Several years ago, I went to visit some friends in the U.S. in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. On arrival, I realized that I had forgotten to buy travel insurance. Feeling young, fit, and reckless, I decided that it would not matter as the trip was only to be two weeks long. What could possibly go wrong in such a short space of time? As if to tempt fate, I decided to join my friends snowboarding for a day. I was slightly more nervous given the knowledge that I had no insurance, but my friends persuaded me little could go wrong since I was a beginner and wouldn’t be moving fast enough to have an accident. Unfortunately, due to some bad amateur coaching, I ended up being taken off of the slopes on a stretcher and in a daze, with no memory of the day, date or year for that matter. When the safety workers were about to put a neck brace on me and take me to hospital, I admitted that I had no insurance and preferred it if they left me to get better by myself. I did, luckily. But I have never traveled without insurance since then.
Who Needs Travel Insurance?
The majority of world travelers tend to be quite young and with youth there comes a certain sense of immortality. The idea of paying what seems like a large sum of money for something you cannot see—and most often will never use—can seem ridiculous to a young traveler. It is tempting to ignore this travel essential with the attitude that “youth is on your side.” This idea is a dangerous myth, however, as an accident or illness in a foreign country can affect anyone, regardless of age. If you don’t have any form of travel insurance, your life could be in danger, either literally or in terms of the financial damage the medical costs could inflict upon you.
A friend of mine was traveling with her boyfriend in Thailand when he accidentally fell down a steep, rocky cliff one night. After several operations, a helicopter transfer to the mainland and hospital fees over many weeks, the bill reached over US$2,000,000. Luckily, they had bought travel insurance at the last minute and were, therefore, covered for all eventualities. Imagine if they had not? I cannot, therefore, overstress the importance of buying travel insurance for any overseas trip, no matter how long or short. Everybody needs some form of travel insurance.
Your insurance policy should offer at least US$2,000,000 in medical expenses in case the very worst happens, preferably more if possible. It should also offer 24-hour emergency service and repatriation in case you need to be flown home. This is the absolute minimum that any travel insurance policy should provide you with in order to travel safely and without worry.
How Much Insurance Should You Take Out?
Once you have decided to buy travel insurance, your next decision is whether to try and save money by not including your cash and belongings covered under the insurance plan. I used to always delete this coverage in order to bring my premium down slightly, but with new camera equipment etc., I now tend to pay the extra few dollars and have these things covered too. If you tend to travel very lightly—and can honestly say that you could live without everything you are carrying—then by all means don’t pay for the extra coverage. But, if you tend to travel with all your worldly belongings on your back, or carry the latest ipods, cameras, laptops etc., consider this very carefully. Most individual items are only covered up to a certain amount in standard plans, so for very expensive equipment, you may wish to take out separate coverage entirely.
What Should The Insurance Plan Cover?
Some final factors to consider before buying travel insurance include checking to see that the policy covers you for what you will be doing. Aside from winter sports, there are other sports that require a higher premium. And an important point for many will be whether you will be covered for manual labor. Many of us take part in various forms of manual labor when working or volunteering abroad and some companies don’t cover this. If you are in any doubt, contact the insurance company and ask them before you buy your policy.
You are obliged to declare any pre-existing ailments or medical conditions to the insurer. If they find any records of this after you have made a claim, your claim will become invalid. Specialist policies do exist for people who have suffered serious medical conditions previously.
Don’t Forget to Read the SMALL PRINT!
Once you have bought your insurance, ALWAYS READ THE SMALL PRINT, no matter how tedious this job might be. If you know what to do in terms of your insurance company in case of an emergency, it could make a difference between making a valid claim or not. For example, many insurance companies won’t pay out if you don’t contact them before any medical treatment is given, or operations performed. Equally, if you don’t receive a valid police report within 24 hours of having something stolen from you, you will receive nothing. Having the insurance policy isn’t enough. You need to know how to use it.
Important Things to Remember That Could Make All the Difference
Now, you have your insurance policy that covers you for everything that you need, and you have arrived at your destination. As much as you should have fun on your trip, don’t assume that just because you do have travel insurance, it makes you invulnerable or able to take excessive risks. Any accidents caused by alcohol or drug abuse, no matter how small, will completely invalidate your claim so BE VERY CAREFUL. Alcohol and drug abuse in an unknown country is usually a very bad idea anyway as you are less aware of local risks, more vulnerable to attack, and penalties can be much higher than at home.
One final thing to remember is that once you have stepped onto that flight your chances of buying travel insurance for that particular trip are greatly diminished. Most insurers will only cover you if you buy the insurance before you leave. Some will provide insurance once you have already left but these are quite difficult to find.
And finally, don’t forget to take your insurance details with you wherever you go, otherwise they are useless! And where possible, make photocopies and leave them with a friend or family back home in case your gets stolen. It is also a good idea to take make photocopies of all your important documents such as passports and credit cards.
This article has still only offered the basic information regarding travel insurance and hasn’t even begin to discuss what happens with regard to terrorism, mugging, hijacking, and legal matters. But these are events that happen so rarely that it’s really up to the traveler to decide how important all of that coverage is. Bur now you know the basics, shop around for the best deal, pay out what you need to, and hope that you will never have to use it.
Caroline Nye has traveled and worked extensively all over the world, working in organic farming, wildlife guiding, teaching and musical performance, as well as volunteering in various international development projects. She has had articles and short stories published in Amateur Photographer (UK), Matador Travel, and The Healing Project book series, and recently won a Bunac Green Cheese scholarship for humorous writing. Caroline is currently managing a dance team in Spain.