Don’t Do the Travel Insurance Two-Step

So, there you were, doing the rum-soaked rhumba in a tiki bar on a remote Caribbean island when over the step of the rickety dance floor you go. That sickening crack you hear isn’t the barstool you rhumba-rumbled into, that, friend, was your ankle.

Hours later, after being airlifted to a nearby island where a hospital existed that could carry out the procedure, you’ve had surgery and pins inserted in your damaged limb and soon, your condition worsens and you’ve got a serious, life-threatening infection. Topper? You’re then presented with a bill in the thousands; nay, the tens of thousands.

Panic and incredulity ensue.

But, you say, my credit card company assured me that I was good to go, safe from medical bills of any kind when I’m overseas. So long as I pack their plastic.

Think again, savvy traveler. Most credit card protection covers emergency care only and won’t cover a serious illness overseas. Those illnesses, for whatever the reason, could cost you tens of thousands of out-of-pocket expenses in the end.

Cracking an ankle is one thing, but the small print on most common travel plans will really put you in intensive care.

If you’re traveling with a medical condition of any kind — take the time and effort, with your travel professional, your doctor or your insurer (your home, car, business insurance company) and make sure you’ve taken into account all the possibilities that could leave you stranded and monstrously in debt owing to a seemingly simple medical procedure while out of country.

But there are pitfalls — big, gaping pitfalls — that could entrap many an innocent traveler if one isn’t smart about looking into the small print and the exclusions in travel insurance.

For instance, some terminal conditions, including AIDS or certain types of cancer or heart conditions, won’t be covered. But most insurers make allowances with medically underwritten policies — for example, cardiac patients would be covered for any condition not related to their heart.

Other, less serious conditions, such as diabetes, can also affect your coverage. Most insurance companies will cover conditions that are stable and controlled for 90 days prior to the departure date. What it means, simply, is your travel policy will cover you if there has been no change in medication or treatment for those three months. But, it always pays to check with your doctor, regardless of your condition, to ensure he or she hasn’t changed the treatment that could leave you a victim of travel insurance police small print.

OK, so you’re set to purchase a policy for your trip and you’re wondering how much is enough coverage. Average policies will cover you anywhere from $2 million to $5 million in the upper ranges of the policy. Almost all emergency medical claims come in well under $1 million but, in rare cases where serious emergencies involve extensive care, that may not be enough to have you safely transported home for further care. It’s best, then, for the sake of a small sum extra on the policy, to go with the upper limit of coverage.
 One international travel insurer that specializes in custom fit travel insurance is a group called Ingle International, billing itself as a company which “provides customized travel insurance solutions for anyone studying, working, or living anywhere in the world.” It has been specializing in international travel insurance since 1946 and has some common sense advice for travelers.

For instance, the company offers some “serious questions to ask of your insurer” if you think your credit card, for instance, provides all the travel insurance you need. You know the message that’s been in commercials, lately, where one major credit card company sells complete “peace of mind” for travelers. Think again and ask these questions, or read the small print on the travel insurance portion of your credit card agreement:

“Does this policy include 24/7 emergency assistance? Will I be flown home if I can’t do it on my own? Do the support staff have access to translation services, an understanding of international medical care, and experience coordinating medical transportation?

“If your answer is yes to any of the above, your existing insurance may or may not fully cover you. It’s important to review the stability requirements on your policy. And don’t forget that changing your meds, increasing (or decreasing) the dosage, or even a visit to the doctor could make your condition unstable in the eyes of your insurer. Ask questions and talk to your doctor if you aren’t sure.

“Is my pre-existing medical condition excluded from coverage? Does my policy cover stable pre-existing conditions? If so, how is “stable” defined? Will my recent illness or injury affect my coverage?”

Some other questions to consider include; Are there set limits to the number of days I am covered while out of the country? Does my age or previous medical history come into play when determining if I’m going to be left on the hook in a foreign hospital?

There’s an excellent online resource for just about anyone looking to travel abroad and who may have concerns about the suitability of their travel insurance for their trip.

It’s called http://www.travelinsurance.org/ and it’s not out to sell you travel insurance of any kind, but offers a myriad of scenarios and suggestions for everyone from the seasoned traveler, the business traveler or the backpacker.

As well, the U.S. Travel Insurance Association has an informative website that can walk travelers through many scenarios, from a list of “real-life examples”:

  • You have to cut your trip short because of illness
  • You have to cancel your non-refundable trip because a family member had an accident
  • Your flight is delayed overnight because of bad weather, and you need a hotel room
  • Your baggage is lost or substantially delayed
  • You miss your cruise departure because of weather-related flight delays
  • You need medical assistance while abroad
  • You have an auto accident in a foreign country and need legal assistance
  • You have to cancel a trip because your home is flooded or uninhabitable
  • You can’t get home because of a hurricane, floods or other natural disaster at your destination.

A traveler who thought he had it figured out shared this nightmare on tripadvisor.com. The gentleman thought his insurance, purchased through a reputable credit card company and one that bills itself as the gold standard in travel insurance, wound up ‘nickel and diming’ he and his wife upon their return:

“Read the small print BEFORE you buy. I bought travel insurance from (a major credit card and its travel insurance) , mainly to get health coverage ($50,000 coverage in excess of primary insurer) on a trip to Portugal. Into the second week my wife fell and fractured her upper arm and severely sprained an ankle. They were helpful in re-arranging return journey to USA to the extent that they would connect me to the hotels that had to be canceled and the airline. The small print was that they only covered medical expenses for first 60 days after. (My wife was in therapy for 5 months.) In the claim process they have hit me with six different claim forms, plus, since I was flying using Air Miles they say the flight did not cost me and, therefore, the tickets I had to buy to return early were not re-imbursable. They have been nickel and diming, require receipts and justification for everything (even though they helped make the return arrangements.)”

At least the traveler and his wife got medical care and a return flight covered.
 Others aren’t as lucky.
There are dozens of stories, each year, of travelers who are stranded overseas in nightmare travel scenarios because the coverage they thought they had in the country they’ve visited is either insufficient or non-existent.
Worried about airlines and travel companies that can go bust and leave you stranded? It happens more often than travelers would care to believe, especially if you’re traveling with a package tour operator.

Check this website if you’re an international traveller. It has some particularly important advice for anyone traveling to the United States from outside the country. After all, we’ve all heard of the $500 aspirin that shows up on hospital bills for the uninsured or the improperly insured.

Some tips:

• Always have your insurance card on you when you’re traveling. It gives important information to the hospital about who you are and the kind of coverage you have and can make the billing and reimbursement process smoother.

• Before you travel, call your insurance provider to make sure you understand what is covered out of state or internationally and if pre-authorization is needed to cover costs in situations that require hospitalization.

• Be sure to specifically ask if emergency care is covered at urgent care centers, as well as at hospital emergency rooms. In some cases, you’re only covered at urgent care centers if they are in your insurance provider’s network. Tell your health care provider where you are traveling and request a list of in-network urgent care centers and doctors.

• Understand your health care provider’s definition of emergency, and ask for the name of the person you spoke to — in case you have to reference the call at a later date.

• If you require ongoing care for a chronic condition, call your health care provider or your insurer before traveling away from home and ask for a list of in-network doctors at your destination.

• In the end, if you have any doubts, whatsoever, that you may not have the coverage you need when you travel, consider a travel insurance plan that covers medical expenses, as well as travel delays and lost luggage. It’s times like these when a travel agent can steer you right.

The hard truth about travel insurance is this: The deck is stacked in favor of the insurance companies who sell you or your credit card companies the policies that cover travel insurance. One small oversight of the small print, one misplaced check in a box on a lengthy questionnaire for a travel insurance policy and you’re suddenly like many travelers who return home to find they weren’t covered, after all, for the treatment they thought they had.

David Hartman, president of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada, said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, of the 500,000 travel insurance claims made every year in that country, 15,000 are denied for a variety of reasons. There are no industry numbers on how many of those denials are because of the medical questionnaire, but research by the CBC’s consumer investigative program, Marketplace, shows the number could be in the thousands.

Talk to a travel agent, or your private insurer before you travel and want peace of mind on your travel insurance. Especially, say the experts and those who’ve learned the hard way, if you have any hint of a pre-existing medical condition that could wind you in debtor’s hell on return from your dream vacation.


About the author


Chris Malette

Chris Malette is a retired newspaper journalist with 35 years of experience as a reporter and city editor. Over his career, Malette covered municipal and federal politics, military, health and court beats. He has reported from Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and covered relief efforts in Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. He now works for SPN News as an editorial columnist.