How to Select Health Insurance If You Travel Frequently

Zipline adventure in Ecuadorian rainforest, Banos de Agua Santa

By Lacie Glover

Of the factors to consider when choosing health insurance, your lifestyle is one of the most important. For the modern-day explorer or business road warrior, your frequent travel should be top of mind.

Learning about new cultures and unexpected adventures are part of the thrill of travel, but they also come with risks. Sometimes your destination is not medically equipped, and the unexpected can turn into illness or injury in just the place where you don't have coverage. If you travel frequently for business, getting caught in an unfamiliar city with a medical issue can leave you with a huge bill. Here's how to prevent that by shopping smart during insurance season.

Domestic Travelers

One of the most important considerations for travelers is the insurance network, or group of providers that your insurance company agrees to cover. For those who tend to travel only within the United States, a national provider network is key, especially if you travel to multiple locations across the country.

"You want to be able to stay in-network wherever you travel to," says Cindy J. Holtzman, director of Medical Refund Service in Marietta, Georgia, who's also an insurance agent and patient advocate.

If you normally travel to the same locations, make sure your plan includes network providers in those locations. For domestic travelers, this is the best way to save on health care in general, not just emergency care. When you're out of town and have just a mild concern, it's a lot cheaper to visit an independent clinic or urgent care in-network and avoid the emergency room all together.

It's important to note that there may not be network providers in every city you visit. In that case, "check out how any plan covers providers outside the network," Holtzman says.

Some plans cover a portion of costs if you need health care out of their network, but many plans cover none, except in some emergencies. If you have to go out of your network for care, plans that will cover at least a portion of that care are beneficial for travelers.

International Travelers

If you travel abroad frequently, you might already be aware that health insurance works differently outside the U.S. In emergencies, some plans may cover a portion of costs, but most cover none at all.

"The easy way to address this is to call the health insurance provider and ask them if they will cover health expenses incurred abroad," says Mahmood Peshimam, a travel medicine specialist in Orange County, California. If not, ask if they have a separate plan specifically for travel.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-Don't confuse traveler's health insurance with regular traveler's insurance%Supplemental health insurance that covers international travel is available from some health insurers. It's temporary insurance that covers only the length of one trip and may be cheaper through your main health insurer thanks to member discounts. This is a great question to ask any potential insurer when choosing among plans. Don't confuse traveler's health insurance with regular traveler's insurance, which covers incidents such as cancelled reservations and lost baggage.

Evacuation insurance, also for Americans abroad, can be long-term or short-term and covers transportation to adequate medical care. This type of insurance can help cover charges if you need to be urgently transferred for medical care from a remote area. Plans often cover air rescue expenses and emergency returns back home.

Some evacuation insurance policies also cover emergency health care abroad. Evacuation insurance is available from many health insurers, as well as from independent providers. "Ask your travel agent for companies that will provide overseas health insurance coverage," Peshimam says. He also recommends finding medical facilities in your destination before leaving and carrying that information on your trip.

Adventure Travel

Thrill seekers, there are special health insurance considerations for you. Evacuation insurance is probably a good idea for when you climb Mount Everest or go on that skydiving trip, but don't stop there. Take a look at any long-term health insurance plans you're considering for two features: emergency care and high-risk exclusions.

The reason for emergency care is obvious, and for all Affordable Care Act-era plans, it's covered as an essential health benefit. How much emergency care is covered is as variable as the plans themselves. Whether you travel a short distance or across the globe to seek your adrenaline rush, make sure your health insurance plan has comprehensive emergency coverage.

Less obvious is the need for a plan with few high-risk exclusions, probably because you don't know they exist. Many health insurance plans don't cover emergency services due to risky activity or injuries incurred doing activities such as rock climbing and snowboarding. This may not be disclosed on an information sheet when you sign up for insurance, so call your insurer's customer service to ask.