Budget Traveler’s Guide To Travel Insurance

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Thoughts on travel insurance from a budget traveler who never thought she would need it…until she did. 

Travel insurance. What’s the deal? Do you really need it? How much is it? What kind should I get?

I put off answering these questions for years. I’ve been traveling consistently since 2015 and it wasn’t until 2019 that I actually bought my own travel insurance for the first time.

People might be thinking I am crazy or even incredibly stupid for traveling without insurance. Honestly, they’re probably right.

Traveling just kind of popped into my life when I was 18 and I dove in head-first without doing much research or planning.

But now that I’m older and wiser, and I’ve experienced medical emergencies abroad with and without having travel insurance, I’ve gained a bit more insight into the world of insurance and what it actually means for us budget travelers.

So in this budget traveler’s guide to travel insurance, I’ll cover some of the basics and weave in my own experience. Hopefully, readers will gain a better understanding of travel insurance and whether or not to buy it.

South Africa Transkei
I’ll explain why I was grateful to have travel insurance in South Africa at the end of this article.

What Is Travel Insurance?

Actually, let’s start even more basic than that.

What is INSURANCE? Insurance is something we should learn about in school, but instead, we learn trigonometry and read Catcher In The Rye.

Insurance is when you pay money to a company so that when something specific happens, they will pay for the expenses. Example: you buy car insurance so if you crash, the insurance company will pay for the damages.

So TRAVEL INSURANCE is when you pay for a plan that will cover your expenses if something travel-related goes wrong, such as a canceled flight, lost baggage, trip delays, etc.

Most travel insurance plans also come with emergency medical coverage. So if you get sick or injured overseas, they’ll cover your medical bills.

How Much Is Travel Insurance?

The cost of a travel insurance plan depends on where you are traveling to, how long you are traveling for, and of course, the insurance company you choose.

So generally speaking, the cost of travel insurance will increase if you travel for long periods of time, visit lots of high-risk countries, or pick a more expensive company.

Most travel insurance company websites have a form that you can fill out describing your trip, and they’ll give you an estimate on what the plan will cost.

If you have no idea what company to choose, just Google “travel insurance to (country) for (your nationality)” and scan the results. Some travel insurance companies are only for certain nationalities, so where you’re from factors into the price as well.

You can also search for travel insurance that ONLY covers medical expenses, or ONLY covers other things to cut the cost as well.

Just read every policy carefully before you buy it to know exactly what you’re getting.

lake atitlan travel insurance
I always thought travel insurance was too expensive, but it can actually be affordable if you look for the right things.

What Are The Pros And Cons Of Buying Travel Insurance?

So you know what travel insurance is, and you’ve done a Google Search for the country you’re visiting to see how much it costs. Should you buy the insurance?

The short answer is YES.

But for most of my traveling career, I still didn’t buy it. So many people are shaking their heads at me right now.

Why didn’t I buy travel insurance? Big surprise…MONEY!

Yes I am very stingy with my money, hence the theme of this entire website. Sometimes this is a great personality trait. It allows me to rack up savings and go traveling whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s a HUGE flaw of mine and I’m trying to work on it.

So for anyone else who can’t help but consider the costs of things and whether they’re worth it or not, here are the pros and cons of buying travel insurance.

Cons of Buying Travel Insurance

  • It can be expensive upfront, especially if you’re doing a long trip.
  • If everything goes well on your trip and you don’t have any emergency expenses, it can feel like a waste of money.
  • Plans usually don’t cover pre-existing medical conditions, but that’s normal for any insurance company.

Pros of Buying Travel Insurance

  • If you pick the right company, it can actually be pretty cheap.
  • If you get sick or injured abroad you don’t need to pay out of pocket for your medical expenses.
  • You have peace of mind knowing that you’re covered on your trip.

Looking at this logically, the pros of travel insurance greatly outweigh the cons. Better to spend a few hundred dollars before a trip than have to pay thousands out of pocket if you go to the hospital abroad.

Looking at this from the eyes of someone who budgets to the extreme, sometimes travel insurance might seem unnecessary. People are still shaking their heads at me…SORRY! But this is my genuine opinion and I’m trying to be honest. This brings me to my next point…

Consider The Nature Of Your Trip

The biggest benefit of buying travel insurance is having financial coverage and peace of mind should things go wrong.

Before a trip, consider the likelihood of things actually going wrong.

The truth is, you never know. That’s the tricky thing about insurance, you never think you’ll need it until suddenly you do.

So let’s break this down into the two main components of a travel insurance plan.

Travel-Related Coverage

Think of your flights, baggage, and travel schedule and whether or not having insurance would make you feel more comfortable. Also, be sure to check with your airlines about their delay/cancellations/baggage policies because sometimes they provide coverage even if you don’t have insurance.

Trip Cancellation

If something outrageous happens and you have to cancel your trip, travel insurance will refund your expenses. So consider the probability of that happening and how much your trip costs.

If the cost of the insurance is more expensive than the trip itself, you probably don’t need coverage. But if there’s even the slightest chance that something might come up and you’ll need to cancel, get insurance.

Flight Delays or Cancellations

If you’re on a time crunch or you have a super-short layover and can’t afford to miss a flight connection, travel insurance can come in handy. They’ll cover the expenses if you have to reschedule or buy a new flight.

But if you’re not in a rush, do you really need insurance coverage for a flight delay?

Lost Baggage

Travel insurance can be a life-saver if your bags get lost or damaged during travel.

But if you’re traveling with a cheap backpack and clothes you got from a hostel lost-and-found, you probably don’t care too much about lost baggage. (Always keep your most valuable possessions on your person while traveling)

Unexpected Global Pandemics

This possibility wasn’t really on anyone’s radar until now. I feel bad for people who booked travel before the Coronavirus and didn’t have travel insurance because they’ve probably lost a lot of money.

So this is the perfect example of why it’s smart to have travel insurance. For at least the next year, everyone should probably buy travel insurance just because of the current global pandemic.

how to find the cheapest flights abroad
Airlines usually run very smoothly, but things can still go wrong!

Medical Coverage

In my opinion, this is the most essential part of travel insurance. Airlines are so sophisticated these days that trip delays and lost bags are actually pretty rare.

But medical emergencies can happen to anyone at any time. Now that I’ve personally had medical bills abroad, I’d say this alone is reason enough to buy travel insurance all the time.

Still consider the following things about your travels.

Risk Of Disease

Some countries have more prominent diseases than others. Malaria, lyme disease, dengue fever, rabies, yellow fever, and other infectious diseases are still common in many parts of the world, particularly Southeast Asia, Africa, and South or Central America.

Always do research on the area you’re visiting. Are you visiting rural villages without medical centers? Are you venturing into the jungle or the rainforest? Are there higher risks for disease and infections in the areas you’re traveling to? If yes, definitely buy travel insurance.

Risk Of Injury

Consider what you’ll actually be doing during your travels and whether you might get injured. Will you be rock-climbing, surfing, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, or doing literally any sport? Will you be around animals that could bite you? Will you be building and working on ladders? You might get injured, so get insurance.

The Healthcare Systems In The Country You Are Visiting

Do a bit of research on the healthcare systems to see what type of support they offer for travelers. Some countries will have super cheap health care for everyone and some won’t.

In Peru, I had a stomach bug and got some medicine from the local doctor for free!

In Australia, a doctor’s visit with no insurance cost me $30.

Neither of those was expensive so I was fine without insurance.

I’d hate to think what would happen to a traveler in the USA without insurance. I’m a citizen and still have nightmares about a $300 bill for just one little shot. A foreigner having to ride in an ambulance or visit the hospital in the USA would probably go bankrupt.

So consider how forgiving the local healthcare system is, and whether you should be insured or not.

New England, USA
The USA is my home and I love it. But the healthcare system is WAY TOO EXPENSIVE!

Do You Want To Take The Risks?

What it all comes down to, is whether or not you want to take the risks.

Any of the issues I just listed are probably not that common, but they definitely could happen. How do you want to spend your money?

Do you want to spend money upfront IN CASE you have an accident?

Do you want to save money at the start and risk losing EVEN MORE money if you have an accident?

These are questions you have to ask yourself because only you can make the call.

Which Travel Insurance Company Should I Choose?

Once you’ve made the call and you’re ready to buy travel insurance, you have to choose a provider. The insurance company you choose defines how much money you’ll be paying and what type of coverage you’ll get.

There are SO MANY companies out there. Too many. It can be so overwhelming trying to find the right company for you, especially if it’s your first time buying travel insurance.

To save yourself hours of research, I recommend reading Consumer Advocate’s In-Depth Travel Insurance Review. They have compiled a list of the 10 best travel insurance companies based on detailed research, and they clearly know what they’re talking about.

So that’s a great resource if you want a general overview of some great insurance plans for traveling.

My Favorite Travel Insurance Company

That headline implies that I have so much experience with travel insurance companies.

In reality, I’ve only bought travel insurance once and it was before I went to South Africa.  I considered all the points that I listed above and made the call.

I was about to spend two months road-tripping and volunteering in South Africa. Rabies and malaria are common in some parts of the country, I’d be visiting rural and remote areas, and I’d be in close proximity to wild animals on safari. So I pulled the trigger and bought travel insurance for the first time.

My main priority was having medical coverage in South Africa. I didn’t care about all the trip coverage, and I realized I could search for plans that only included medical coverage. Cutting out half of the coverage meant that the prices were also cheaper!

So I did a Google Search: “Travel insurance in South Africa for Americans” and I found Squaremouth Insurance.

travel insurance for safari in Africa
If you’re getting this close to a wild bull elephant, you probably want to have travel insurance just in case.

Why I Chose Squaremouth Insurance

After searching through the Squaremouth Insurance website, I found a plan that covered me for 2 months in South Africa for only 60 USD. That is super cheap!! It only covered emergency medical expenses, but that’s all I wanted.

I was still a little hesitant before buying, so I made use of the live chat window on the Squaremouth Insurance website. I asked a million questions since I’d never bought travel insurance before and I was confused. A real person was there answering my questions, and I felt comfortable after.

After my medical emergency in South Africa, Squaremouth reimbursed me for 100% of my expenses.

I was so happy with Squaremouth Insurance that I now mention them in all of my articles! So if you see me promoting them, it’s because I genuinely had a good experience with them.

Now for anyone who is interested, I’ll get into my personal stories about when I did and didn’t buy travel insurance.

Why I Used To Skip The Travel Insurance

This is the part where I try to justify my previous reluctance to buy travel insurance.

Most of my trips abroad have been relatively tame. I gallivanted around Europe for a year and spent my time walking through cities, lounging on beaches, and doing a few hikes here and there.

My travels were pretty low-risk, and Europe doesn’t have any tropical diseases or rabid animals. I NEVER bought insurance in Europe, and I never needed it.

I also didn’t buy any insurance for Thailand or Cambodia, or anywhere in Latin America, and that was pretty risky. I did step on a sea urchin in Koh Phi Phi but luckily scraped by without any medical bills.

Why I Was Extremely Thankful To Have Travel Insurance In South Africa

So now the burning question, what transformed me from a penny-pincher into a strong advocate for travel insurance?

I got bit by a dog in the Transkei in South Africa. I actually got bit twice. The dog may or may not have been rabid.

My boyfriend and I were walking through the rural village where we were volunteering on a sunny Friday morning. We had just taken a tour of the local herbalist’s home. Read all about this amazing experience here.

herbalist South Africa
The super sweet local herbalist in the Nquileni Village of the Transkei. This day was so amazing until I got bit by a probably rabid dog.

Anyway, two dogs ran at us out of nowhere while we were walking home and one of them bit me twice on the leg.

After just brushing off the incident for a day or two, not wanting to draw attention to myself, I researched whether or not rabies was common in the Transkei (a rugged and remote region of the Eastern Cape). Turns out, rabies is super common there.

Next, I researched how serious rabies is. Turns out, most people who get rabies die and there is no cure. Cool. So we left our home at Bulungula Lodge and drove to the nearest doctor.

The Rabies Treatments

I needed 4 rabies shots and 2 immunoglobulin shots. Rabies is no joke. The rabies shots even have to be administered on specific days.

The first shot I got on Day 1 at the hospital. My boyfriend injected me with my second shot while we were hiking in the Drakensberg. The third shot broke so we had to rush to a hospital on a Sunday and get a new one.

The fourth shot I had to get the day I arrived home in the USA. That one shot alone cost me 300 USD. Home sweet home.

Everything combined, I spent close to 700 USD on my rabies treatment. I am still dumbfounded at how lucky I am that I chose THIS TRIP to buy travel insurance.

travel insurance in South Africa
This beautiful rural South African village taught me the importance of travel insurance!

Conclusions About Travel Insurance

Just to recap:

  • Travel insurance may seem unnecessary, but it’s a lifesaver when you actually need it.
  • The cost of the insurance depends on what type of coverage you’re getting, where you’re going, how long you’re traveling for, and which company you choose.
  • Consider the risks of your trip. Do the potential risks outweigh the cost of the plan? If yes, get the insurance.
  • Check out the detailed review of the 10 best travel insurance companies on Consumer’s Advocate.
  • I highly recommend Squaremouth Insurance because they fully reimbursed me for the 700 USD I spent on rabies treatments in South Africa.

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If you’re looking for any more budget travel tips, check out these articles!

15 Must-Have Travel Essentials

How To Find The Cheapest Flights Abroad

How To Afford Traveling The World In Your 20’s

Travel Hacks For Europe

How To Stay Healthy While Traveling

A BUDGET TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO TRAVEL INSURANCE

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