Igor Natanzon had long dreamed of visiting Antarctica. But his photographic expedition to the South Pole turned into a nightmare after a rogue wave slammed into his ship and he required a medical evacuation.
The wave hit the vessel as Natanzon, a software engineer from Hallandale Beach, Florida, was descending a flight of stairs on the lower deck. He lost his grip on the handrail and tumbled down the stairway, fracturing his lower leg.
“I had medical evacuation insurance,” he recalls. “But I never thought I’d have to use it.”
Natanzon was lucky. Airlifting sick or injured passengers from the Antarctic can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ve spoken with travelers who had to tap their retirement savings to cover a medical evacuation bill. So when do you need medical evacuation coverage — and when can you do without it?
“Even if you’re in good health, accidents can happen anywhere,” says Tom Bochnowski, the vice president of marketing for Redpoint travel insurance, which covered Natanzon’s medical evacuation through his travel company, Muench Workshops. “Being able to get home for treatment by your own doctors in your own home country is invaluable.”
To find out what kind of coverage you need, you must review the coverage you already have. Credit cards or health or travel insurance policies may cover emergency medical evacuations, but consumers should read the fine print to be sure.
Only high-end credit cards marketed to frequent travelers offer emergency medical evacuation coverage. It most often covers transportation to the “nearest acceptable facility” rather than all the way home. The Chase Sapphire Reserve and Citi Prestige credit cards cover medical evacuations up to $100,0000. The American Express Platinum Card has no limit on its emergency medical evacuation coverage.
Health insurance policies generally don’t provide coverage for travel outside the country. For example, Blue Cross/Blue Shield may cover some medical expenses overseas — coverage varies by state — but the company recommends an additional product called GeoBlue. GeoBlue’s basic “Voyager” product covers medical evacuations up to $500,000.
Travelers should review coverage limits, warns James Walloga, executive vice president for accident & health at Chubb North America. “Some policies have as low as $5,000 for medical expenses and $10,000 for emergency transportation,” he says. “That may not provide enough coverage, depending on where you’re traveling.”
Some travelers buy an annual membership in Global Rescue or Medjet to supplement their travel insurance. An annual membership in Global Rescue, which costs $329, covers evacuation from your location to your hospital of choice and round-the-clock medical advisory services supported by Johns Hopkins Medicine. Medjet has a global network of aircraft to get you to a hospital of your choosing and also handles security and crisis response under some annual memberships, which start at $99.
Do you need all of that? It depends on your circumstances and where you’re traveling. Here’s a checklist.
- If you’re leaving the country: Don’t rely on health insurance or your credit card for medical evacuation coverage outside the country, experts say. “I always recommend getting medical evacuation and catastrophic injury coverage whenever a person travels out of the country,” says Chris Goodnow, a partner at Goodnow McKay, a Phoenix law firm that often deals with insurance and medical evacuations.
- If you’re taking a cruise: If Natanzon’s story isn’t enough to make you consider a medical evacuation policy, then consider Fred Claussen’s. He suffered a massive heart attack on a cruise and found himself stranded in St. Kitts for a week. Cruise infirmaries can handle only basic emergencies, and modern medical facilities are often hundreds or thousands of miles away.
- If you’re engaging in a high-risk activity: Travel insurance often excludes high-risk activities such as mountain climbing or scuba diving. “If your policy doesn’t cover injury sustained on a moped — many deem them motorcycles and, therefore, disallow coverage — or doesn’t cover adventure travel, they’re not going to cover an evacuation,” says John Gobbels, the chief operating officer of Medjet. Gobbels still recommends travel insurance, noting that a membership in a medical air transport program is a supplement to insurance, not a replacement.
- Personal preference is a factor. For example, if you’re a nervous traveler, you might feel better with both a travel insurance policy that has a generous medical evacuation benefit and an annual membership in a medical transport program, even if you’re just taking a hiking trip out west. But if you aren’t afraid of taking risks, a garden-variety travel insurance program might feel fine for your next European vacation.
As for Natanzon, the ship dropped him off on King George Island, near the Antarctic Peninsula. He flew to a hospital in Chile on a plane and then home to Florida on a private jet. Medical insurance covered all of his costs. “I have been to some dangerous parts of the world, and came out OK, so I guess I grew a bit complacent about the possibility of an injury,” he says.
But the experience didn’t deter him from further adventures. In fact, he’s returning to Antarctica this month to finish his photo expedition.
“I’ll make sure I’m covered,” he says.