If there’s one thing you’re sure to find on nearly every message board about travel, it’s a load of questions about travel insurance. A while back National Geographic Traveler had a good piece caled “Are You Covered?” The subtitle said it all: “In an uncertain world, travel insurance isn’t always a sure bet.” This is especially true if you’re going on an extended trip, not just a short vacation.
The thing is, there is more than one kind of travel insurance. Some covers trip cancellations, some covers medical issues, some covers evacuation in case of an emergency. I’m no expert since I have only once found the first type to be worth the premium for the piece of mind, have never bought the second, and can only recommend the third for most travelers.
Here’s why on the medical side of it. Unless you have a serious medical condition that you know could flare up at any time, you’re usually better off just winging it—especially if you’re American. Medical costs in most countries are a miniscule fraction of those in the U.S. Granted, the treatment may not be as high-tech, but surprisingly often it is, especially in big cities. If you’re in a rural area with poor facilities, that’s when the evacuation insurance can come in handy. It will get you to a good hospital by plane or helicopter. When you get the final medical bill, however, you’ll usually be shocked at how low it is.
A few weeks back I was in a scary accident in a little village in Mexico. As I puttered down the street, a little girl ran into my rental car. Yes, you read that right. I didn’t hit her—she hit me. Face first, into the passenger side of my car. (She was running across the street without looking first to see if there were any cars.) It wasn’t my fault and there were many witnesses that saw it happen, but since in the villagers’ eyes I had the three W’s going for me (white, wealthy, and wheels), it naturally fell upon me to transport her and her family to a hospital and pay for everything.
Honestly I was glad to do it because I knew that for the family this would be a huge expense—they weren’t likely to have any insurance—but for me it wouldn’t be more than the month’s electric bill at home. Sure enough, after initial pain killers, five stitches, two doctor consultations, and three types of prescription medicine, the bill came to a shade under $42. The family told me if she had needed to spend the night at the hospital it would have been another 200 pesos—about $18.
As the NGT story noted, travel insurance policies typically have enough fine print to baffle a lawyer and it’s not easy trying to figure out what’s covered, and where. “Travel insurance policies are loaded with finely honed definitions, legales, and exclusions.” If you pay as you go, there’s nothing to argue about and no numbers to call. Most of the city hospitals and clinics even accept credit cards. If you’re really worried, use one of those belts with a hidden zipper and keep a few current Ben Franklins in it just in case of emergency.