Wising up on Your Travel Insurance: 5 Key Steps to Take

Cliff jumping. Photo by Austin Neill / Unsplash

Do you sometimes go abroad without travel insurance because you think it’s unnecessary? Or have you lost your faith in travel insurance because a claim you made was rejected? I’m here to tell you that travel insurance is valuable and can literally save your life – if you take it seriously.

Although the insurance industry has a bad reputation for not keeping their promises, travel insurance fulfills a vital role for travelers. I liken it to a vaccine: protecting us from potentially disastrous situations when shit happens. And, on the road, the chances of shit happening are pretty high.

Even when you’re just on a relaxing vacation.

Yet, for such an important travel item, many of us “pack” travel insurance like a pair of spare socks. We buy it as an afterthought, checking the add-on box when booking flights online or taking whatever comes with our credit card, instead of researching what we’ll need for specific places or activities.

Sure, the fine print and exceptions are disingenuous, but blaming the insurance company won’t help you get back your hundreds or thousands of dollars – or your precious time, health, and safety.

How travel insurance was a lifesaver for me

On the last leg of my Kenyan adventure, after a month of volunteering, I was hit by a severe infection. I’d just discovered a cyst during my 3-day safari in the Maasai Mara, but by the last day it had swiftly morphed into a wretched, evil abscess.

I was traveling solo and my next stop was supposed to be Ladakh.

On my last day in Nairobi, in complete agony, I hobbled to the nearest medical center where the doctor said I’d have to undergo a surgical procedure and most certainly could not fly the next day. Sobbing, I called my travel insurance provider’s 24/7 emergency assistance hotline for help. I was told to either go with the doctor’s advice or bear with it for just another 24 hours and fly straight home – but that either way, I’d be able to make a claim as long as the doctor signed the medical certificate in my insurance claim form.

A crowded road in Nairobi, Kenya

Wait, what insurance claim form? I hadn’t downloaded, let alone printed the forms. So within the hour my provider emailed me a copy, I walked across town to print it (still sobbing), and walked back to get it signed by the doctor.

Thankfully, my return flight was changed at no additional cost (thanks, Singapore Airlines) and the next morning, with some struggle, I was homebound. Thanks to the emergency assistance, I was able to submit valid travel insurance claims for my medical fees and cancelled flights to Ladakh.

So yes, travel insurance is important – give it the attention it deserves! Here are 5 key steps you should take when getting travel insurance. Not just buying it (and forgetting about it), but actually using it correctly:

1. Know what type of policy suits your travel style.

This is simple math. Do you only travel occasionally? A single-trip policy should do. Are you a frequent flyer with a home/work base? Annual travel insurance is ideal. Planning to become a nomad (digital or otherwise)? Then you’ll need long-term, extendable coverage.

Personally, I’m a member of The Wise Traveller, a program including annual travel insurance that’s also the cheapest and best-rated policy according to GoBear. This works for my particular travel style: I’m a slow traveler, with each trip lasting weeks or months, but not exceeding the 90-day limit of a typical annual policy. The Wise Traveller was what covered me back in Kenya, so I can confidently say it’s reliable!

2. Know what cover you need.

No matter how free-spirited and spontaneous you are, you’ll need to do some thinking and planning on the type of travel insurance coverage you need. Will you be doing extreme sports like skydiving or bungee jumping? Are you making bookings through a travel agency? Do you need cover for special equipment, like photography gear?

On the other hand, bigger numbers aren’t always better: just because a travel insurance policy offers “unlimited” cover on overseas medical expenses doesn’t mean it beats than one that only offers $200,000 – more benefits can hide more limits and exclusions. Similarly, credit card protection is typically something added in to give the false appearance of more coverage, since credit card fraud is something your bank/credit card company will already handle.

Compare travel insurance plans to see what covers you best.

3. Compare what isn’t covered.

Jargon-crammed policy wording is a pain to read, but it’ll help you to understand what’s excluded and make better comparisons between what looks similar on the surface. There could be exclusions in situations you may have never encountered, let alone considered! Example: some policies cover flight cancellations in the event of technical issues, but not when a natural disaster occurs. (e.g. a volcanic eruption).

If you’re unsure what a clause means, call a sales rep and ask. If the policy is underwritten by a company you’ve never used before, call the 24/7 emergency hotline after office hours and check that someone answers. These will speak volumes about the pre- and after-sales service of a travel insurance provider.

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4. Know how to claim, and what you need to make a claim.

Not having valid proof is the number one reason travel insurance claims are rejected, and this is no surprise at all considering how many people get travel insurance at the last minute (again, that “spare socks” mentality) with no idea what to do when something really crops up. Look what happened to me!

If you’ve read your policy document as per #3 above, you’ll understand what’s needed to make a claim. At the very least you’ll need a copy of a police report if valuables have been stolen; airlines’ confirmation of any delays and cancellations; signed advice from a medical practitioner to curtail a trip due to sickness; and so on.

Make sure you pack your travel insurance documents with you for your trip.

5. Pack your travel insurance policy with diligence.

Always keep physical + digital copies of your policy documents and claim forms on you. Make sure, as with your travel itinerary, passport, and booking receipts, you share a copy of your travel insurance documents with your trusted emergency contact and/or next-of-kin. Dropbox and similar shared folders are great for this.

Most importantly, save your travel insurance provider’s emergency assistance number in your phone contact list to call anytime – that’s what a 24-hour hotline is for!

By following these 5 steps to buy and prep your travel insurance, you can really travel worry-free with the knowledge that you’re well covered.

Tell me: what’s your personal experience with choosing and using travel insurance?