That question, passed on to me by an aging traveler’s worried son, is not as rare as some might think. Travelers often ask why they shouldn’t buy on the local market—where insurers and hospitals deal with each other every day? You would think it cheaper and more efficient.
But it doesn’t work that way. .
The first, most obvious reason for buying at home is that you need coverage from the moment your plane takes off until you return, no gaps. If you have shortness of breath or symptoms of a heart attack or some other medical emergency, who is going to pay for the paramedics to meet the plane and whisk you off to a local hospital in a foreign country? And who’s going to pay for the intensive care you receive once you get there? And if you arrive in a foreign country already sick, what insurer is going to cover you?
Don’t expect to be covered by the government health plan that insures residents of that country. That is not available to visitors. Germany’s health care plan will not cover a resident of Canada, neither will Britain’s National Health Service.
There are insurance plans visitors to foreign countries can buy, but they too have many conditions and exclusions and it’s too late to find out you don’t qualify once you are there. In addition, many visitors plans, such as the ones available to visitors to Canada, have a waiting period before benefits apply—48 to 72 hours.
Another fundamental reason to buy at home is that travel insurance is a supplement to domestic insurance. Canadian plans coordinate their coverage with provincial plans automatically so you retain those benefits too. You can’t count on foreign insurers to do that. And if you need to be returned home for continuing care, how will a foreign assistance service be in a better position to secure a bed for you than a Canadian service that deals with hospitals every day?
All Canadian plans also offer repatriation benefits so that once you are stabilized they will get you home as quickly as possible if you are unable to travel on your own by normal commercial carrier. Foreign insurance may not have that benefits and the price for an air ambulance can run to $75,000 from Germany Canada. Many foreign insurances may also limit your transportation to the nearest appropriate hospital until your emergency can be stabilized. They won’t do a full repatriation home and they won’t keep you in hospital forever.
When people say they will shop for insurance once they get to their destination I sometimes wonder if they really mean it, or if they are just looking for a way to get out of buying it at all. Are you, really, after arriving in Frankfurt or London, or Munich after a long flight going to make insurance shopping your first order of business? Is that what you want to spend you vacation doing?
Travel insurance requires planning, preparation, an understanding of the benefits and exclusions, and for the elderly it may well require answering medical questions. This is something which can not be responsibly done in a few minutes. This is not the same as insuring a piece of baggage with a value of maybe $1,000.
This is your life. How do you put a price on that?