Credit Cards Are No Substitute for Travel Medical Insurance

Don’t count on credit cards to cover your medical expenses while travelling abroad—not unless you have supplemental health insurance specifically written into your policy.

The days of automatic travel health coverage by even the most basic credit cards are long over. Now, only the higher-end cards, mostly those with annual fees, offer medical benefits as part of their travel insurance, although most will offer optional medical and evacuation or repatriation benefits from established travel insurers for an additional fee.

The bottom line is that you cannot take for granted that your credit card will pay your medical expenses in case of accident or illness abroad. You must have such assurance in writing and you must know what you have and what you need to have. And don’t accept “emergency or medical assistance” as a substitute. Such services only help you get emergency services. They don’t pay the bills.

Here are some tips and guidelines we suggest you follow.

Know the benefits and limits of any travel insurance you buy. Don’t count on the word of a travel agent or tour operator who says, “You’re fully covered, don’t worry about it.”

Make sure you qualify. Many credit card companies limit their coverage to younger and middle-age groups. If you’re over 55, or a snowbird, make sure your age group is covered.

Be aware of pre-existing conditions exclusions. Many basic credit card plans do not cover pre-existing conditions. So if you have any kind of medical history, or if you have been treated, or have taken any medications, or been investigated for any symptoms or conditions in the past year or less (some policies will even go back farther than a year), tell your insurer and make sure you know what is covered and what is not. Fortunately, most full-service travel insurers can offer you underwritten coverage based on your health status. But you’ll have to answer health questions candidly, accurately, and fully.

Related: What About Those in Less than Perfect Health?

Plan your time of travel. As a rule, credit card travel plans only cover you for a limited time, say 15 or 30 days, though some may go a little longer. And many will not extend that time, especially if you have some pre-existing conditions. Here it gets tricky, as some will not allow you to “top up” or extend your coverage beyond their stated limits with any other insurer. So if you are in the Bahamas and you decide to stay beyond your allotted 15 days, if you call your credit card company to get an extension, you may be denied.

Combining your short-term credit coverage days with longer-term stand-alone travel insurance can be tricky. I know of many frequent travellers, such as snowbirds leaving the country for up to six months, who try to save money by using their credit cards to cover the first 15 or 30 days of their trip. It doesn’t always work, and you better know that ahead of time. For example, if you come down with an illness on the 28th day of your first 30-day plan, you not only run out of benefits after that, but your illness becomes a pre-existing condition for your add-on plan and you can be disqualified from coverage. That happens more than you think. The best way to go? Leave your credit card for purchases, and take a stand-alone, dedicated travel health insurance plan from one of the established travel insurance companies to cover you from day one of your trip. It’s easier, safer, and you’ll probably end up with far more comprehensive coverage.

What is adequate medical coverage for international travel? Whether it’s a guided tour, independent travel, a cruise trip, or a weekend jaunt across the border, you need the following:

  • At least $1 million in medical emergency coverage. And be sure you understand what is covered, what is left for you to cover, and what your responsibilities are in case of emergency. Many insurers require you to call your assistance service within 24 hours of an emergency. Remember also that this is not a blank cheque for you to spend as you wish. Your insurer’s representative will determine what is medically necessary and will very likely fly you home by air ambulance rather than let you soak up $1 million in hospital services. But you need it anyway. Nowhere in the world is top-quality medical care cheap, and that is the only kind of care you want.
  • Repatriation to a hospital close to your home if medically necessary. Evacuation to the most appropriate hospital chosen by your insurer is not good enough. You need to get home and air ambulances are not cheap.
  • Direct payment of hospital and medical bills by your insurer. You don’t want to be stuck with a $50,000 hospital charge on your credit card—if you’re lucky enough to have one that goes that high.
  • 24/7 access to an emergency assistance service that can help you get the services you need and will monitor and consult with the medical professionals caring for you.
  • Where do you find these plans? In the United States, visit the Full Members section of the US Travel Insurance Association website. In Canada, visit the Members Section of the Travel Health Insurance Association website. And in the UK and Europe, where travel insurance is a fact of life, media ads for travel insurance are everywhere.

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