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Travel medical insurance pays for hospital visits if you get sick or injured while traveling outside the United States. It's a good idea to buy a travel health plan if you are going overseas since most regular health insurance plans do not cover services outside the U.S.
There is no one-size-fits-all travel medical plan. You'll have to consider what you want covered and how much you're willing to pay.
How does travel health insurance work?
Travel health insurance pays for emergency medical services while you're outside the country. These plans are designed for short trips, such as vacations, work functions or family visits. They're intended to supplement, but not replace, your normal health insurance.
If you get sick or injured in a foreign country, a travel health insurance policy may pay for some or all of your medical costs. Depending on your policy, you may be required to pay for some medical services out of pocket, after which you can file a reimbursement claim with your insurance company.
Compared to regular health insurance policies, travel medical insurance covers fewer services and has more restrictions. Read your policy carefully before setting out on your trip to avoid paying a lot if something happens.
Some travel credit cards offer a limited amount of emergency health insurance when traveling outside the U.S. A travel credit card can't replace the coverage offered by a travel medical insurance policy.
However, it may be suitable for a short trip to a relatively safe country, such as a weekend in Canada, or if you cannot afford a regular travel health insurance policy.
Stand-alone vs. comprehensive medical travel insurance
You can choose between a stand-alone health travel plan that only covers your emergency medical needs and a comprehensive policy that has both medical coverage and standard travel protections, such as coverage for lost luggage and trip cancellations.
Stand-alone medical insurance plans are cheaper than comprehensive travel plans. However, you may want the greater coverage offered by a comprehensive travel policy if you plan on traveling to multiple countries or if you plan on traveling with expensive items, such as jewelry or laptops.
Single-trip medical travel insurance vs. multitrip policies
A single-trip health insurance policy covers a single trip abroad. It doesn't matter how long you travel, as long as it falls within the policy limits. So, your single-trip medical plan would work for either a long weekend in Mexico or a one-month backpacking trip across India.
Single-trip medical travel insurance begins when you leave the U.S., and it ends when you return.
It doesn't matter how many countries you visit with a single-trip policy, so long as you don't return to the U.S. between trips. A single-trip health plan would cover a vacation to England, Spain and France if you visited each country one after the other.
If you're a frequent traveler, you should consider a multitrip policy. With a multitrip plan, you can visit as many countries as you like within a certain time frame. For example, such a policy might extend for six months, which would cover you for a weeklong vacation to Mexico in June and a monthlong trip to Germany in September.
International medical insurance coverage
Travel health insurance plans typically have lower coverage levels compared to regular major medical insurance policies.
Travel medical insurance is tailored for emergency procedures and other health services that can't wait until you get back to America.
Services commonly covered by travel medical insurance plans
- Emergency dental services
- Emergency surgeries
- Medical evacuation
- Ambulance rides
- Hospital bills
- Lab tests
For example, most travel medical insurance plans will pay for surgery to fix a broken ankle or hospitalization costs if you have a serious disease. Travel health insurance also often covers emergency dental procedures, such as a chipped or broken tooth.
A travel health insurance policy would not pay for things that aren't time-sensitive, such as an annual checkup or an elective procedure, like botox injections or a bariatric weight loss surgery.
Many travel medical insurance plans won't pay for coverage until you pay a certain amount, called a deductible. For example, if you have a $1,000 medical bill and your plan has an $800 deductible, then you would pay $800 and your insurance company would pay the remaining $200.
Some travel health policies require that you pay a certain percentage of your medical bill after you meet your deductible. This coinsurance is often set at 20% and may disappear after you pay a certain amount. For example, if your bills total $10,000 and you have a $2,000 deductible and 20% coinsurance up to $5,000, then you would pay $3,000 and your insurance company would pay the remaining $7,000.
Some travel medical policies come with a limit or maximum coverage amount.
For example, a plan may only pay out $150,000 for medical services. After you reach that figure, you're responsible for any additional costs.
If you plan on living overseas for a prolonged period of time, you should consider long-term travel insurance, also known as expat health insurance. These plans have similar coverage levels as regular health policies. They are suitable for people who plan on living overseas for a prolonged period of time, usually a year or more.
Digital nomads, retirees and world travelers commonly buy such policies. They're especially important for people who intend to retire overseas since Medicare doesn't extend coverage outside of the U.S. (Medigap plans F, G and N pay up to 80% of your foreign emergency costs, making these plans suitable for short trips abroad.)
Common travel medical insurance coverage exclusions
Travel medical insurance will not pay for most routine or preventive services. Your regular health insurance plan should cover things like your annual checkup, cancer screenings and immunizations.
You can be denied for a travel medical policy based on preexisting conditions, but there's a way you can often avoid that issue.
If you have a preexisting condition, it's a good idea to buy your plan shortly after booking your trip since many policies cover preexisting conditions if bought within two weeks of the trip purchase.
In addition, travel health insurance plans typically won't pay for nonessential procedures. That means if you plan on engaging in medical tourism to take advantage of lower medical costs abroad, you should plan on paying for the entire procedure out of pocket.
Travel medical insurance plans generally don't cover pandemics.
For example, that means your travel plan wouldn't have paid for hospitalization costs if you had gotten COVID-19 in 2020. Many companies also don't extend coverage to countries that have a do-not-travel advisory from the U.S. Department of State. Check the fine print in your policy and the State Department website before you book your next trip.
Primary vs. secondary travel insurance
Some travel health insurance plans require that you submit your claim to your regular insurance before they'll consider it, a process known as coordination of benefits.
If you're covered by more than one health insurance plan, then the plan that pays first is called your primary insurance and the plan that pays next is secondary. Some travel health insurance plans require that you have primary health insurance, which for most people would be their regular coverage.
You may have to submit all of your medical bills to your primary insurance company for reimbursement before your secondary travel insurance kicks in.
This can lead to frustrating delays since you'll need to wait until your primary insurance has denied your claim before you can request coverage from your travel medical policy since it would act as your secondary insurance.
Your travel health insurance policy will tell you whether it acts as your primary or secondary insurance.
How much does international travel medical insurance cost?
International travel medical insurance plans tend to be quite affordable with many stand-alone plans coming in at under $50 for a young adult in good health. Comprehensive plans are typically more expensive, and it's less common to find a plan for under $100.
Factors influencing travel medical rates
- Your state
- Coverage limits
Younger people typically have lower rates than older people, and you may pay more to visit a dangerous or less-developed country compared to a safer and more-developed country.
Your coverage limits are the factors that you have the most control over. Factors like your deductible, maximum payout limits and covered services will influence your final price tag. For example, you can choose a policy with a higher deductible or fewer services for a cheaper quote.
Frequently asked questions
How does international health insurance work?
International travel health insurance pays for emergency medical services while you're traveling outside the U.S. You can submit claims for reimbursement if you access a covered service during your trip.
Can I buy just medical travel insurance?
Yes, you can buy a stand-alone travel health insurance policy. These plans tend to be cheaper than comprehensive travel insurance plans, which cover trip cancellations, lost or stolen baggage and trip delays in addition to emergency medical services.
Do you really need travel health insurance?
You should strongly consider buying travel health insurance if you plan on traveling abroad because of the high cost of many medical procedures. In addition, some countries will not let you visit without a travel medical policy.
Sources and methodology
Travel medical insurance rate information was taken from a sampling of top travel insurance companies. Medicare.gov supplied Medicare Supplement (Medigap) plan information.