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Guide to Travel Insurance: Medical Evacuation Coverage

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Say you’re planning an ocean cruise, an African safari, or some other trip that will place you hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital. What happens if you need medical attention immediately?

The way to address this fear may seem simple: Buy travel insurance. Your credit card company may sell travel insurance, and many private companies specialize in offering such coverage. That way, if a rhinoceros attacks your Jeep or you develop emergency appendicitis, your evacuation to a hospital will be covered, even if that hospital is back home in the United States.

Or maybe it isn’t. Many travel insurance packages—especially those offered for free by credit card networks—say they offer “emergency assistance.” To a regular person, that may sound a lot like “emergency evacuation,” since both seem to convey the message: I’m in trouble, and I need to get out of here, now.

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But in the credit card and insurance worlds, those two terms actually mean completely different things. Emergency evacuation means picking you up and transporting you to emergency care.

Emergency assistance, on the other hand, usually means only that you get to call a 24-hour hotline, where the operator will connect you to whatever services you need. Paying for those services is entirely on you, even if it means a bill for $130,000 for a chartered medical jet from Africa back to your hometown.

“Most credit cards won’t pay for emergency medical or dental care, or emergency medical evacuation, which are all real high dollar value items,” says Daniel Durazo, spokesman for Access America, a travel insurance company.

Travel insurance gets complicated quickly, partly because it contains so many different types of insurance, from medical coverage to lost luggage. But as you decide which type of travel insurance is right for you, the most important thing to consider is also the least likely to happen: A medical emergency that requires your immediate evacuation.

While most people think of insuring their baggage or their rental car, those costs may pale in comparison if something goes seriously wrong.

“I’ve never heard of a person going bankrupt because they lost their luggage or missed their flight,” says John W. Cook, former executive in charge of traveler insurance for Travelers Insurance Company, and now president of QuoteWright.com. “But I have heard of people going bankrupt because they had a heart attack while overseas and had to be medically evacuated.”

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Most Credit Cards: Cheap, But Limited Protection

Many credit cards offer different types of travel insurance, and in many cases those benefits come free as an inducement to encourage you to use the card for major purchases like trips, Cook says.

But watch out for the fine print. Visa’s traditional cards offer emergency assistance, according to the company’s website. But click on the terms, and you discover that this covers access to a 24-hour hotline, not anything close to emergency evacuation. Even Visa’s Signature card, which is geared specifically for travelers, offers no coverage for emergency evacuation, according to the company’s online description of services. Visa did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment. The same is true for MasterCard, which also didn’t return our calls and emails.

Discover does offer some benefits to card holders who experience medical benefits while traveling. But even here, reading and understanding the fine print is key. In its online description of emergency medical benefits, Discover says, “If adequate medical facilities are not locally available in the event of an accident or illness, we’ll arrange for an emergency evacuation to the nearest facility capable of providing necessary treatment.”

The important verb here is “arrange.” Notice that this means something different than “pay.” Which mean Discover may help you find an emergency flight to a hospital, but you’ll still have to pay for it.

“The point is you get what you pay for,” Durazo says. “You’re not paying a lot for that coverage [from credit cards], so the benefits will be rather limited.”

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