SARS and travel insurance, plus websites and more

By Wayne Wirtanen
This item appears on page 39 of the July 2003 issue.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has added a whole new dimension to international travel. This is a significant concern for mature travelers, as it has been reported that the fatality rate of patients over the age of 65 is 50%.

The most important thing to know is that your travel insurance policy will not reimburse you if you cancel a trip simply because you are worried about potential exposure to SARS. The policy may reimburse if it can be demonstrated that exposure to SARS would be especially hazardous because of an already existing health problem.

Dan McGinnity, spokesman for Travel Guard Group, Inc., was quoted recently in a Wall Street Journal article: “Since 9/11, everyone has rewritten terrorism coverage. In the next six months to a year, (SARS coverage) could possibly change too.”

If you develop symptoms of this new respiratory illness during international travel, the health insurance clauses of your travel insurance policy should cover related medical expenses. Check on this detail before traveling to SARS hazard areas.


Expect to pay, yourself, for any overseas medical costs — the travel insurance carrier will reimburse you when you return home. You must contact your travel insurance “hot line” as soon as possible in a medical emergency situation. They are prepared to provide excellent assistance in getting you to appropriate English-speaking medical providers.

I have found only one travel insurance company that will pay overseas medical costs upfront for you. MedEx Assist’s website,, has the following text: “Foreign doctors and hospitals require upfront payment, delaying treatment and drastically depleting a traveler’s funds. TravMed Abroad (the name of their policy) protects you from this concern by making direct payments to physicians, hospitals and the organization handling evacuations.”

The TravMed Abroad medical coverage costs $4 a day, or $5.75 a day for those age 71 to 80. Trip-cancellation insurance is also available at extra cost (6% of the cost of the trip) when purchasing the medical coverage. They do not waive the preexisting-condition clause. Call MedEx Assist at 800/537-2029.

Most people buy travel insurance for the trip-cancellation coverage. It has been possible in the past to buy “stand alone” trip-cancellation protection; however, travel insurance companies have been discontinuing this product. They say that in the purchase of a “complete” travel insurance package, the cancellation protection represents about 80% of the cost. Therefore, it’s cost effective to supply the health and other benefits for only modest extra cost.

Your existing health insurance

Medicare, as you know, does not cover health care outside of the USA. (An exception is if you have a problem very near the Canadian or Mexican border and the closest appropriate health care facility is in a narrow strip of Canadian or Mexican territory.) For details, get a copy of “Your Medicare Handbook” by calling Medicare at 800/772-1213.

Some “Medigap” supplemental policies reimburse for overseas medical expenses. We carry a Blue Shield policy that pays 75% of overseas medical costs after a $250 deductible.

The health insurance policy that you maintain at home will probably cover SARS medical expenses, but check to make sure. (Most travel insurance policies provide only “secondary coverage”; that is, they pay only what your normal health insurance policy does not.)

Most regular health insurance plans, including Kaiser and other HMOs, have some provision for overseas health problems. Check on this before your trip to see if additional travel health insurance is advisable.

Many companies have a brochure that you can take along with instructions on how to deal with overseas health problems. Generally, they will reimburse you when you return home; you must, however, remember to bring home detailed records of treatments and costs in English. If translation appears to be a problem, contact the closest American embassy or consulate for assistance.


Travel insurance websites are provided by brokers who sell a variety of travel insurance policies. To pull up comparisons of available products and costs for a trip, it is necessary only to enter your age and a few of the trip details.

Browsing through these websites provides access to a great deal of additional information related to your destination, such as government travel warnings and general travel advice.

The “fine print” of any policy with conditions, exclusions, etc., is displayed with a few keystrokes. Additionally, financial and reliability ratings by the insurance industry watchdog, AM Best, are available.

Side-by-side comparisons of policies are easy to make, and important details regarding waiving of the preexisting-condition clause and bankruptcy protection, for example, are clearly explained.

On one of the websites, I punched up information on a hypothetical 14-day trip costing $3,200, inputting my age and state of residence. I found numerous policies available with costs in the ballpark of $320 (10% of the cost of the trip).

Check out these websites

Punch up “travel insurance” on the Google search engine and you’ll find the following websites and other travel insurance providers. If you don’t have access to a computer, most public libraries provide no-cost computer access and will probably show you how to connect to these and other websites. has been providing the insurance-comparison information service for quite some time. If you still have a question about coverage, call the toll-free number 800/786-5566, extension 3121, and Dan Drennan will give individual attention to your inquiry. has a very comprehensive website and is expanding the available information aggressively. is another website with access to many travel insurance policies.

One shortcoming common to all the websites that I reviewed is that the provider that I recommend for emergency medical evacuation coverage, Divers Alert Network (DAN), is not listed. DAN is a nonprofit organization, and their low fee ($29 for a year’s coverage or $44 for a family plan) probably does not allow for sufficient sales commissions for an outside agent.

DAN can be reached by calling 800/446-2671 or visiting

This is the only travel insurance that my wife and I carry for international travel. Emergency medical evacuation services are almost never covered by a health insurance plan that you have at home.


A few years ago I did some research on the likelihood of an American tourist being hospitalized during an overseas trip. My figures indicated about one hospital admission for every 1,000 trips, which was confirmed by a spokesperson from Travel Guard.

On overseas trips, my wife and I carry extra cash and/or travelers’ checks as well as credit cards with high available balances to provide for the relatively unlikely occurrence of a medical emergency.

Happy trails.