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Tips for insuring a safe and healthy trip abroad

If you're planning a trip to Europe or an exotic vacation this summer, you'll be investing a lot of time and money. So what happens if something goes wrong?
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you're planning a trip to Europe or an exotic vacation this summer, you'll be investing a lot of time and money. So what happens if something goes wrong? Consider how you would pay for care in the event of illness or injury overseas.

Travelers can quickly become swamped by uncovered medical expenses. And more often than not, they haven't done anything daring to get hurt. Car accidents are the most common cause of injury during international travel, says Doug Stallings, a senior editor with Fodor's, the travel guide publisher.

Your existing health insurance may not provide complete coverage outside of the United States, but travel medical policies can help fill in the gaps. Here are four questions to ask when evaluating additional coverage.

1. Will my health insurance work overseas?
Before you get too anxious considering various "what if" scenarios, find out if there are any treatment or geographic limitations under your existing policy.

Many individual or employer-sponsored group health insurance plans offer some protection. They may cover emergency room visits, but they rarely cover services like medical evacuation back to the United States.

What's more, Medicare, the government program for the elderly and disabled, does not cover overseas care; although some privately run versions of it may offer limited protection.

And don't expect a U.S. government bailout. The Department of State's website says U.S. consular officers can help Americans find medical care, contact family and friends back home or transfer money from the States. But it also clearly says payments are the traveler's responsibility.

2. What are some key elements to have in a travel medical policy?
It may not come to mind as crucial for most insurance, but a phone number is critical. Most travel medical coverage is supported by a call center that operates around the clock and can be reached from anywhere in the world.

Travel medical coverage generally doesn't restrict patients to certain doctors or hospitals, but it can be hard to figure out where to get care in a foreign country. Call centers can provide directions to the nearest doctor or provider or help with any translation needs.

Ask if the call center also will make payment arrangements. This is important, especially if you incur a major expense or require a hospital stay. Health care providers in many parts of the world demand payment up front. If the insurer doesn't vouch for payment right away, you might have to hand over a credit card and seek reimbursement later.

Travelers planning anything risky like bungee jumping should read the policy or ask whether they're covered for those activities.

3. Am I covered if I need to be transported to receive medical attention?
Medical evacuation coverage is another important item to examine because such travel can result in a huge bill.

Travel medical policies cover evacuation expenses to varying degrees. Be aware that some will only pay to transport patients to the nearest acceptable medical facility.

"You do have to read the fine print," Stallings says. "There's a big difference if you're in Corsica and all they do is evacuate you to Paris. That's not going to get you back home to Kansas City."

Other policies may pay to take you home but won't pick up the tab for any medical personnel or equipment that comes with you, said Carol Mueller, vice president with the insurance provider Travel Guard.

This coverage is important when you realize that just getting back to the United States can cost as much as $50,000 or more depending on where you are and your condition.

Costs add up quickly. For instance, someone who breaks a leg may need a first-class plane ticket to return home so there's extra room to elevate the foot and keep swelling down. A one-way, first-class plane ticket from Hong Kong, purchased with no notice, can cost more than $5,000.

4. What does all this cost?
Tourists can buy medical coverage alone or as part of a broader package that includes coverage for lost luggage or trip cancellations. Frequent globetrotters may consider annual policies, while others might only buy per trip.

Costs can vary widely depending on the traveler's age, the length of the trip and the amount of coverage the customer wants. Medical insurance and evacuation coverage may cost as low as $30 or more than $100 depending on these factors.

The websites and offer objective comparisons of price and coverage terms.

Stallings recommends buying coverage from an insurer instead of through a travel company because consumers should have a direct connection with the company providing the coverage.

If you're heading to a major European city and your insurance through work provides decent coverage, you may not need an expansive policy. But travelers planning to hike deep into the Australian outback or visit a remote corner of the South Pacific may want to think hard about what resources will be available to them and how they can ensure proper coverage.