Medical Emergencies While Traveling: How to Be Prepared

Medical emergencies while traveling can be costly and stressful if you’re not prepared. When planning an exciting getaway, thinking about becoming ill or injured is not usually at the forefront. After all, the chances of a medical emergency are slim.

But what if one does occur? The out-of-pocket expenses could be substantial, especially if an emergency medical evacuation is required or if you’re abroad with no insurance coverage.

Some U.S. health insurance providers may cover “customary and reasonable” expenses for medical costs abroad, but very few cover an emergency medical evacuation, according to the U.S. Department of State. You may also be required to use specified doctors and hospitals that may not be in close proximity to where you are staying. Payment is usually required before medical services are rendered, and Medicare does not cover medical expenses outside the U.S. (although,   additional coverage is available).

3 Steps on How to be Prepared for a Medical Emergency:

travel photo - surgery

Step 1:  Check with your Health Insurance Provider:

Find out what is covered by your policy when traveling in the U.S. or abroad and if you’re required to use designated medical facilities. If so, check the proximity of the facility to your vacation spot.

Questions to ask your provider:

  • Does your policy cover emergency medical treatment by a foreign hospital? Are there stipulations on what doctors are covered under your plan when traveling abroad or within the U.S.?
  • Does your policy include coverage for an emergency medical evacuation? Many do not.
  • Does your insurance company offer a supplemental travel medical insurance plan that can be purchased for travels abroad? If so, find out if the supplemental coverage would be primary or secondary to your health insurance plan. For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield offers a travel supplemental plan GeoBlue.
  • Find out how payments will be handled to medical care providers abroad. You may have to cover the costs upfront and get reimbursed later.
  • If participating in high-risk activities such as parasailing, mountain climbing, scuba diving, or off-roading, find out if you’d be covered?
  • Is pre-authorization or a second opinion required before emergency treatment can begin?

Step 2:  Look into Purchasing Travel Medical Insurance:

travel photo - emergency

Travel medical insurance is a policy that can be purchased for an individual trip (or for several trips) that covers expenses your health insurance plan does not. If your insurance policy does not cover you abroad, then it becomes your primary insurance. Check on the stipulations regarding pre-existing conditions and purchase a policy that provides coverage, if needed.

Many travel medical insurance policies offer emergency medical evacuation, but they are not all equal. Clarify what the policy includes and if there are any stipulations.

Several travel medical insurance providers offer direct billing if the medical facility is one of their contracted members. You would be responsible for the deductible at the time of service. If direct billing is not an option, you will be required to pay the costs upfront and get reimbursed (usually within seven to ten days).

You may be refused medical treatment when traveling abroad if you do not have proper coverage or cannot guarantee payment.

With travel medical insurance, they’ll provide an interpretation if the medical provider does not speak English. Travel medical insurance providers employ medical personnel (available 24/7) who can assist you in finding the closest reputable medical facility in a foreign country. They’ll be in communication with the treating physician to discuss your condition and treatment plans.

If participating in high-risk activities, find out if they are included in the coverage. You usually end up paying a higher premium to have them included.

Step 3:  Emergency Medical Evacuation Coverage:

What is an Emergency Medical Evacuation?

travel photo - helicopter with person

An emergency medical evacuation is when a field rescue is done at the location where a person has been injured or seriously ill. They are then transported to the nearest medical facility for diagnosis and treatment until they become stable. This is done via ambulance, helicopter, or plane. Once the patient has stabilized, they are flown to a medical facility closer to home. There is an added cost for medical staff and special equipment on board.

Why it’s important to have Emergency Medical Evacuation Coverage:

The costs involved in a medical evacuation can be astronomical. Within the U.S., it can run upwards of $25,000, and on a cruise ship (if outside U.S. waters), the costs are $50,000 or more. In remote areas, the costs can escalate upwards of $100,000 to $250,000 plus. The further you are from a reputable medical facility, the higher the cost.

Having coverage for a medical evacuation is something to consider when traveling within the U.S. or abroad. Without it, you could experience financial hardship, receive substandard medical treatment, or be forced to spend your recovery in an unfamiliar environment.

It’s been proven that patients have a faster recovery when in a familiar setting surrounded by friends and family.


Not all emergency medical evacuation services are equal, so it’s important to determine which service provider would be best for your needs.

Here are three options to consider.

OPTION 1:  Include it with your Travel Medical Insurance Plan

Here’s what you can expect:

  • The attending physician and the medical advisor of the insurance company will determine if an evacuation is required.  You may not have the option of being transferred to a facility back home. If the closest facility is inadequate, you may get transferred to another reputable one.
  • The evacuation is set up by the insurance company.  It may be via a commercial airline, ground ambulance, or an air ambulance transfer.  Find out if the travel insurance provider will cover the cost of airfare for those accompanying the injured/ill person to the medical facility.
  • Some policies may offer a ‘hospital of choice’ benefit.  Even though it allows you to make a decision as to what hospital you want to be transferred to, it does not guarantee that you will be automatically be transported home or to that hospital. You may be transferred to the closest hospital, and when your life is no longer in danger, you may be transferred closer to home.

OPTION 2:  Membership Programs for Emergency Medical Evacuation

There are emergency medical evacuation companies that offer coverage through a membership program where you pay annual dues. These include services like MedjetAssist, Global Rescue, AirMed, and more. Their rates are based on individual, family, or business options, and they may offer travel insurance and travel medical insurance options as well.

Basically, if you meet the criteria for evacuation, these companies will arrange a medical transfer to a hospital back home. They are not an insurance company. Here is what you can expect:

  • They arrange medical transportation from basically anywhere in the world. Their medical personnel monitors your condition with the attending physician.
  • They communicate with family members and business associates back home.
  • Some companies offer a cash advance to cover emergency medical treatments that you would later have to repay.
  • In the event of political unrest, some emergency medical evacuation providers offer a crisis response that would evacuate you to a safe location.

Before purchasing travel medical insurance or emergency medical evacuation coverage, check the fine print to see what’s covered. To compare the costs and coverage options of several companies, check out Insure My Trip or Squaremouth.comYou can find insurance company ratings online at A.M. Best Company.

OPTION 3: Credit Card Companies that offer Emergency Medical Evacuation Coverage

Some credit card companies offer emergency medical evacuation coverage, but there may be some drawbacks. The evacuation usually needs to be approved by an administrator, and medical expenses would not be included. Pre-existing conditions may also be denied. You or your traveling companion would be responsible for making the arrangements, and in a foreign country, this could be difficult because of the language barrier and not being familiar with the area.

Cruise Ships:

What happens if you become seriously ill or injured While On Board?


If a passenger’s illness or injury is not life-threatening, the ship’s doctor may recommend that the patient be taken to the nearest port of call and transported by ambulance or helicopter to the nearest medical facility.

If the patient is in critical condition, then a helicopter would be required to airlift them from the ship to the nearest medical facility.

If the ship is within U.S. waters, the Coast Guard would be called upon to perform the evacuation. The Coast Guard does not charge for this service.

If the ship is outside U.S. waters, or if the person will be transported to a hospital at the nearest port of call, then another medical evacuation service would be required.

Travel with a Passport When on a Cruise:

Not all cruises require passengers to have a passport. Closed-looped sailings that start and finish in the same U.S. port, with travels to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, and Bermuda do not require a passport. However, it’s a good idea to travel with one. If you have to disembark in a foreign country because of an illness or injury (or for any other reason), a passport would be required to fly back home.

Without a passport, you’ll experience a delay in getting back to the U.S. In an emergency, that can seem like an eternity. You would have to request a temporary passport for reentry into the U.S. through the closest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.


  For more travel insight, check out my book,

Know Before You Go: Traveling the U.S. and Abroad


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