As the Indian Ocean tsunami tragically demonstrated, disaster can strike without warning and with terrible consequences. Almost all of the more than 150,000 victims were residents of the affected countries, of course, but a few thousand were vacationers, including some from the United States.
There is no sure protection for travelers against natural disasters, accidents, illness, or other perils. However, it is indicative of these nervous times that the percentage of travelers taking out trip insurance is estimated to have almost tripled in the last few years.
Many travel insurance plans cover just trip cancellations, date changes, lost or delayed luggage, and the like, but travel insurance that also includes the cost of emergency medical treatment and air evacuation back home or to the nearest good hospital can literally be a lifesaver. There usually is no age restriction for such insurance, but seniors sometimes have to pay higher premiums.
One of the largest companies specializing exclusively in medical travel insurance is MedjetAssist (www.medjetassist.com), which protects policyholders who fall sick or are injured almost anywhere in the world, as long as they are more than 150 miles from their home. If they are hospitalized, doctors based at company headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center work by phone, e-mail, and computer with the medical team treating them. When able to be moved, the patients are flown to the hospital of their choice aboard a medically equipped and staffed airplane.
An annual policy, or membership, as MedjetAssist calls it, is $205 for an individual and $325 for a family. A membership good for a single trip starts at $69 for one week.
Recognizing the growing numbers of grandparents who vacation with their grandchildren, the company recently introduced a special "grandfamily" rate. Holders of MedjetAssist annual memberships can now add grandchildren 18 or younger to their policy for a charge of $75 per grandchild.
Air Ambulance Card (www.airambulancecard.com) is another company offering medical evacuation and repatriation insurance. For an annual $295 for a family and $195 for an individual, members traveling 150 miles or more from home are flown to any hospital they choose in a fully equipped ambulance plane.
Tour companies usually don't include any sort of medical coverage in their basic trip package price but generally offer policies covering trip cancellation and medical emergencies for an additional charge. An exception is Elderhostel (www.elderhostel.org), the Boston-based nonprofit organization specializing in educational travel for older adults, which includes a travel assistance and insurance plan in all its programs at no extra cost.
The Elderhostel plan covers emergency medical evacuation and will pick up some medical costs not covered by a program participant's own insurance. With 11 weeks' or more notice, Elderhostel also allows participants to transfer from one program to another without paying a fee. It also has had a policy of waiving withdrawal and transfer fees in the event of natural or national disaster, such as the 9/11 terrorist attack, until the situation stabilizes.
Grand Circle Travel (www.gct.com), also headquartered locally and the largest US tour operator specializing in the 50-plus traveler, has a comprehensive insurance plan with both trip cancellation and medical coverage, including air evacuation if necessary. The plan is available to participants in its own tours, which include river cruises, and those of its soft adventure division, Overseas Adventure Tours (www.oattravel.com).
The cost of the GCT plan, reportedly its most popular offering, is based on the price of the trip. For a land tour and river cruise costing up to $2,000, for example, the price is $200 per person. For a land tour costing $2,500, the price would be $224 and, for a similarly priced river cruise, $229.
However, travel insurance often is priced using a formula that factors in both age and total trip cost. This is true of the coverage offered by Travel Guard International (www.travelguard.com), the country's biggest exclusively travel insurance provider.
"Typically, the cost of a policy is 5 to 7 percent of the trip," says Carol Mueller, Travel Guard spokeswoman. "We tell people to look on a trip as an investment and protect it as they would any other investment."
Travel Guard's most popular policy, designed for the leisure traveler, is the ProtectAssist plan. Among other things, this policy will refund the full cost of a trip that has to be canceled or interrupted for sufficient reason, such as death or illness in the family. "Just changing your mind isn't a good reason," says Mueller.
The plan will also pay out up to $25,000 in medical expenses and $500,000 for emergency medical transportation. Under the Travel Guard formula, the ProtectAssist premium for a trip costing $2,000-$2,500 per person for someone age 35 to 59 would be $145. For someone 80 to 84, the price would be $353.
William A. Davis can be reached at email@example.com. His column on senior travel appears the first Sunday of the month.