Several years ago, a friend’s college-age daughter became seriously ill while traveling on her own in China. The local health facilities were not equipped to meet her medical needs, so she had to be transported by helicopter to a hospital in a city 100 miles away. The cost for the medical transport was $5,000, and her hospital stay was another $2,000. As is typical, her health insurance plan from home covered none of those costs while abroad. Fortunately, she recovered. But the unexpected bills were a real burden on the family. 

Her experience taught me a lesson. No matter how healthy you or a travel companion may be, regardless of your age, being prepared for an unexpected medical event if you are traveling—especially abroad—should be at the top of your pre-trip planning. The best protection is travel medical insurance that covers the services you may need at an affordable cost. (Your current health insurance plan will cover most medical emergencies occurring in the US.) My advice… 

• Don’t count on Medicare or other health insurance. While you are traveling abroad, Medicare provides no coverage. Some Medigap policies and some Medicare Advantage plans have limited benefits if a medical emergency occurs while you’re out of the country. Check with your plan well in advance of departure. Employer-provided insurance usually does not provide overseas coverage but check with the carrier or your employer to be sure.

• Know where to shop. Depending on the type of policy you purchase, travel medical insurance will pay for most of your medical costs if you become ill or get injured while traveling outside the US. Policies can be purchased through airlines, travel agents or directly from the insurance companies themselves (an online search of “travel insurance companies” will give you many options). Prices vary by the scope of the coverage. So a policy that pays for air transport to the nearest hospital will be costlier than policies that cover only medical costs themselves. Not surprisingly, prices are higher the older you are. Plus, benefits may be limited or denied if you have a preexisting condition, such as diabetes, asthma or heart disease. Even though travel plans are not covered by the Affordable Care Act, which protects people with preexisting conditions, you can often get a waiver policy for a preexisting condition by paying extra.

• Be sure to shop around. Policy costs vary widely among insurers, even for the exact same coverage. For example, I priced policies that paid up to $1 million in medical coverage…$500,000 for medical evacuation costs…and trip-interruption costs of up to $5,000 for a one-week trip to Italy for a 70-year-old. Price quotes from travel insurers ranged from $80 to $220 per person. So you need to shop around. 

• Consider a “bundled” policy. You may be better served by so-called “comprehensive travel insurance policies.” These plans bundle health insurance policies with other travel insurance such as lost baggage coverage…trip-cancellation insurance (which allows you to recoup your prepaid travel expenses if you cancel for any reason, such as a health problem)…or coverage for tour or hotel operator bankruptcy. These policies generally run 10% to 15% of your total booking costs.