellations and closures. They are also much less essential and you can consider their worth on a trip-by-trip basis.

When buying travel insurance, you should review the dates of coverage (include the day you leave and the day you arrive home plus a day or two for delays), that it covers what you need, and the exclusions.

Medical expenses coverage

Usually, whatever standard health insurance you have will pay only claims for medical care in your country of residence. Also, even if your medical care is usually paid for by the government, this usually won't extend to medical costs incurred in other countries. Some countries with universal healthcare (such as Canada, UK, Australia) might have reciprocal agreements with other countries with similar health care systems. However, even if a country extends its subsidized medical care to tourists, it may not be up to the standards that you are used to.

Unless you are covered by a reciprocal arrangement or your regular health insurance covers international medical expenses, you will have to pay all medical expenses incurred while travelling out of pocket, and in some cases medical care might be prohibitively expensive. Therefore, all international travelers should be certain that they have medical coverage via a travel insurance policy that covers medical expenses they incur on their trip. Unless you'll not be far from home, you should look/opt for medical evacuation coverage; such transport can be incredibly costly.

When considering a travel insurance policy's medical coverage:

  • check the precise details of medical care that you will be able to claim. If your destination has a tiered health system with, for example, public and private hospitals, are you able to use a private hospital?
  • does your insurer offer 24 hour contact with emergency advice? These hotlines allow an insurer to assess a situation and give some advice about medical care as quickly as possible. Your insurer may have local knowledge that you do not have.
  • if you take part in any adventure sports or activities like alpine skiing or scuba diving, check your policy for medical coverage related to accidents that happen while you're doing that activity and whether or not you need any formal training to be insured. If you can't find a general travel insurance policy to cover your activity of choice, you may be able to take out a second policy from an insurer specializing in that activity.
  • is there coverage for illnesses that become apparent after your return? International travel insurance policies usually exclude medical costs incurred in your country of residence even if the costs stem from an injury or illness that happened while you were travelling. Medical costs in your home country are assumed to be covered by your normal healthcare arrangements.
  • does the policy have adequate cover for dental expenses? Some policies provide substantial amounts for general medical expenses, but only very small amounts (for example, only $500) for dental expenses.

Pre-existing conditions

You may have difficulty obtaining travel insurance if you have high-risk pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, or have been diagnosed with contributing factors towards disease, e.g., clotting problems or high blood pressure. If asked, you may be required to disclose information about major, existing conditions in your medical history to your insurer, even if you are not seeking coverage for pre-existing conditions; your policy will usually be completely invalidated if you fail to disclose something when asked.

Some policies may cover you with the pre-existing condition excluded. This is obviously undesirable; if your existing disease or symptoms cause you significant problems, you will have to come home or pay for treatment out of pocket with no reimbursement by your insurance.

Some policies will cover pre-existing conditions if you buy coverage within a short time after booking your travel, perhaps 24–48 hours, others for up to two weeks. For many people, it's worth some research to find such policies. Failing that, if even possible to have your pre-existing condition covered, you may need to undergo a medical assessment and pay an extra premium for medical insurance or an extra-cost option in the travel policy.

Pregnancy is considered a pre-existing condition. See tips for women travellers for more information.

Refusal of medical coverage

Some pre-existing conditions will cause insurers to completely refuse all medical coverage, even for seemingly unrelated events. This will vary by insurer, but include conditions like terminal illness, being an organ donation recipient, having AIDS, and similar systemic risky conditions. Such people may not be able to travel secure of receiving affordable medical treatment for any condition at all.

When medical cover is refused, typically the other provisions of the policy still apply (eg, claiming the replacement cost of stolen items).

Older travellers

Travel insurance becomes increasingly difficult to get after age 55, with your age alone being considered something of a pre-existing condition. The precise cutoff for receiving insurance without an addition premium and/or medical examinations varies from 55 to over 70 for some insurers. As you age you will face increasingly higher premiums and excess charges on claims, and your existing medical conditions may be totally excluded.

Medical evacuation coverage

A medical evacuation is a chartered trip (usually a flight) for a patient who is not well enough to return home by other means to better facilities or to their home country. It typically involves traveling with medical personnel looking after you, along with any needed equipment, medications, etc. Although some people have worldwide medical coverage as part of their everyday health insurance, it almost never comes with international medical evacuation. Without insurance, it is prohibitively expensive! Even if you are willing to forgo all other types of international travel-related insurance, medical evacuation coverage is the one area nobody can afford to ignore.

There are two reasons a traveler would need medical evacuation. In less severe cases (or after hospitalization), you may be just barely well enough to travel with assistance lying down but not well enough to fly on a commercial airliner. In more severe cases, a less-developed country might not have facilities to treat serious injuries and illnesses. In that case, you need to be evacuated to an area with better facilities as soon as possible and might also then need to be evacuated home at a later time.

Some supplemental insurance such as AFLAC in the USA covers medical evacuation but only for about US$3,000. This is woefully inadequate for international travel. Domestic medi-evac is only intended to cover an airlift to the nearest hospital (such as an auto accident outside a major city), not evacuation to your home country while abroad. Make sure your policy covers at least US$300,000, and preferably US$1,000,000.

Caretaker coverage

If you are incapacitated while travelling, some policies will pay for a relative or friend to travel to you and either stay with you or escort you home.

Lump sum payments

In addition to covering your medical expenses if you are ill or injured, some policies will pay a lump sum to you or your estate in the event of an accident or untoward event. For example, they may pay you a fraction of your salary for a certain time if you are injured while traveling and unable to work.

Cancellation insurance

Travel insurance will often cover expenses related to unexpected cancellations by your carrier or destination; for example, costs associated with a canceled flight, including accommodation, meals and other incidentals. Cancellations due to emergencies are often also covered, some possible examples include the following:

  • medical advice telling you that you cannot travel
  • a death or (sometimes) medical emergency in your family
  • a major disaster at home such as a house fire
  • disasters at your planned destination that occur after you booked your trip

Depending on what's happened, the insurer might pay rebooking fees, refund lost deposits, or pay for travel home. Travel insurance pays only for direct losses such as these; you won't get additional compensation for things like your disappointment at your holiday being cancelled.

More expensive policies may also cover your own discretionary cancellations if there is an exceptional circumstance: for example, there are some travel insurance policies that will pay you the cost of your ski lift tickets if a resort has shut due to lack of snow.

There are always a raft of conditions about acceptable and unacceptable cancellations. Some examples of troublesome situations:

  • you can purchase insurance covering a trip home because of the death of a family member, but a trip home due to the death of a friend almost certainly won't be covered and even a de facto partner's death might not be;
  • family medical emergencies other than a death often aren't covered; for example the insurance might not cover a trip home to be with a family member who has been hospitalized or diagnosed with cancer --even if it's your own child;
  • many policies cover cancellations or delays due to terrorist activities, but the August 2006 terrorist threat in London demonstrated that few cover cancellations or delays due to the mere threat of terrorist activity;
  • if your transportation carrier shuts down, you may not get paid unless they declare bankruptcy;
  • most policies will not cover a strike if you book travel after union members vote to approve a strike (which could be weeks or months ahead of the actual strike). Also, be aware of de facto strikes such as a "sickout"--usually by just one segment of the airline (such as pilots). A few policies may not cover this or cover it only as a delay.
  • some policies cover cancellations if a destination has recently become unsafe due to either a declaration of war or a recommendation by your government to cancel travel to a particular area; others do not cover this.

Resuming your journey

If you have to cut your trip short for certain reasons (usually illness on your part or on the part of a relative) some will pay at least the cost of an additional return ticket so that you can resume your journey later. This may apply only before a certain time (they won't fly you back if you had only 48 h left of the holiday anyway!).

Loss, damage and theft

Some travel insurance policies cover the loss of or theft of your belongings while travelling. If claiming for theft, you must file a police report about the theft and get documentation, no matter how unlikely it is that the police will take any action. The insurance company will not pay your claim without a police report.

You may need to provide a list of items over a certain value and pay an extra premium to insure them.

In the cases of expensive and easily disposed of items like cameras and laptops, policies may cover only violent theft or forced entry. If if you leave your belongings in a room while you are out and they are stolen, the cover may be invalid if there was no forced entry. When considering claiming for damage, check the terms carefully: many expensive and fragile items are only covered if damaged while being carried by you. It is very common to exclude any damage done to your belongings if they travel as checked luggage: you must keep them on your person to be covered. Theft from unattended cars and other vehicles will have limited coverage, as will theft of, and particularly simple loss of, cash, money orders, travellers cheques and credit cards.

Policies covering loss or theft of belongings are typically among more expensive policies, aimed at business travellers.

Death

An insurance policy may cover expenses incurred by your estate related to your own death while travelling, such as the cost of arranging a local funeral and burial or cremation, or the cost of transporting your remains home. Having medical expenses covered by insurance is also very valuable to your next of kin in the event of your death as otherwise that person may be liable and your children and dependants may have their inheritance greatly reduced or canceled.

There may additionally be a lump sum benefit to your next of kin, although seldom anything like the amount of money that a life insurance policy might pay.

Itinerary

The cost of policies depends on your destination. If you are travelling within your country of residence you will often be able to get a cheap domestic policy (partly because it may exclude medical coverage). On the other hand, certain destinations, including South America and Africa but also the United States of America, Canada, and Japan (because these countries have high healthcare costs) require more expensive policies. You may need to disclose your itinerary to the insurer, but some will simply allow you to nominate the continents (such as Europe or North America) or may provide a worldwide policy for a higher premium.

Many policies require that you purchase them in your country of residence and that you start and finish your trip there-—that is, you can't buy insurance halfway through your trip and it mustn't lapse before your planned return-—although there are sometimes exceptions.

Exclusions

Some insurers refuse to pay medical or any other expenses associated with particular activities. Aside from pre-existing medical conditions, common exclusions also include anything that happened to you as a result of an act of war; suicide, attempted suicide, self-harm, anything that you caused by doing something illegal anything you did while drunk or high, anything caused by a sexually transmitted disease (excepting ones you have covered as a pre-existing condition), any accidents you have while participating in an adventure sport not specifically listed as covered, anything caused by negligence on your part, any theft or damage to your belongings where they judge that you weren't looking after them sufficiently well.

Some policies may exclude all coverage in certain countries or regions within countries. Check the fine print of your policy, as in one section of the policy it may explicitly list a country as eligible for coverage, and then in another section exclude coverage in any country listed on certain government websites, such as the World Health Organization or Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Excess/deductible

Some policies have an excess amount (also called a deductible), which is deducted from any claim you make, so that you will be paid the amount of the claim minus the policy's excess. In general, the lower the deductible, the higher the insurance premium. Travel insurance with a $5000 deductible can be as little as $10/month: that means that it will not cover minor expenses or even a mid-level problem like a broken wrist, but it will be a financial lifesaver if you have a serious accident.

Extending your trip

If there's any chance that your trip might extend beyond the period of your insurance, make sure that you know in advance how you can extend the policy and whether you can do this while travelling. It is generally much easier to extend a policy if you request the extension while you're still covered: obtaining a policy when you're travelling but aren't presently insured is difficult. In addition, if you let your policy lapse you will obviously not be covered for anything, including medical expenses, while you arrange a new policy. Many policies require that you apply for an extension at least 7 days before your policy expires.

When planning a trip, pay for your policy to cover a few days after your intended return. In the event of last-minute delays or changes of plan which extend your trip, you then have a few days to sort out any extension of the policy you need. Some policies will automatically extend if the delay is part of a problem that you could claim for: for example, if you have insured against delays and the delay extends your travel past the end of your coverage, the policy is automatically extended. This will typically not apply to pre-existing conditions or to high risk travellers such as the elderly, even if you fully disclosed pre-existing conditions when applying for cover.

Extensions to your policy are never guaranteed to happen. They will always be at the discretion of the insurer and may be refused based on your previous claims and any other information that you disclose when applying for the extension (and you will usually be required to disclose anything you think might be relevant lest the policy be void). Some insurers treat all applications for an extension as an entirely new application and will re-evaluate your circumstances before insuring you. Medical problems that occur during your holiday may count as pre-existing conditions when applying for an extension and certainly will if applying for a second policy.

Summary tables of coverage

In concert with the above discussions, these tables reflect coverages under three kinds of policies currently offered by a reputable insurer. The first table reflects “top level” coverage items...what you should see immediately as you're offered a policy.

Feature Basic Cvg Moderate Cvg Deluxe Cvg
Trip/Flight Cancellation 100% 100% 100%
Trip interruption 100% 150% 150%
Emergency accident & Sickness medical expense (50% deductible) 10,000 50,000 150,000
Pre-existing medical condition None Included Included
Baggage & personal effects ($50 deductible) 750 1,000 2,500
Baggage delay 200 300 500
Trip delay 500 750 1,500
Missed connection/itinerary change None 500 750
Emergency evacuation, medically necessary repatriation & repatriation of remains 100,000 500,000 1,000,000
Renter’s collision insurance (for liability, optional extra cost) 50,000 for $7/day 50,000 for $7/day 50,000 included
Accidental death & dismemberment (AD&D) None 10,000 25,000
AD&D air only Optional Optional 100,000
Pet care None 300 300
Children under 17 One free per covered adult All free All free
Cancel for any reason None 75% of trip cost 75% of trip cost
Medical & legal assistance Included Included Included
Political evacuation None Included with optional Medical Included
Lost baggage retrieval Included Included Included
Prescription/eyeglass replacement Included Included Included
Passport replacement/visa info Included Included Included
ID/credit recovery assistance None Included Included


This next table reflects sometimes hidden details of coverage, in this case just for “Trip/flight cancellation or interruption". A good insurer should explain any qualifying details/exceptions behind every major/top-level type of coverage offered.

Feature Basic Cvg Moderate Cvg Deluxe Cvg
Sickness 100% 100% 100%
Pre-existing medical condition None Covered Covered
Injury Covered Covered Covered
Death Covered Covered Covered
Bankruptcy (of travel provider) None Covered Covered
Weather Covered Covered Covered
Accident enroute to destination(s) Covered Covered Covered
Natural disaster at destination Covered Covered Covered
Evacuation at destination None Covered Covered
Host death/hospitalization Covered Covered Covered
Strike Covered Covered Covered
Felonious assault Covered Covered Covered
Terrorist attack Covered Covered Covered
Hijacking/quarantine Covered Covered Covered
School year extension None Covered Covered
Home uninhabitable Covered Covered Covered
Burglary Covered Covered Covered
Jury duty Covered Covered Covered
Pregnancy None Covered Covered
Attending childbirth None Covered Covered
Job loss Covered Covered Covered


Some coverages may be increased by paying additional premiums, e.g., for rental car liability. Still others must be obtained through additional premium, e.g., under "Injury" you may have no coverage if you voluntarily participate in risky or violent activities such sky-diving or rugby... unless you opt and pay for a special option (or rider), perhaps after describing the activity. Having already bought a policy, some insurers may allow you to later increase its coverage... almost always except for pre-existing conditions,

As discussed above, look at such details thoroughly, especially if contemplating a long trip to distant lands.

What not to buy

Flight insurance, sold at some airports, is simply a very overpriced form of accidental death coverage policy valid only for the duration of your flight. Don't waste your money; even casino gambling and lotteries have better odds than this.

Making a claim

Most insurers expect you to pay smaller medical expenses and all other expenses you intend to claim for yourself and apply for reimbursement. They will usually pay large medical bills, such as those arising from hospitalisation or evacuation, directly. If you are hospitalised, they should be informed as quickly as possible, since they need to agree that the treatment is necessary to pay your bills. There is usually a clause stating that they will refuse to pay for medical assistance that they deem unnecessary. If you are incapacitated, your travel companions or contacts at home will need to deal with the insurer, make sure they have contact details.

Do not arrange your own evacuations unless your life is in danger and you and your companions cannot talk to the insurer in time. Always attempt to consult your insurer as they probably have a contract with a company that saves them money. They won't pay (or pay in full) if evacuation is self-arranged. In case of unavoidable self-arranged evacuation, go no further than is absolutely necessary to obtain proper care, not (in most cases) all of the way home.

For anything else that is likely to result in a large claim, particularly a medical claim, inform the insurer as soon as possible, preferably while you are still travelling. Many have a 24 h hotline that you can call. Often, this service is an advice hotline and the insurer can involve on-the-ground staff in advising you about medical facilities.

All claims should be filed promptly. Most insurers have a limited period of time after a given event for which you can claim associated expenses. This period is usually a year.

Claims will need to be documented. Where you are claiming expenses, you will need receipts. If you're claiming for a theft, you will need a copy of the police report made when you reported the theft to the police and evidence of the value of the item and possibly proof that you owned it in the first place (proof of the original purchase will cover both requirements).

Stay safe

Many insurers specifically exclude travel to countries and areas known to be extremely dangerous. As a rough guide, if the US State Department or your own country's government recommends against any travel to a particular country or area, you will find it difficult to get insurance coverage. As always, check the terms carefully, and if you are travelling to an unstable region, keep an eye on the travel warnings for any updates that might invalidate your insurance.

Contact

Carry copies of your insurance policy and your insurer's contact details with you, and retain a second copy in your luggage. You should also leave policy details with traveling companions, relatives or friends at home. If you are incapacitated, someone else will need to deal with your insurance company and may not know who you are insured by or whether you are insured at all. If you are traveling to more remote areas (especially alone), give a copy (or at least the basic information) to whichever local person is most responsible for hosting your visit (such as the resort manager or tour guide).

See also

This is a usable article. It touches on all the major areas of the topic. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!

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