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Travel Health 101

A Step-by-Step Guide to Understanding Travel Health Insurance Plans

Planning on traveling abroad for school, work or pleasure? One of the most important details to consider as you plan your trip is making sure you have adequate health insurance coverage in case of unforeseen illness or accidents.  With several different types of coverage available it can be very confusing deciding which plan is right for you.

The following is a primer on the language of buying travel medical insurance. First, here are some key terms to know:

Duration - How long will you be going for? The longer you plan on being away from your home country the more comprehensive the coverage you are likely to need.

Destination - Where are you going? The more remote the location the more importance you should place on features like Emergency Evacuation and Air Ambulance coverage. Conversely, a visitor to a Northern European country should be more interested in the maximum benefits for hospitalization, as evacuation would be a less likely course of treatment.

Home Country Coverage - What does your existing health plan cover? If you already have strong benefits at home, it is wise to double check what exactly is covered while you are out of the country. Most domestic US health plans limit coverage to a maximum of 30 or 60 days outside the states, and HMO's and PPO's will likely impose severe out of network penalties for all but the most basic emergency care. More importantly, you will want to insure that you have 24 hour access to emergency evacuation if you are sick or hurt in an area where quality care is not available. For those over 65, Medicare will not cover treatment outside the US. If you do not have any domestic coverage, travel insurance is a must.

Once you have answered these questions, you will need to know what benefits and policy provisions to look for in a travel medical plan.

Short Trips ( 2 weeks or less)

Assuming you have solid coverage at home you may only need a small supplemental plan, with features like emergency evacuation and 24 hour worldwide assistance, along with a limited benefit for medical expenses ($10,000 to $50,000 is typical). These plans are readily available through your travel agent and may include lost luggage and Trip Interruption protection too. Be wary of plans that require you to settle all bills yourself and then seek reimbursement when you return home.

Intermediate Trips (2 weeks to 6 months)

The longer you are away the less likely it is your US based plan will cover you, and therefore the more importance you should place on the medical benefits of the plan. In addition to a higher emergency evacuation benefit, your plan should cover between $100,000 to $1 million in medical expenses. Other features to look for include coverage for a family member to come to your assistance if you are hospitalized in a foreign country, and an option to include "hazardous activities" such as scuba diving, skiing and bungee jumping.

Longer Trips (6 months or more)

The travel insurance you purchase will most likely be your primary or only health insurance. Be sure that your plan includes all of the above, with higher maximum benefits ($1 million or more) as well as some provision for coverage when you return home. If you spend a year abroad but return home for a vacation, make sure you are still covered.

Multi Year or Open Ended Trips

Standard travel medical plans are usually limited to one year, with the option to renew for another. If you anticipate being abroad for longer, look into a permanent international major medical plan. This type of coverage contains all the benefits of a travel medical plan, but once you are accepted you can maintain coverage year after year simply by paying the premium. Most importantly, you are covered for medical treatment anywhere in the world, including back here in the USA. Note that these plans are medically underwritten, and people with prior health problems may have trouble obtaining coverage.

All of the plan types discussed above share some common features; you will normally have a deductible and coinsurance to meet, and pre existing conditions are usually excluded. Worldwide assistance is sometimes done by the plan administrator, or through an independent assistance company. The market for these plans is growing rapidly, and new companies enter the market all the time; be sure the company you are dealing with has five to ten years experience in the international market. Doing a little research before you depart can mean security and peace of mind while you are away, and allow you to concentrate on the exciting and fulfilling adventure that international travel can be!


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