What if you get sick while traveling abroad?

How to get and pay for the treatment you need

Consumer Reports Money Adviser: June 2015

You’ve reserved your flights and hotels, got your passport, and maybe even selected your wardrobe. But if you’re traveling abroad, have you planned what you’ll do if you become sick or injured? Where you’ll go for medical treatment, how you’ll pay for it, and how quickly you’ll be able to get back home?

If you can’t answer those questions, you’re not alone, says Julie Loffredi of, a travel-insurance comparison site that recently surveyed 800 travelers. “Most people don’t know if their insurance covers them outside the U.S.,” she says.

The answers can be tricky. Though most big health insurers advertise coverage for emergency and urgent care abroad, “their standard policies offer only the bare minimum,” says Devon Herrick, Ph.D., a senior fellow and health economist at the National Center for Policy Analysis. “A life-threatening emergency visit may be covered,” he says, but you might have to return to the U.S. for follow-up care.

That’s why your trip preparations should include calling your health insurance carrier to find out what coverage you have overseas. Medicare generally doesn’t cover hospital or medical costs on foreign soil. And very few insurers will pay for a medical evacuation from a remote, resource-poor area to a hospital where you can receive adequate treatment or a flight back home. “Explain what kind of trip you’re taking,” says Damian Tysdal, founder of Travel Insurance Review. “Make a list of the gaps you’re concerned about.”

Depending on what you learn from your carrier, add the following to your to-do list:

Consider travel health insurance

Generally, there are two types: a travel health plan or a vacation package. Travel health plans are typically stand-alone policies that cover only medical emergencies and cost a few dollars a day. A vacation package, also known as a comprehensive plan, provides coverage that includes medical emergencies, trip cancellation, trip interruption, baggage loss or damage and flight cancellations. “The average comprehensive plan runs about 4 to 8 percent of all your pre-paid, non-refundable expenses, such as hotel, airfare, excursions and tours,” says Loffredi. Medical evacuation coverage can be purchased in conjunction with it, or separately to supplement your own health insurance.

You can compare policies and premiums on sites such as and, which provide links to full policy documents from dozens of carriers and numbers to call licensed agents who can answer questions.Examine policies closely and ask the agent to point out the words are that prove coverage. Be sure to inquire about exclusions for pre-existing conditions and injuries that are due to high-risk activities such as mountain climbing; preauthorization requirements for hospital admission or other services; and requirements for a second opinion.

Research the places you’ll be visiting

Some countries that have subsidized national health care will provide free care to visitors; check with your host country’s embassy or consulate to find out. There are some countries where you’ll need proof of health insurance as an entry requirement, and others where medical facilities won’t accept health insurance at all. In that case, you will have to pay by cash or credit card and file for reimbursement later, so be sure to keep all paperwork.

Look into joining IAMAT

The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers, or IAMAT, is a nonprofit that advises travelers about health risks, provides information about vaccinations, and has a network of English-speaking doctors throughout the world who treat patients at a fixed rate. “If you’re not covered by travel insurance, or if travel insurance does not cover a pre-­existing condition, that’s where we might come in,” explains Tullia Marcolongo, the association’s director of programs and development. It provides a directory of hospitals and fees.

The cost of membership is a voluntary donation; the average is $30. Does that mean you don’t need insurance? Maybe. “Our doctors can take care of you,” Marcolongo says. “They have been trained in North America or Europe and have been vetted through our own inspections, references from other doctors, and our members.” She added that although the fees can be reimbursed by your travel-insurance company, “some have their own networks, and your claim may be denied if you don’t use one of their providers.”

Take a folder with documents

Have your health-insurance ID and claim forms with you while traveling, as well as a letter from your doctor describing any condition you have and medications you take. Keep meds in their clearly labeled original containers; some countries have restrictions on medications lacking proper documentation.

Find the U.S. embassies and consulates

Personnel there are available 24/7 to give emergency assistance to U.S. citizens, including transferring funds from the U.S. for out-of-pocket medical costs, help in getting appropriate medical services, and informing your family or friends.

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