Health Care for Long-term Travelers: Is Travel Insurance Really Enough?

One of the most important issues to confront before a journey across the globe is how to deal with health care. It's very likely your current health insurance plan won't cover you once you're out of your home country, especially when it comes to accidents that are normal in the place you're visiting but not so normal back at home.

The risks of world travel and international living are certainly lower than the fearmongers would have you believe, but that doesn't mean they're non-existent. The real danger, however, is getting stuck injured or sick in a foreign country, uncovered by your home policy and without the funds to pay for medical care.

But what type of policy do you need? Is travel insurance enough to get you through? And at what point should you look into international health insurance, or expat insurance?

Travel insurance: a short-term solution

Travel insurance is meant to cover shorter trips; these policies are great for people who will be traveling or living abroad for less than a year. Many policies can actually cover you for up to two years, but there are some real drawbacks to not getting locked into a more long-term solution.

Travel insurance is meant for emergencies, which means it won't cover most regular care visits. On top of that, travel insurance usually doesn't extend to your native country, leaving you vulnerable if you take a trip home.

There are ways around these issues. For instance, you can cover basic medical costs out-of-pocket if the costs in your destination are reasonable. You can buy a temporary insurance policy while in your home country, or you can leave your regular insurance coverage active so it's available when you make your return if that's cost-effective.

That said, a better idea may be to look at a more comprehensive option.

Expat insurance: a broader plan for the long-term adventurer

If you're going to be living overseas or traveling around the world for longer than a year, it's best to start considering expat insurance plans. These policies are far more comprehensive and can cover more than just emergency care. They essentially operate a lot like the insurance you had back home, making them the obvious choice if you plan to spend a significant portion of your life exploring the world.

Your life is an adventure now, and you need an insurance policy that's as adventurous as you.

International health insurance also provides worldwide coverage. Not only does this make it versatile enough to cover all your travels but it ensures you'll be taken care of should you head home to see the folks for the holiday season.

Combining both insurance options to fill the gaps

If your plans are still up in the air, you're unsure about how long you'll stay, or you don't know exactly what to expect in your new country, you might consider waiting on expat insurance and starting out with a travel policy to fill the down-time. This gives you some time to get settled in before you make any decisions – helpful for those of us who have trouble planning into the next week (a common problem for footloose travelers).medical treatment overseas

It also gives future expatriates a chance to get the lowdown on the realities abroad before deciding which features are needed. For instance, online research might tell you how great the medical care is in a particular country, but then when you get there and see the facilities for yourself or talk with other expats, you find it was all hype. In such a case, you might feel a lot better getting a policy that includes evacuation and repatriation. Things always look different once your feet are planted firmly on the ground.

The most important thing is this: do not, under any circumstances, leave yourself vulnerable by not arranging insurance before you leave. Nothing ruins a trip abroad like a medical emergency you can’t afford, and in more extreme cases, being uninsured can even mean the difference between life and death.

Some additional considerations about policies

Here are some variables you might want to consider about your trip:

  • Do you need dental and vision cover? In some countries, it may make more sense to pay for this type of care out of your pocket. Younger travelers without medical conditions are often best off with a basic policy.
  • Will you need evacuation and repatriation care? This is especially important in third-world countries where the situation is volatile or the health care standards low, even if you'll only be traveling through on short side-trips.
  • What type of extracurricular activities will the policy cover? If you're a thrill-seeker, never assume the adrenaline-pumping activities you associate with travel are covered under your plan. Ask your insurer before engaging in high-risk endeavors like scuba diving or rock climbing.
  • Will the policy cover hospital visits concerning a pregnancy? Many traveler policies do not.

Fitting insurance into your world travel budget

This is the last concern that should be on your mind, but unfortunately, many otherwise-responsible world travelers neglect to purchase life insurance before heading overseas, letting other priorities squeeze the expense off of their budgets.

When you're planning a long-term vacation, budgeting is often your main concern. Every dollar you can save and earn makes the experience more exciting and memorable. Thus, the temptation to “save” by cutting costs is great, and the costs that get cut are the ones that don't feel like immediate needs.

Make no mistake, though; this particular need will be immediate if you end up needing your insurance and don't have it – only, by then it will be too late. Insurance is something you buy before, not after.

That's why it's imperative you wrap your head around the necessity before the fact.

Also, world travelers and expats tend to be risk-takers. But you cannot take risks with your health. Think about it this way – if experiencing the world is the highest item on your list of priorities, nothing robs you of the opportunity more than financial or health problems, and getting caught uninsured has the potential for both.

Do the research ahead of time – you can find out more about your international health insurance options at