Q&A: What if I die while on vacation abroad?

Travel insurance and the State Department will help

Published: June 23, 2014 11:00 AM

Q: My wife and I are senior citizens who will be traveling to Germany this summer, and we’re wondering what happens if I die while on vacation? What can my wife and I do to lessen the cost and stress of dealing with that? –K.B., Point Venture, Tex.

A: Consider purchasing a comprehensive travel insurance policy that includes repatriation of your body to a U.S. funeral home, if you die while abroad. That would also provide emergency medical evacuation to a hospital or back home, if you alternatively get injured or become ill, and medical benefits. (Note that Medicare typically doesn’t cover you outside the U.S.)

Such a policy can cost about 4 to 8 percent of the cost of your airline travel, or about $150 for a couple in their 70s on a two-week European trip costing $2,500 in airfare.

That should ease some of your stress, because if the worst happens, a family member can call the insurer’s 24/7 hotline for assistance. The insurance will typically cover the cost of collecting the body, transferring it to airport and plane, and airfare, and it may pay for embalming, a standard casket for travel, and any necessary permits and U.S. consular proceedings, all subject to specific dollar limits.

To find a good policy, we recommend that you contact the toll-free number for InsureMyTrip.com, an online travel insurance brokerage, at 800-487-4722, so that an agent who understands the nuances of your circumstances can help you choose the best of the numerous policies available.

Whichever policy you choose, make sure you get a pre-existing condition waiver, which prevents the travel insurance company from looking into your medical records when processing a claim and possibly denying coverage.


For more advice and information about getting the best transportation and accommodation deals while vacationing, visit our Travel & vacation guide

A comprehensive travel insurance policy would also cover cremation, which is another option worth considering if it’s acceptable to your faith and you want to reduce the extra worry and complications of flying back home with a coffin and body. The cremation could take place in the country where you died, and it would be much easier, simpler, and less expensive for your wife to bring your ashes back home.

Cremation might also be a good idea because embalming is not widely practiced in most foreign countries, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a consumer group, and the use of chemically saturated shrouds to prepare the body for transport can preclude later viewing of the body. The time it takes to arrange the necessary travel preparations might also delay transport by as much as 10 days. So you may take a lot of care to bring home a loved one that no one will see in a closed-coffin funeral.

If you've prepurchased services from a funeral home that will handle your final arrangements, you might also be able to buy an optional add-on that will provide for retrieval of your body from overseas. But that can cost you an extra $1,000, and we think the travel insurance is a better deal, especially when you consider the other valuable protections that it provides.

Note also that when a U.S. citizen dies while traveling abroad, the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs helps the family by providing information about how to make arrangements for local burial or cremation, or return of the body to the U.S. The bureau has no funds to pay for your costs, but it helps you navigate the U.S. law, local law of the country where the death occurs, and U.S. and foreign customs requirements. For more details, visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs page on the U.S. Department of State website.

—Jeff Blyskal

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