What to Do When You Get Hurt or Sick on a Trip

If things go wrong on a trip, you need to know about insurance, air travel, and medical care. Here’s how to navigate the situation, who to call, and what to ask.

Comprehensive travel insurance plus a medical evacuation program are a key combination for travel safety.

Comprehensive travel insurance plus a medical evacuation program are a key combination for travel safety.

Photo by Dmitriy Kuznietsov/Shutterstock

Sometimes things go wrong on a trip. Sometimes you break a leg, get sick, or have a severe medical emergency—and in some cases, you’ll have to go to a local medical facility or a hospital. Like most things in life, it’s best to be prepared in advance, because even with travel insurance, the process can be stressful and tricky. Here’s what you need to know, who to call, and what to do when you get hurt or sick on a trip.

What kind of insurance do you have?

What your travel insurance can do for you depends on what kind you purchased (and you should purchase travel insurance). If you bought a “comprehensive policy,” it’ll cover emergency medical bills, trip interruption, and trip cancellation, to some extent. However, if you opted for emergency medical coverage only, the policy will address medical bills, but it won’t reimburse you for lost hotel nights, changed flights, or the cost of canceling the trip.

“By far, the most claims we get, and the most paid claims, are from illness and injury during a trip,” says Jenna Hummer of Squaremouth, an online travel insurance marketplace with research and comparison tools. “[Travelers] want to file a trip interruption claim because they don’t want to pay for their resort or the rest of the trip. That’s where it can be very helpful to have the whole package. You want to be covered medically of course, because you don’t want a $50,000 medical bill, but you want to be covered for your trip costs too—and that’s where a comprehensive package comes in.”

What coverage does your insurance provide?

All medical coverage options do the same thing, albeit to very different extents depending on the policy and the coverage amount you purchase. “Point blank, get at least $50,000 in medical coverage and $100,000 in medical evacuation,” says Hummer. “The premiums can be low depending on your age.” If you’re taking a cruise or traveling to a remote location, Squaremouth recommends going even higher: at least $100,000 in emergency medical and $250,000 in medical evacuation.

Those numbers may sound intimidating, but remember that the coverage amount is not the policy cost. Squaremouth estimates that you can expect to pay between 5 and 10 percent of your insured trip costs on a travel insurance policy. Different companies use different algorithms to determine that price, but it is generally based on age, trip length, policy type, total trip costs, and total coverage amounts. Hummer wants travelers to know that a more expensive policy does not mean a better policy. “Many travelers will rule out a policy just because it’s the cheapest, but in many cases, the cheapest policy may have the same amount of coverage as a more expensive plan,” she says. “When shopping for a policy, first decide how much coverage you need for your trip and then compare plans to select the least expensive policy with the best coverage for your needs.”

Whatever insurance you get, take the time to review coverage, requirements, exclusions, and emergency procedures before you travel (and call for clarification if you need to). Then carry a copy of the policy with you, either printed out or downloaded onto your phone so that you can access it without internet, and keep the policy number and 24/7 hotline number on a piece of paper in your wallet. Give a copy of the information to a travel companion and, if you’re on a guided trip or tour, to the company as well; if you’re the one injured, you may need someone else to be the communication point person with medical care and insurance.

What can your insurance do for you in the moment if you get hurt or sick on a trip?

As soon as you’re able, call your travel insurance or have a companion do it. Hummer says, “All the policies we sell, and most good policies, come with a 24/7 emergency contact line that can help you in a number of ways—mostly medical emergencies, but some can also help if you lose your wallet or passport. Have your policy number ready, tell them what happened, and ask, ‘What does my policy cover?’”

The representatives will tell you what’s covered and the paperwork you’ll need to submit a claim. That usually includes statements from doctors about what happened to you, the care they provided, and the cost of the treatment; an accident or police report if the police were involved; and all receipts. That’s why it pays to call ASAP; it’s easier to get that information while you’re still in the clinic or hospital than after you arrive back home.

Some travel insurance companies have a network of recommended medical providers and/or a telemedicine feature.

What else can insurance help with, besides bills?

Money isn’t the only reason to call your travel insurance as soon as there’s an incident. Some companies have a network of recommended medical providers and/or a telemedicine feature. In an email, Daniel Durazo, director of external communications at Allianz Partners USA, explained that for Global Allianz customers, “Travel insurance medical assistance may include the Assistance team working directly with medical providers, assisting with transportation arrangements, and/or assisting in locating medical services at the customer’s destination. Concierge services may also be useful in finding lodging and transportation for customers while they, or a traveling companion, are being treated.”

Note that not all insurance companies have a network of recommended medical providers (and feel free to ask about that when you’re shopping for a policy), but almost all will have a 24/7 hotline that can help you in the event of an emergency. Don’t buy one that doesn’t.

When you call an insurance company, find out what’s covered. This information will already be in your policy, but representatives can help parse the small print and clear up any confusion. As Hummer explains, most policies have a set amount they’ll cover and established parameters for what’s included: “So, typically, if you go to a hospital because you had an emergency reason, you should have an allotted amount that you should know beforehand.”

However, preexisting conditions aren’t usually covered (unless you add that to your policy). And, she adds, “There are things called ‘common exclusions,’ like if you’re drunk when you fall. If the doctor said it looks like you were drinking, and they put it on the report, then that injury would not be covered. But if it’s a covered reason, it’s a covered reason.”

What is medical evacuation coverage and how does it work?

Medical evacuation is an important piece of the insurance puzzle that travelers need to pay attention to when putting together their insurance and emergency plans. The key thing to understand is that, in travel insurance speak, “medical evacuation” does not necessarily mean being evacuated to your home country—or even to a hospital of your choice in the destination where you were injured.

”Medical travel insurance is primarily responsible for getting you to a facility that can treat you,” says Sheri Howell, vice president of communications for Medjet, a global air medical transport and travel security membership program. “If that facility is in a foreign country, they’re only going to move you farther if you can prove that it’s medically necessary. So unless you can prove that your hospital at home is the only hospital capable of treating you, then they’re not going to pay to move you.”

That’s why MedjetAssist is a smart layer of protection to add to your travel safety kit. It’s a membership program, not insurance, that gets you home. In other words, if you are admitted to a hospital overseas (or anywhere more than 150 miles from home), MedjetAssist has a network of air ambulances and medical staff to transport you to the home hospital of your choice. It will take care of all the logistics, paperwork, and communication between hospitals and cover transport, including for a companion.

The difference between Medjet and travel insurance is important to note. One does not replace the other, and they’re a good combo to have for any trip. Travel insurance covers medical treatments, trip interruption, and trip cancellation; it has a premium and claims and deductibles. Medjet is a membership program for getting you home: Once you pay the membership fee (starting at $315 for an annual individual membership; short-term options and family plans are also available), there are no additional bills. As Howell explains, “The ‘nearest acceptable facility and medical necessity’ language that is in most travel insurance policies in regards to their med-evac benefits is the reason you read about people stuck in foreign hospitals even though they’ve got perfectly great travel insurance. Their families are trying to raise a hundred to two hundred thousand dollars to hire an ambulance to get them home.”

According to Hummer, “Medical evacuation bills are typically between $100,000 to $1 million, and that’s the amount that is typically covered if you get med-evac coverage [in an insurance policy].” Squaremouth recommends that travelers taking international trips purchase a travel insurance policy with at least $100,000 in medical evacuation coverage; those taking a cruise or going to a remote destination should get at least $250,000 in coverage.

For travelers worried about security-related emergencies, Medjet offers an additional layer of coverage called MedjetHorizon, which adds 24/7 crisis response benefits, including evacuation in case of nonmedical emergencies such as political threats, riots, natural disasters, or a pandemic.

Medical evacuation is an important piece of the insurance puzzle that travelers need to pay attention to when putting together their insurance and emergency plans.

What does your credit card really cover?

Don’t assume that your credit card has you covered for everything that may come up; look closely at the policy and ask questions before you travel. “If you have an emergency medical issue, travel insurance can cover up to a million dollars depending on what you want,” Hummer says. “If you have a credit card that offers medical coverage—and that’s more rare, as they mostly do interruption—they have a limited amount of coverage, and $5,000 is currently the highest that I’ve seen in my research. And that’s very rare.”

Keep in mind that even for trip interruption coverage, credit cards likely only cover things bought on that card. Travel insurance, on the other hand, can cover up to 100 percent of your nonrefundable purchases no matter how many cards you used.

“Cancellation because a family member is sick or [because of] natural disasters—those are not covered by a credit card,” Hummer says. This is where comprehensive travel insurance, or an emergency-assistance membership like Medjet, can fill in the gaps.

What can your airline do?

If your illness or injury means you have to go home early, you’ll need to change your flight.

“In some cases, you may need to change the flight, but in others you may just be looking for extra space or another accommodation,” says Brett Snyder, president of Cranky Concierge Travel Assistance, which specializes in urgent air travel assistance (think canceled, rerouted, or delayed flights).

“In general there isn’t a lot of flexibility on letting you change for free just because you had an injury or a circumstance,” he explains. “You can always try, and some airlines may have more flexibility than others, but for the most part, they’ll say sure, but here’s the change fee and fare difference.” If you’re injured and need extra space because of, say, a broken leg, you can ask if the airline has two free seats next to each other, but, Snyder says, don’t expect them just to give you that extra seat; you’ll likely have to pay for it.

The good news is that if you have trip interruption coverage through your travel insurance, the cost of changing or rebooking your flights may be covered. Independent of insurance, the airline might offer you preboarding, and you can always request a wheelchair, so it’s worth calling the airline to see what’s available to you and what it can arrange.

Howell concurs: “If you have insurance (which you should), then trip interruption coverage is what would pay to cover your trip home, and they may send a nurse escort. That’s not the same as what Medjet does. If you require an air ambulance, we provide what’s basically a flying ICU. If we can repatriate someone on a commercial flight, we send a critical care nurse and book out a business class flatbed. We also pay for a spouse or travel companion in coach.”

What can your travel adviser do?

The person helping to plan your travel is another good resource in emergencies. And it should become part of your trip-prep routine to ask those planners how they handle medical issues. “I think it’s going to be an increasing concern moving forward. I don’t think many people are asking about that now, but I think it’s going to become more and more of an issue,” says Cari Gray, who crafts private, active trips as CEO and owner of Gray & Co. (Gray is also a member of the Afar Travel Advisory Council.) The best travel advisers and agents have a lot of connections in the places where they operate and should have information on emergency services and providers. “It falls to the company to decide how seriously they take their responsibility and to know the clinics and English-speaking doctors in their destinations. On our trips, we vet all that before anyone gets there—especially because we’re doing biking and hiking trips,” says Gray.

On a recent trip of my own to Argentina, a friend was injured and needed to go to a remote clinic where she didn’t speak the language. I immediately texted travel adviser Maita Barrenechea, founder of the Argentina-based luxury travel-planning company Mai10, who was familiar with the facilities in the region. She recommended one clinic over another, gave us the name of a doctor to ask for, and proceeded to get a second opinion from a specialist she knew in Buenos Aires.

To assist you more easily, your travel adviser may ask for your insurance information and medical history before your trip, as Gray’s company does. Her advice: Share it. “Having your medical history is a big one, including what medications, supplements, and vitamins you’re on,” Gray says. “If you’re not able to speak for yourself or not with someone from your family, you want to make sure the people you’re traveling with have that information.”

And finally, look for the helpers, as Mister Rogers would say. When my friend wrecked her ankle so badly that she needed surgery—and had to spend a few days recovering and organizing before she was able to fly home—our Airbnb host transformed into an invaluable helper who went above and beyond. She served as a translator, drove my friends back and forth to the clinic, and kept in touch after we were all home to make sure everything went smoothly with my friend’s recovery.

Billie Cohen is executive editor of Afar. She covers all areas of travel, and has soft spots for nerd travel, maps, intel, history, architecture, art, design, people, dessert, street art, and Oreo flavors around the world. Follow her @billietravels.
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