For the 50+ Traveler

When you travel to another country, you’ve got a lot on your mind; you’ll likely spend hours choosing accommodations, planning your itinerary, and -- perhaps most crucially -- making sure your hotel offers a free breakfast. Hey, bagels and fresh fruit are important.

But regardless of your age or overall health, you also need to figure out what you’ll do in a medical emergency. If you’re taken to a hospital, what will happen? Will you need to carry a large amount of money to get treatment? Will your insurance cover your costs? Will you need to take special precautions if you’re traveling with a preexisting condition?

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions vary considerably depending on dozens of factors. But if you’re preparing for international travel, here’s everything you’ll need to plan effectively.

A health insurance provider shakes hands with a patient.

Questions To Ask When Contacting Your Insurer

Your first step is to call your insurance provider. Have the basic details of your trip ready, including the length of your stay, the countries you’ll visit, and any special health circumstances that might come into play (for instance, doctor visits leading up to the trip, immunization records, and so on).

At this point, you’ll probably get some bad news: Most insurers don’t provide full domestic benefits to members when they’re abroad, although major companies typically offer some sort of coverage. Blue Cross Blue Shield, for instance, generally covers emergency care anywhere in the world, but coverage is treated as an out-of-network visit. That typically means higher out-of-pocket costs. Again, your costs will vary depending on your plan.

Here are a few questions to ask when speaking with your insurer.

  • What types of international services will be covered under my current plan?
  • Will my policy cover emergency evacuations?
  • How will I pay for treatment I receive abroad? Will I need to pay out of pocket and file a reimbursement claim?
  • Will my preexisting conditions affect my coverage while I’m abroad?
  • What steps should I take to ensure adequate coverage prior to traveling?

Take plenty of notes, and verify that the information you receive is accurate by checking it against your policy documents. You can always ask your representative to point you to the appropriate sections for verification.

Finally, if you learn that your plan covers medical emergencies, ask what that means. Different insurers have different ideas about what constitutes an emergency, so you’ll want to make sure that you’re on the same page.

A passport and stethoscope atop a map.

Will Medicare Cover Out-Of-Country Hospital Visits?

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Medicare won’t cover health care costs incurred by anyone traveling outside of the United States except in three very specific circumstances:

  • You’re traveling through Canada “without unreasonable delay by the most direct route between Alaska and another state" when an emergency occurs, and a Canadian hospital is closer than the nearest qualified U.S. hospital.
  • You’re in the United States when you suffer a medical emergency, and the foreign hospital is closer than the nearest qualified U.S. hospital. Think about near-the-border travel situations.
  • You live in the United States and the foreign hospital is closer to your home than the nearest qualified U.S. hospital. Again, this applies if you live very close to a U.S.–Canada or U.S.–Mexico border.

The vast majority of travelers won’t ever encounter an emergency that qualifies under one of these circumstances.

Additionally, Medicare won’t pay for any prescription medications you purchase outside of the United States in any circumstances. However, if you’re traveling on a ship within U.S. territorial waters, Medicare Part B might pay for certain medically necessary services, provided that the ship is less than six hours away from a U.S. port.

Some Medicare Advantage plans do offer worldwide coverage, but again, coverage varies considerably from one company to the next. If you’ve got a Medicare Advantage or a Medigap plan, contact your insurer as soon as you’ve made your travel plans.

A traveler watches the sunset from a boat.

Is Travel Medical Insurance Worth The Expense?

In a word, yes.

Travel medical insurance can help you ensure that you’re covered in any situation overseas, and it’s usually quite affordable. Many plans cost just a few dollars a day per Consumer Reports, although rates are based on your age, the length of your trip, and the amount of coverage you choose.

Plus, while typical health insurance policies won’t cover emergency evacuations, most decent travel medical policies will offer this coverage. That’s crucial, since emergency medical evacuations can cost $50,000 or more in some parts of the world.

It’s important to note that travel medical insurance isn’t the same thing as travel insurance (or, more accurately, it’s not necessarily the same thing). While some travel medical plans offer reimbursement for things like lost baggage and flight delays, most don’t offer trip cancellation coverage. You’re paying for medical insurance, first and foremost.

Another important note: Travel medical plans sometimes work through reimbursement, so you may have to pay out-of-pocket when you seek care abroad. Keep careful documentation of all of your medical expenses, and if possible, check with your insurer before seeking care -- certain hospitals or urgent care facilities may offer a better value without sacrificing quality of care.

Some travel medical policies offer a coverage called “advance payments to medical facilities,” which can be helpful if you’re trying to avoid carrying large amounts of cash in your destination country. When considering a travel medical insurance provider, don’t hesitate to ask if they offer this option.

Beachside table with laptop, sunglasses, and drink.

What To Know When Evaluating Travel Medical Coverage

If you decide to buy travel medical insurance -- and, again, it’s a great value for most travelers -- read the policy carefully before you buy. Know what to do if an emergency occurs. In some situations, you might need to call your insurer before seeing a doctor, and if so, you’ll want to have their phone number handy throughout your trip.

Compare prices for different levels of coverage and make sure your policy has a deductible you can manage. Ensure you’re buying the right type of travel medical insurance; most travelers will want to buy a single-trip plan, which should offer coverage for up to six months.

You can apply for travel medical insurance up to the day you leave, but try to apply as early as possible, especially if you have preexisting conditions that are likely to require treatment during your trip.

Besides, once you’re covered, you’ll have one less thing to worry about -- meaning you can focus on more important matters (like your hotel’s continental breakfast).

Photo Credit: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

Photo Credit: Elena Dijour / Shutterstock