A few years ago, Bret Shaw and his girlfriend went backpacking in
the wildlands of the Grand Canyon. It seemed quite the romantic
getaway. They camped overlooking the Colorado River on a ridge
plateau. Nothing above but stars. Nothing underfoot but a silent,
poisonous scorpion, which tagged him.
The venom crept up his legs, his torso. Fever and palpitations
set in. His vision blurred, he staggered up the trail, where a park
ranger presented his options: ‘We can radio in a helicopter
evacuation, which will cost several thousand dollars, or you can go
back to your tent and see what happens.’
Unfortunately, Bret wasn’t able to exercise a third
option-travel insurance. He didn’t have any, like a lot of other
adventurous travelers who are good at taking a risk but not as good
at calculating the consequences.
Travel insurers, on the other hand, get paid to calibrate those
distinctions before you hand over your boarding pass. As grocers of
probability, they weigh things, then price them-dengue fever,
dismemberment, death, even diarrhea. They know that accidents will
happen, whether it’s a scorpion bite in Arizona or a bout of
appendicitis in Peru. And when they do, it pays to be covered.
A good travel policy can provide immediate access to care,
treatment and medication-when you need it, all over the world. It’s
one less thing to think about on the adventure trail. There’s a
certain peace of mind that comes from knowing you can quickly be
put in touch with someone who speaks your language and can wire
money, get you a bail bond or refer you to a doctor or lawyer in a
Travel insurance absorbs risk, but as with any investment, there
is fine print. Policies vary widely, so start with the basics:
Where are you going? What will you be doing? What coverage do you
need and what can you live without? How far does your home coverage
go? Your credit card, renter’s or homeowner’s insurance may protect
backpacks borrowed by the Hong Kong airport or laptops lifted in
Addis Ababa. But that’s about it.
Many travel insurance companies were set up by larger
underwriters, like Pan-American Life Insurance Co. or Cigna, and
are designed to let you pick and choose policies to fill gaps in
your current coverage. ‘Consumers should take time before leaving
to investigate their coverage,’ advises Jeanne Salvatore of the New
York City-based Insurance Information Institute (III). ‘If they are
not covered, they can then purchase what they need.’
So what might fit your needs? Rental car insurance in Mexico?
Evacuation coverage in Kenya? No problem. You can pick the type of
protection you need (trip cancellation, evacuation or referral
hot-line service); the extent of the policy (cheap or pricey); and
There are four main offerings: short-term or single-trip (10 to
90 days), long-term or multi-trip (three months to a year), foreign
national (coverage for non-U.S. citizens) and expatriate (for those
residing overseas). Travelers can pick up optional coverage for
trip cancellation, or get a death and dismemberment ‘benefit.’ If
that’s the word.
These packages are comparable to standard insurance policies.
Each has a deductible, ranging from $100 to $2,500 or more. Each
covers office visits, X-rays, surgeries, medical supplies and
prescriptions. ‘Where travel insurance deviates from the norm,’
explains Richard Wallach of Wallach & Company in Middleburg,
VA, ‘is in medevacuation from an area of weak medical care-say, in
Africa-by air ambulance to a facility or hospital near your
Medevacuation is one of those long-shot options that’s worth
checking out. ‘The horror stories don’t happen all that often,’
concedes Jay Stolpestad, president of Universal Travel Protection
in Monument, CO. ‘But when they do, they’re bad.’ His company’s
evacuations have ranged from a seaborne New Yorker with a
wave-induced heart attack ($7,350) to a traveler who got mauled by
a Cape buffalo ($36,000). Medevacuation comes in handy in an area
with a high HIV incidence in the local blood bank.
The second deviation, adds Wallach almost casually: ‘We cover
the repatriation of remains.’ Apparently several thousand people
die overseas each year, and getting a body returned home can prove
a complicated, dragged-out process. When grief or rage obscures
reason, it’s good to have professionals cut through the red
Those bureaucratic scissors may be the most commonly useful
benefit. Most policy packages offer 24-hour, toll-free legal aid,
referral assistance and multilingual help. Make sure yours does,
too. It’s invaluable when your rental jeep gets rammed by a Cuban
bus driver in Havana and no one answers at the U.S. embassy, since,
um, there isn’t one.
How often do you really need travel insurance on the road? It’s
like auto insurance. Not often, but once can be enough. The firms
that sell the packages don’t provide any hard numbers on
occurrences, though anecdotes abound.
Universal Travel Protection’s website, for example, features a
thank-you note from ‘B.K.’ While in Tobago, B.K.’s wife fell down
some concrete steps. ‘Unbeknownst to us, she had suffered a
subdural hematoma. Unfortunately, there were no diagnostic
facilities there.’ Universal dispatched a Learjet with a medical
team, and the couple was in Miami in eight hours. After recovery,
‘the neurosurgeon told me that my wife was within 24 hours of
death.’ Moving. And difficult to verify.
Wallach can’t release names, but he also offers ‘the usual
assortment of horror stories.’ Like the uninsured man who nearly
died in an auto accident in Uzbekistan. Evacuated to Germany, then
back to the U.S., he recovered-though not as quickly from a
‘Another passenger had to have her gallbladder removed,’ adds
Wallach, ‘and was flown to the nearest hospital that could perform
that to satisfaction, which was in Tel Aviv. They removed the
gallbladder and sent her back to Uzbekistan.’ This person was
insured, and Wallach covered it all.
There are a few companies that specialize in assistance
services, with advice at the ready in any situation, from arrest to
losing your eyeglasses. In addition to medical coverage, Worldwide
Assistance Services, Inc., in Washington, D.C., offers quick access
to emergency cash advances, legal referrals and interpreters, as
well as pre-trip security and health advice. Similarly,
Philadelphia-based AEA International/SOS Assistance notes that it
‘helped a woman arrested in a traffic accident in Mexico get
released from jail and provided consultation for a member with a
swollen ankle in Shanghai.’
Medevac, car insurance and adventure coverage are growing
segments of the market. Again, study the fine print, the standard
exclusions and limitations tacked on near the end of the policy
As with most insurance coverage, there are a number of things
not covered by most policies, such as sexually transmitted diseases
or pregnancy, including miscarriage or abortion; mental illness;
suicide; self-inflicted injury (that dirty needle used for a tattoo
in Bora-Bora); off-road, all-terrain-vehicle accidents; bodily
injury sustained in organized sporting events (including
mountaineering, aviation, hang gliding, parachuting and scuba
diving); and ‘claims arising from war, declared or undeclared’
(ruling out dozens of countries).
But don’t lose heart. There will always be room for risk-taking.
Simply shop around before playing soccer on that former minefield
in Kuwait. Read all the fine print, and remember: Some of life’s
risks are always worth covering.
Contact:Champion Insurance Advantage, Ltd., Bel Air,
MD (410) 879-4577; Insurance Information Institute, New York, NY
(212) 669-9200; AEA International/International SOS Assistance,
Philadelphia, PA (800) 523-8662; Universal Travel Protection,
Monument, CO (800) 211-8952; Wallach & Company Inc.,
Middleburg, VA (800) 237-6615; Worldwide Assistance, Washington,
D.C. (800) 821-2828.
Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA