Ever wonder what would happen if you got hurt while traveling abroad? I did.
Last fall, my then-fiancée and I were planning a six-week trip through Africa. We would start at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and travel through Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania before concluding our trip in Morocco. But before leaving Tanzania, we planned to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro.
At 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest mountain. While the hike doesn’t require oxygen or any technical climbing ability, we wanted some protection in case something happened. After all, we’d be led by guides up 12,000 vertical feet over 50 miles in six days. And we were scheduled to get married a month after our return to the U.S.
I didn’t want to mess that up by falling down a mountain and not be able to get medical care.
Why you need insurance
If you’ve visited a hospital or clinic while traveling or living abroad, you already know that those expenses will come out of your pocket, and likely in cash. Some private health plans might reimburse you for emergencies while vacationing overseas, but insurance through state exchanges or Medicare1 does not.
If you think travel insurance repays you for canceled flights, missing baggage or lost trip expenditures, you’re right. But some plans also cover medical expenses and evacuation costs. And for those of us who travel with skis, ice axes or parachutes, there are providers who offer plans with extra protection.
Even if your health insurance covers you in emergencies abroad, your plan likely has a "high-risk" exemption. Or you may be subject to an out-of-country network that if you’re unable to comply with, could cost you.
Why travel insurance beats health insurance
When I started researching insurance options, I encountered a serious roadblock. Many travel health plans required primary health insurance, which I didn’t have.
I dropped my insurance when I got to the tiny southern African country of Swaziland, where I had been teaching English for almost two years. My catastrophic plan didn’t provide coverage outside the U.S. And that was before the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, kicked in. It turns out, I would have been exempt anyway.
So I pivoted to travel insurance, which provides options for those wishing to participate in extreme sports.
Insurance options aplenty
At the time, I looked at several travel insurance providers based on online reviews and lists of the best companies, but narrowed my search to five. The companies had plans for different types of extreme sports, including mountaineering, which I had determined to be the closest approximation of hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro—hiking without oxygen or ropes at high altitude.
Many travel insurance providers ask you to start by providing the country or countries you plan to visit, vacation length, age of travelers and in some cases the cost of the trip. We decided to book for the duration of our trip (which included getting home): five countries, 44 days, each of us 31 and $10,000.
I started with World Nomads, which is endorsed by travel mainstays like Lonely Planet and Hostelworld. It offers an Explorer plan, in addition to its Standard plan, that covers things like abseiling, base jumping, cave diving and tandem skydiving, in addition to mountaineering. The standard plan also covers some extreme sports.
I also looked at CSA Travel Protection and Travelex Insurance Services. CSA offers "add-on coverages" to its Custom and Custom Luxe plans. Travelex offers an "Adventurer Plus Pak" as part of its Travel Select and Travel Max plans. It also has a Travel Basic plan.
These all turned out to be too expensive.
Avoiding extra fees for "high-risk" activities
Convinced that I could find a better deal, I pressed on. I found GeoBlue, the travel insurance arm of Blue Cross Blue Shield, because it was listed in what I read as being among the cheapest providers out there. And at $120, it was. But my question to customer service about whether its Voyager Essential plan covered mountaineering without ropes went unanswered.
The winner turned out to be Atlas International Insurance, which worried me most because it has a terrible website. Important to note is that these companies are often underwritten by other insurance companies. Atlas is underwritten by the much larger HCC Medical Insurance Services. But I found it buried in a blog post about mountain climbing and a couple of other places so I felt OK about it. Not only was it comparable to GeoBlue at $137.38 for both of us, but it covered mountaineering up to 22,000 feet with no extra fees.
Our plan included $1 million in medical coverage with a $100 deductible. There was $500,000 for evacuation, $5,000 for trip interruption and a $50,000 accidental death benefit. All of the benefits compared favorably to other plans I reviewed.
So we were protected. And in case you were wondering, we made it to the summit—safely.
1. I was unable to find a reference to health care exchanges not covering travelers abroad on healthcare.gov. However, a customer service agent who I reached by phone assured me that coverage only applies in the U.S. "It looks like if you were to apply for coverage, the marketplace coverage only covers in the U.S. It wouldn’t cover you outside of the country." Information about Medicare coverage outside the U.S. is more clear. ↩
Image: Roman Boed