A COVID vaccination isn’t the only health-related precaution you should take when you’re planning an international trip. Before you get on the plane, take the following steps to minimize the odds that a medical emergency will ruin your trip, your finances or your life…
Investigate whether your insurance will travel with you. Medicare and many health insurance plans offer little or no coverage outside the US—read your policy or call the provider for details.
Medicare exceptions: Medicare often does cover treatment in US territories such as the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa. Treatment received on a cruise ship may be covered if the ship is in a US port or within six hours of one. Emergency hospital care in a Canadian hospital might be covered if the patient is in Canada only to travel between Alaska and another US state.
A few insurance plans and Medicare Advantage plans cover overseas emergency medical care as “out of network” coverage and have steep co-pays and deductibles. And you almost always have to pay the medical costs up front and then seek reimbursement upon your return—this could be thousands of dollars.
Medigap plans C, D, F, G, M and N provide more substantial foreign travel emergency health-care coverage. Typically, these pay 80% of billed charges for medical necessities.
If your health insurance is insufficient abroad, buy travel insurance that includes emergency medical coverage. Companies include AIG, Allianz, American Express and IMG. Prices vary greatly depending on the amount of coverage you want, your destination and your age, among other factors. Read these policies carefully before signing up so that you understand what is and isn’t covered. Example: Treatment related to preexisting health conditions could be excluded under certain circumstances.
Determine where you would obtain medical help at your destination.
The quality of health-care providers varies greatly in foreign countries. Contact the US Embassy or consulate of the country you are planning to visit, the concierge of the hotel where you will be staying and/ or your insurer for local hospital, pharmacy and doctor recommendations. Also ask your insurer if it covers you internationally at a local hospital.
If you purchased international travel insurance before your trip, reach out to its traveler-contact center. It may be able to provide you with a list of hospitals and medical providers you might need to use at your destination. This also would be a good time to discuss how the insurance would work if you needed medical care while traveling. Notifications and permissions may be required, and you may have to go only to facilities authorized by the insurance company. Each insurance company has different requirements.
Also: Mention that you will need English- speaking health-care providers. Most travelers don’t consider such things until they have an emergency—but at that point, every second could count.
Suggestion: If your employer often sends employees to the area on business trips, an employee who coordinates this type of travel might be able to provide recommendations as well.
Find out what would be required from you if you needed to be hospitalized. Call the billing department of the foreign hospital recommended to you, and ask what its billing procedure is when an American tourist requires care. International patients sometimes must make hefty deposits before service is provided.
Think through how you would pay this deposit. You could arrange a cash advance through one of your credit cards—but this might incur hefty interest charges. Or you could arrange for a trusted loved one to wire the payment if necessary.
Warning: Instruct this loved one to wire money only if he/she hears your voice or your spouse’s voice on the phone and a prearranged code word is provided. Otherwise, a scammer could trick your loved one into sending money.
Try out telemedicine apps. Ask your health-care providers whether they offer app-based remote appointments—this became more common during the pandemic. If so, you can consult with your US doctors from anywhere in the world as long as you have Wi-Fi access. Download your provider’s preferred telemedicine app to your smartphone or another digital device that you will be taking on your journey, and try out the app before the trip to make sure it works properly.
Anticipate that you may have to use your mobile phone frequently while abroad if a medical or other emergency were to occur. Make sure your phone, as well as all the apps you may use, are updated. Know what your mobile phone plan charges for international calls and data. Example: Some Verizon plans allow free calls and data (with a capped amount) while in Mexico and Canada. If you had to use your mobile phone in other countries, the calls may have very expensive per-minute rates.
Also: Consider making calls for free on an app such as WhatsApp—you will need to be able to connect to Wi-Fi, and the person you are calling must have the app on his/her phone as well.
Investigate how you could replace or refill prescriptions. What would you do if the luggage containing your medications was lost…or your return to the US was delayed and you ran short of needed medication? Generally, a US pharmacy cannot legally ship prescription medicine to a foreign country… and foreign pharmacies cannot legally fill US prescriptions. The only solution may be to get a new prescription from a local doctor that a local pharmacy can legally fill. But first call a recommended pharmacy—some medicines that require a prescription in the US are available over-the-counter abroad…and pharmacies sometimes have the flexibility to fill foreign prescriptions in emergencies.
Travel with copies of your prescriptions and/or photos of the bottle labels in your phone. Also upload these documents into a cloud account such as Google Drive in case your carry-on bag or phone is lost or stolen. You can show these to the local doctor and/or pharmacy to reduce the odds of mistakes. And: Pack medicine in carry-on bags, not checked luggage—carry-on bags are much less likely to go missing.
Take the steps above when your teen or young adult children are traveling, too. Your kids might be old enough to travel the world—but they are unlikely to wade through the precautions above before their trips. Young people often feel invulnerable, but even the fittest 20-something can break a leg riding a rented scooter/moped on vacation.
Ask your employer who is financially responsible if you have a medical emergency during a combined business/ leisure trip. This is especially important now with so many people working from home. Many are traveling with their families— some internationally—and while one spouse works in the hotel room, the rest of the family is playing.
If your company is flying you to an interesting part of the world, you might want to use vacation days to extend the visit and maybe even bring your spouse.
Potential problem: Employers often won’t take financial responsibility for medical expenses incurred by employees during the leisure portion of these “bleisure” trips, and they’re unlikely to cover spouses’ medical expenses at all, so ask your employer about its policies.
Helpful: If your employer provides travel insurance for foreign business trips, the company that provides this coverage might be willing to offer the discounted corporate rate for the leisure portion of your trip.