Health Abroad

Is the cost of travel insurance — for trip cancellations or for your health — ever worthwhile?

When you’re planning your next vacation getaway, how often do you envision coming down with the flu or breaking a bone?

If you’re like me, never. In the excitement of buying tickets and making plans, I never consider what could go wrong on my adventures, which means it’s even less likely that I’m thinking about buying insurance in case something does happen. All I’m focused on is the good stuff: making new friends in different cities, clinking wine glasses, or hiking up a mountain.

Most of the time — whether it’s a short road trip locally or a bigger trip around the world — we’re fine. According to Renee Meaux, owner of Sunset Travel and Cruise in Chicago, about 90% of her customers buy travel insurance, and of those who buy it, less than 10% end up using it.

“For travel in general, and with everything that happened with Covid, we believe that a person’s investment in their trip should be protected with insurance,” Meaux says. “I book a lot of trips for clients going to Europe, and if there’s a hiccup in travel, the hotels you’re staying at want to get their money and don’t care about what happens to you. Trip protection helps to make sure all the money you’ve put into your trip doesn’t go down the drain if something unexpected happens.”

The travel insurance plans that Meaux offers include both health insurance and trip cancellation coverage. That means if you get sick while you’re abroad or you need to reschedule your trip because of an unexpected reason, travel insurance makes sure that you recoup the money you’ve spent for flights and accommodations.

The rates for travel insurance are dependent on two key factors: your age and how much your trip will cost. For instance, if I, age 44, were planning a $10,000 return trip to Austria, I’d have to pay $684 for travel insurance, according to Travel Insured International. However, if I were 70, looking to make the same trip, the cost jumps, and continues to increase with age.

Consider your experience

The standard makes sense, but still I struggle with it. After college, I worked as an English as a second language (ESL) teacher for a year in a small town north of Vienna. While there, I fell in love — with traveling. Since then, I’ve made several more trips to Austria and Western Europe, all without incident.

Last winter, my thinking changed. I brought my family back to my old stomping grounds in Austria, along with my mother-in-law. When I booked our tickets, I left boxes for trip insurance and travel health insurance unchecked. Who wants to spend extra money on top of the already pricey airplane ticket? And really, how likely is it that we’d need it anyway?

In retrospect, maybe I should have checked those boxes and spent the cash. On the first day of our trip, my mother-in-law slipped getting out of the shower in our rental house, hit her head, and broke her wrist. I drove her to the emergency room in Wiener Neustadt, a town about an hour south of Vienna. I sat in the emergency room waiting area for about five hours as she moved from X-ray to CT scan, and finally to a patient room.

Once they ruled out a concussion, the ER doctor gave her a temporary cast to immobilize her wrist. We made three more trips back to the same hospital in the course of our nine-day trip: first, for a second set of X-rays to make sure the bone was set properly; second, for a permanent cast; and finally, to split open said permanent cast so she could fly home safely without risking deep vein thrombosis from being unable to move her arm. Our two-day excursion to Graz was canceled, with only the cleaning fee refunded. Total loss? €400 per day (about the same in U.S. dollars).

Estimates vary, but according to United Healthcare, if my mother-in-law made four trips to a U.S. emergency room, she’d owe about $2,700 per trip, or close to $11,000. For her Austrian ER adventures, she didn’t have to pay anything before flying home. Although she hasn’t gotten a bill yet, her insurance contact with Medicare and Blue Cross thought that in circumstances like this, she might have to pay about 20% of the cost.

This wasn’t completely surprising to me. In the early aughts, my uninsured friend Brendan broke a toe two days before a trip to England. Because he didn’t have any insurance, he waited until he arrived abroad, with his black toe and swollen foot, to receive free treatment.

However, not every country provides as seamless and first-rate a healthcare experience as Austria or England. If you get sick in Japan, physicians won’t treat you until you pay. And if you wind up in the hospital in Mexico, you’ll also likely have to pay for your services up front; if you don’t, the hospital can confiscate your passport or put a hold on your credit card until you settle the bill.

Travel insurance: To buy or not to buy?

Ultimately, the answer depends on where you are going, your budget, and your risk tolerance. It may also depend on how comfortable you feel about your own health and age and how much you want to safeguard the money you’ve sunk into the trip.

And before you bite the bullet and buy insurance, take a minute to check the fine print on your credit card website. You may be covered for cancellation up to a certain amount, with a doctor’s note, or even costs for lost baggage and other fees.

If there’s ever a world where money doesn’t matter, I’d buy insurance for everything insurable. But I don’t live in that world. The decision about whether to get insurance — especially for a pleasure trip — is all about risk versus reward.

If you buy it and encounter a problem, you’ll be thrilled you have it. And if you don’t have a problem? It may very well annoy you, as it does me.