For a lot of us, hitting midlife can open up travel opportunities — we don’t need to hoard our vacation time for school breaks, we have a bit more disposable income with tuition payments behind us, and we can explore those dream destinations that would have made our kids miserable.
But health concerns can hit us at midlife, too. The good news? You don’t have to hold off on travel just because you have diabetes, heart disease, joint pain, or another pre-existing health condition. With the right blend of planning and insurance, you can explore the world, knowing you’ll have access to care if you need it.
Don’t leave home without these essentials
Make it less likely that you’ll need medical care while you’re traveling. Here’s what to bring:
• All your medications. “You will need to take your medications in the original bottles with the pharmacy labels,” says Anna Ransom, owner of Destination Yours Travel, based in Las Cruces, N.M. If you’re taking a long trip, you might need to contact your insurance company for approval for enough refills to last.
And plan for medication that needs to be temperature controlled. Meg Wubbenhorst of Austin, Texas, who travels around the world with rheumatoid arthritis, carries a cooler so she can keep medication chilled when she doesn’t have access to refrigeration.
• Extra equipment. Francesco-Maria Serino, MD, PhD, a geriatrics specialist in Rome with Doctors in Italy, says things like CPAP equipment for treating sleep apnea often get lost when an airline misplaces luggage. “My advice is to always bring two of everything, and put them in different suitcases,” he says. He also recommends taking pictures of your equipment so it’s easier to identify if you need to find a replacement.
• A copy of your medical history and your doctors’ names and phone numbers in case you need them.
• A credit card with a high limit. “Almost all medical facilities overseas require payment upfront before they give treatment,” Ransom says. “Your travel insurance will reimburse you for your expenses, but they will not pay the hospital directly. Always keep every receipt and request receipts as detailed as they can provide.”
Figure out your medication logistics
In this post-9/11 era, airport security measures are tight — but inconsistent. Research the airport security protocols in the countries you’ll be visiting so you can package your medication properly and avoid hassles in the security line.
And look into your destinations’ laws regarding medications. “I didn’t go to Japan, because they have extremely stringent rules for medications,” Wubbenhorst says. “I would have been required to get an official document from the Japanese government and it just wasn’t worth the hassle. I was too worried I’d get turned away.”
Make sure you’re covered if you need care
Start with a phone call to your existing health insurance company to find out what coverage you’ll have when you’re out of the country. You may be able to add an overseas coverage option to your existing policy. Medicare doesn’t cover you internationally, but you may be able to add a Medigap plan that does.
Then, evaluate your coverage to see if it makes sense to buy additional travel health insurance.
You’ll most likely want to have coverage for three key areas:
• Your chronic or pre-existing health conditions
• Emergency evacuation to get you to a hospital that can meet your needs. “If you are traveling to a country with a healthcare system you cannot rely fully on, in case anything serious happens, you will probably wish to be transferred back home, a luxury that can cost you more than $100,000,” Serino says.
• Transportation so a family member can join you if you’re alone. “These kind of secondary benefits might not seem important, but when you need them they can be very helpful,” says Justin Tysdal, CEO of travel insurance provider Seven Corners, based in Carmel, Indiana.
Disclose your pre-existing conditions
“In regards to pre-existing conditions, it’s always best to be upfront and honest about them because if you don’t declare them and then have to make a claim, you most likely won’t be covered,” says cancer survivor Anthony Bianco of Australia’s The Travel Tart.
What’s a pre-existing condition? That depends on the insurance policy language. “People should look at the glossary of terms to see how a pre-existing condition is defined,” says Phil Sylvester, spokesperson for World Nomads, based in Oakland, Calif. “Typically, it means an illness, disease, or condition that you’ve seen or been advised to see a doctor for, that you’ve received any treatment or diagnostic tests for, or for which you have taken drugs or prescription medicine.”
Sylvester says diabetes and cancer would be pre-existing conditions. “But it doesn’t have to be a major disease to be considered a pre-existing condition. It could be that pesky cough that you thought was just a minor annoyance — but turns out that you need a doctor’s prescription when away on your trip abroad.”
Pre-existing conditions also don’t have to be diagnosed, says Steve Dasseos, founder of Trip Insurance Store in Lake Winnebago, Missouri. “Any medical condition, no matter how minor it is, may be a pre-existing medical condition.”
Watch out for loopholes
Make sure you buy your travel health insurance early. You may have to purchase it within 48 hours to two weeks of booking your trip to have your pre-existing condition covered. Plus, you’ll want your coverage in place in case anything happens between the time you book your trip and the time you travel.
And, make sure you’re healthy enough to take the trip. Most policies mandate that you are well enough to travel when you buy the policy. So, say you’re recovering from joint replacement surgery and your doctor predicts you’ll be able to travel in four weeks. You might not be covered if you buy the policy before your doctor clears you for travel.
If something goes wrong…
Ideally, your trip will come and go, and you’ll face nothing more serious than a touch of jet lag. But if you need medical care while you’re traveling, contact your insurance company as soon as you can.
“People often call the next day,” Tysdal says. “That’s understandable — they want to figure it out themselves.” But your insurance provider can direct you to the closest pharmacy, doctor, or hospital. And if medical care isn’t up to par at your location, they can help get you to an appropriate facility.
Take advantage of those benefits — you paid for them. “A good insurance company will offer a concierge service to help you locate doctors, translators, and anything else you might require during a medical emergency while traveling,” says Christine Hardenberger, owner of Modern Travel Professionals in Richmond, Virginia.