medical tourism healthcare travel insurance concept

The chances of illness or injury increase for those who are planning adventure travel or intending to spend long periods of time in another country. 

You scour travel review sites to learn every little detail about the hotels, beaches and attractions. You scout out potential restaurants and nightspots, stay up-to-date on the weather, and glean as much as possible about your next destination.

And yet, too many travelers are completely unaware that their medical insurance, covering both them and any dependents along for the trip, is often useless the minute they leave the United States.

“It’s kind of hard if you’re in Spoleto, Italy, and you’re trying to give someone your BlueCross/BlueShield card. You just can’t do that,” says Larry Shirley, a travel agent with the Charleston office of Dream Vacations. “If you’re hospitalized in another country, and you don’t have insurance through a third party, you’re going to be really hurting.”

No one likes to entertain the prospect of getting sick while on vacation, but it happens. Senior citizens, people with pre-existing conditions and pregnant women are especially susceptible, and the chances of illness or injury increase for those who are planning adventure travel or intending to spend long periods of time in another country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges all international travelers to think ahead when it comes to potential medical care needs, and often that starts with coverage.

Most people are “not very aware at all” that many U.S.-based policies are essentially ineffective outside the country, says Kelly Brock, senior travel specialist with the Bluffton-Hilton Head office of AAA Vacations. “We often get calls from travelers needing insurance help because a friend, neighbor or family member had an emergency while traveling,” she adds.

The first step is calling your insurance carrier before leaving home, and learning what, if any, coverage might be available abroad. Travelers who are on Medicare should assume no coverage in a foreign country, according to AAA. The gap can be filled by short-term supplemental medical coverage available through travel insurance, which is typically tiered based on maximums such as $25,000 or $50,000 with reimbursements determined by the policy type.

While travel medical coverage is most often bundled with other items like lost luggage and trip interruption insurance, some carriers offer a la carte options. On some family policies, Brock says, children under the age of 17 can be added for free. The U.S. Department of State advises looking for a travel policy that will make payments directly to hospitals.

For international travelers, the U.S. Embassy in the destination country can help Americans locate medical services and notify family members back home in the event of an emergency. Travelers with managed medical conditions may consider registering with the embassy beforehand, wearing a MedicAlert bracelet and filling out emergency contact information on their passport.

Another option is emergency evacuation insurance, which can get people quickly to a hospital or back to the United States in the event of a serious illness or injury, such as a severe concussion suffered while water skiing, or being involved in a traffic accident in Europe. The Department of State urges considering evacuation insurance if traveling to a remote location, or a country where medical care is not up to U.S. standards. Without coverage, evacuations can cost $100,000 or more, according to the CDC.

“You have the peace of mind of knowing that if you get sick while you’re on that trip, that you’ll have medical assistance and ways to get back to the country that you wouldn’t have or would have to pay a fortune for if you didn’t have the insurance,” Shirley says.