Monday-Morning Moving: Medical Evacuation — Your No. 1 Reason For Buying Travel Insurance

How medical evacuation works can be unclear to many travelers.
How medical evacuation works can be unclear to many travelers. Photo credit: Tim Tiedemann via Unsplash.

Emergency medical evacuation is one of the most important yet misunderstood components of many travel-insurance policies. It’s so important that many travelers buy travel insurance just for the emergency-medical-evacuation component. Yet it’s misunderstood because when the time comes for a medical emergency it’s not always clear what is covered, and how the medical evacuation works.

In situations like this, it’s always best to go right to the source – your travel-insurance policy or Description of Coverage.

Believe it or not, in the policy documents for ExactCare and ExactCare Family there’s not a lot of “insurance-ese” in the description of what’s covered and how evacuation works.

When you look up “Emergency Evacuation” (and its less desirable sibling, “Repatriation of Remains”), the policy cuts to the chase right away: “The Company will pay for Covered Emergency Evacuation Expenses incurred due to an Insured’s Injury or Sickness that occurs while he or she is on a Trip.”

That pretty much says what you’d hope it would say: That if you’re sick or injured on a trip and need to be transported away from where you are, the policy will cover that, up to the amount that the policy says it’ll cover.

The need to be evacuated from remote places is one of the top reasons to buy travel insurance.
The need to be evacuated from remote places is one of the top reasons to buy travel insurance.

From here the policy starts defining terms, because it has to draw a few boxes around things in order to make it fair and clear for travelers, and legal for everyone. When it comes to medical evacuation, you don’t want a Monty Python policy.

For instance, the policy has to define a trip. BHTP defines it as overnight, and at least 100 miles from your primary residence. Reasonable.

After that, most policies define what the expenses are that the policy will pay. Lots of times that’s defined in terms of what is “customary and reasonable.” Basically, customary means what the going rate is for transportation in that area, and reasonable means that the going rate isn’t $1 million a mile. Along with that, most policies talk about things like “standard conveyances” (no hearses, thank you very much) and “the most direct route” (because if you’re evacuating someone because of a medical emergency, why would you take the scenic route?).

Also, medical evacuation needs to be ordered by someone in authority who isn’t the patient. It’s one thing for a patient to say, “I have a splinter. I need to be airlifted out of here.” It’s quite another for a doctor to say the same thing. Believe it or not, but hypochondriacs occasionally travel.

The next step is an important one, and it’s something a lot of travelers don’t think about when they have a medical emergency. In almost every case with almost every travel insurer, a medical evacuation has to be approved in advance by the insurance company before they’ll pay for it.

Now, there are going to be cases where that’s just not possible. Suppose someone is hiking in the Galapagos, hits her head, and is knocked out. She needs to get off of the island now, and she’s not going to suddenly sit up bolt upright and say, “Don’t forget – my travel insurance company is such-and-such.” No. Travel-insurance companies make allowances in such cases. After she’s conscious and able she can contact the insurance company, and they’ll work it out.

If you're traveling with someone, many insurers cover companion travel under their emergency-evacuation coverage. But read your policy to confirm that.
If you’re traveling with someone, many insurers cover companion travel under their emergency-evacuation coverage. But read your policy to confirm that.

A couple of other notes regarding emergency medical evacuation:

  • Most policies specify evacuation is to the nearest adequate medical facility, at least to begin with. If you insist on being evacuated to your hospital back home there are policies and riders that allow for that, but expect to buy up for that coverage.
  • Emergency medical evacuation can be terrifically expensive, and sometimes it’s not even a matter of the remoteness of your location. When you have the opportunity to buy a larger amount of medical-evacuation coverage, you’re wise to do it in most cases. It’s worth the little bit more you have to pay.
  • Very often (but not always) medical-evacuation coverage includes transportation costs for a traveling companion. If you’re traveling with someone, read the policy documents and make sure companion travel is covered.
  • Read your policy before you leave – before you buy, ideally. It really doesn’t take that long, and it will prevent 90 percent of the coverage questions you might have to ask while you’re traveling, when you really don’t want to be asking questions.
  • Finally, buy travel insurance. We recommend BHTP obviously, but it’s more important that you travel with some sort of coverage. And if you’re still wondering why, re-read the last 17 paragraphs. Medical evacuation stinks. Travel insurance can help pay for it. End of story.

Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.