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Our Complete Guide to Choosing, Buying, and Using Travel Insurance

Imagine the sinking feeling you might feel when you realize that you’re in deep trouble abroad. Perhaps you’re feeling extremely sick, or you’ve gotten into a car accident. Maybe your things have been stolen, or you’re stranded in an airport because your flight has been cancelled. These kinds of situations are always horrible, but there’s one solution to help protect you against all of them: travel insurance.

Contrary to popular belief, most travel insurance isn’t just for medical needs. Many plans include a complete set of benefits, ranging from theft insurance to evacuations, medical needs to flight delays/cancellations, and much, much more. In past travels, I’ve had to use travel insurance and nowadays, I hardly ever leave home without it.

To help you better understand the various plans and why they are helpful, I put together this complete guide to choosing, purchasing, and using travel insurance. Don’t get caught in a sticky travel situation without it!

***Note: Some of the links below are affiliate links. By making a purchase from these links, Jetfarer may receive a commission at no additional cost to you. As always, we only recommend companies we use and love, so rest assured that we will keep it real!

Why Purchase Travel Insurance?

Travel insurance is an insurance policy travelers can purchase to protect them financially against a variety of emergency situations during their travels. Typically, these plans run anywhere from $20-70 per month. With a travel insurance plan, you can get reimbursed for things like hospital bills, getting a hotel during a flight cancellation, car accidents, and more.

Maybe you’ve never purchased travel insurance before, and perhaps you’ve been lucky and have never gotten sick or had a flight cancelled in a foreign place. I have a lot of readers come to me and say, “Travel insurance is too expensive. I’m never going to buy it.”

I used to be like you. Up until my 4-month career break trip to Southeast Asia, I was extremely lucky during my travels, rarely getting sick, never getting robbed or having more than a 2-hour flight delay. Even though I knew it wasn’t true, I felt totally invincible while traveling.

However, when my appendix ruptured in rural Thailand in 2015 and I had to rush to the nearest hospital to have emergency surgery, I realized that travel insurance literally saved my life. Before my trip, I was lucky to have purchased World Nomads travel insurance on a whim. Not only did they reimburse me for the medical costs, ambulances, and surgery, they also took care of my hotels for the two weeks I was recovering in Chiang Mai.

Although I don’t purchase travel insurance for every single trip, I now always factor it into the cost of going anywhere. I learned the hard way that, in most travel circumstances, travel insurance should not be negotiable.

When Should You Purchase Travel Insurance?

It’s always better to play it safe with travel insurance. When I’m not sure if I should buy it, I tend to err on the side of caution and get it anyway. Typically, this means any time I’m going abroad, or partaking in adventure activities away from home that are not covered by my primary medical insurance.

Generally, I purchase travel insurance when I’m:

  • Planning on traveling internationally for more than one weekend
  • Traveling domestically, but to a rural area or to a territory not covered by most US insurance
  • Doing something adventurous (e.g., scuba diving, high-altitude hiking) that’s not covered by my main insurance provider

When Should You NOT Purchase Travel Insurance?

Although travel insurance is super handy, you likely don’t need to purchase it every single time you leave home. Typically, I reserve this for cases where my credit card insurance (flight delays, theft, etc.) or my own US health insurance (medical expenses) has me covered.

Some examples of trips where I did not purchase travel insurance are: a weekend trip to Boston, a family trip to San Francisco, work trips back and forth from Canada, and a hiking trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Generally, I opt out of buying travel insurance when I’m:

  • Traveling for work
  • Exploring domestically in urban or well-populated destinations
  • Going internationally to an accessible (urban) location for less than three days

However, everyone’s situation is different and I hope that you will be sure to purchase travel insurance when you feel it is appropriate for you. As the cliche goes – better safe than sorry!

Types of Travel Insurance

There are many different types of travel insurance, and not all plans are created equal. Different policies cover you in different scenarios, so it’s always important to read the plan carefully to figure out if it has what you need. Some of the most common types of travel insurance include:

  • Medical Insurance – Covers medical emergencies, medical expenses, and ambulance transit
  • Evacuation Insurance – Covers evacuations from the country
  • Car Rental Insurance – Covers damage and emergencies pertaining to a rental car
  • Theft Insurance – Covers theft and material loss of items (e.g., electronics, jewelry)
  • Trip Interruption Insurance – Covers flight delays and cancellations
  • Comprehensive Plans – Include some combination of the above, and sometimes more

Take note that some travel credit cards come with certain benefits, like car rental insurance and basic flight delay or flight cancellation insurance. And, if you have a medical insurance plan at home, they tend to cover domestic medical needs in most situations. However, these benefits sometimes get diluted or invalidated when traveling internationally, so it’s important to check the fine print if either of these situations apply to you. Usually, when I’m purchasing travel insurance, I go with a comprehensive plan, which covers me against a variety of different issues or emergency situations.

Choosing a Travel Insurance Provider and Plan

Here comes the tricky part: choosing a provider and a plan. With loads of different companies offering travel insurance packages, it can be difficult to figure out which one is the right one for you. Choosing the right plan all boils down to two things: reliability and trust.

Our Recommended Provider

Like I mentioned, I’ve had to use travel insurance before in a life-threatening situation, and my provider really came through for me. Therefore, I strongly recommend World Nomads for your travel insurance needs. World Nomads plans tend to be on the more expensive side of the available plans, but having interfaced with them before, I trust them and feel that they delivered on their promises. If you’re looking for an insurance provider that you can trust, I can’t stress how awesome World Nomads is.

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When I was in Thailand recovering, they not only covered all of my medical expenses and transportation, but they also covered all of my hotel expenses while I was recovering. They gave me a budget of up to $250 a night, which in Thailand gave me a really nice and comfortable hotel room to enjoy while I was recovering from surgery. Their plans are truly comprehensive and they have 24-hour customer service in case of an emergency.

Weighing Your Options

Although it’s our favorite provider, World Nomads isn’t the only travel insurance provider. I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you to weigh your options first before deciding to purchase travel insurance. I encourage you to explore the coverage policies, peruse the different plans, check out the price points,  and read the external reviews before coming to a final decision.

Some of the most popular travel insurance providers include:

Choosing a Plan

When choosing a plan, be sure to compare the coverage you already have through other means (personal insurance, work insurance, and credit card insurance), the coverage you’d like to get, and the coverage that the providers and plans offer. Determine what you already have (e.g., domestic medical insurance, damage insurance for your electronics/car, etc.) and what you’ll need (e.g., international medical insurance, evacuation insurance, etc.).

Also, take a look at your budget and determine how flexible you are in terms of price. Many of the providers offer different tiers of products at different price points, and pricing varies a lot between different providers and plans.

Lastly, determine what level of coverage you will need based on the activities you plan on doing. For example, if you’re not planning on doing extreme adventure sports, don’t buy the “adventure” tier of insurance. Conversely, if you ARE planning on doing any kind of adventurous activity that you’d want to be covered for, make sure it’s on the list of covered activities for your plan (many providers differentiate this by tier!).

The tl;dr here? Be sure to read the fine print of each plan you are considering and understand what it does and does not cover. If you want access to extra benefits like a 24-hour phone line or an online portal, be sure that those are included too.

Using Your Travel Insurance

Understanding Your Benefits

One of the most important aspects of having travel insurance is understanding what’s included. So many times I’ve gone without reading the entirety of the policy, then figured out much later that I was covered for something! I’m not doing that again…

When you purchase any travel insurance plan, it should come with a PDF or print-out of the entire policy. Make sure you read it and understand where you are covered. I’d suggest printing it out, marking it up, and keeping a copy with you on your trip, as well as emailing it to an emergency contact in case you need assistance from back home. In addition, have the insurance provider’s email and phone number handy in case you need to contact them.

Certain plans may need pre-trip documentation, especially if you’re having electronics, other valuables, or trip cancellations insured. If this is the case, make sure you compile the necessary receipts and documents before your trip and have them available in case you need them. You don’t want to be in a situation where you can’t make a claim because you didn’t have the proper paperwork!

Making a Claim

Most travel insurance policies operate on a claim-and-reimburse system. In this case, you collect the required documentation and submit it to the company in a claim, and then they reimburse you accordingly.

If you need to make a claim, the number one most important thing you need to remember is to document everything on paper. Be obnoxious about getting everything in writing. Did you have a medical procedure done? Get a summary and receipt from the doctor. Did your car rental suffer some damage? Be sure to get paperwork and documentation from the rental company. Did your camera get stolen? File a police report and keep a copy. The biggest challenge with many insurance companies is that they can reject claims if you do not have the proper paperwork.

In order to have my expenses and hotel reimbursed in Thailand, I provided some important paperwork:

  • Receipts from my ambulances and hospital visits
  • A doctor’s medical report diagnosing the problem and prescribing surgery and certain medications (which I also got reimbursed)
  • A doctor’s status report saying I was not allowed to fly for two weeks (as justification for the hotel)
  • Hotel receipts from my two weeks in Chiang Mai

In the end, I got everything reimbursed, but the process took time and I saved every last scrap of paper involved in my incident until the money hit my bank account. Documentation is the key to protecting yourself.

Once you’ve gathered the required paperwork, your insurance provider should have an online portal or email address where you can submit it for reimbursement. This process can often take a while and may necessitate some follow-up calls with the company, so it will require some patience. But, if your situation is covered by the policy and you have documentation and receipts, you will be fine!

The Bottom Line

When traveling internationally or doing adventure activities, travel insurance has become a critical part of my travel planning process. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be here writing this post or running this site for you. Next time you travel internationally, do yourself a BIG favor and purchase travel insurance. If you don’t use it, great! You had a trip with no harm befalling you. And if you DO use it, you can feel safe and secure because someone’s got your back.

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Do you buy travel insurance when you travel? Which provider do you use? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Kay is a full-time media professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare day of time to travel the world. In the last year alone, she's visited over 10 different countries and taken a dozen short trips in between. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

1 Comment

  1. I purchased insurance from Allianz, at the suggestion of a friend. It was about $100 for an entire year covering medical, damage on a rental car, etc. Within a few months it already had paid off when I got into an accident in Portugal. Nobody was hurt, but I did get a bill for $600 for the damage on the car. I paid it on my own and with receipts, Allianz reimbursed me within 2 weeks of making the claim!

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