What should you do if you get sick abroad?

21 June 2024
What should you do if you get sick abroad?

US citizens are highly aware of the need for medical insurance and what can happen if you don’t have it. If you are injured or become ill when you’re traveling abroad, that insurance you worked hard to establish back home is worthless once you leave the country.

And you don’t have to be too far off-shore before you are out of network, as this couple learned while on a cruise in the Bahamas.

Despite the fact that many non-US countries have robust public health systems, there is no free health insurance for US visitors traveling abroad. To be fair, visitors to the US have no free medical care either, as this man learned when he found himself with a $42,000 medical bill after traveling to the US for his daughter’s wedding.

Here’s what you need to know to manage an illness abroad.

Do your research before you leave

Some countries require visitors to have travel medical insurance to enter the country, and it’s not hard to imagine why. The US government is not going to pay the medical bills racked up by its citizens abroad, as is stated all over the travel.state.gov website:

The Czech Republic, for example, requires tourists to carry proof of travel medical insurance:

Before you leave the US, you must research these things:

  • What are the requirements for medical insurance?
  • How good is access to local medical care where you are traveling?
  • How do you contact local emergency services?
  • What constitutes proof of insurance?

For most of the above, you can find the answers on travel.state.gov.

Tip: Proof of insurance is typically a summary of benefits, which your travel insurance provider can provide.

Where is travel medical coverage required?

The list of countries that require travel insurance adjusts often, and some countries have additional travel requirements like pre-registration, proof of vaccination, and more.

I hesitate to list the countries that require travel insurance because there are so many factors involved. 

Here are a few examples:

  • Cuba requires travel medical insurance for visitors, but it may be included in the price of your airline ticket. Even so, Americans can’t visit the country purely for tourism.
  • Saudi Arabia has a medical insurance fee included in the cost of a visa, but you can’t see what it covers.
  • Schengen Visa countries in Europe require travel insurance for stays longer than 90 days, but I confess I’ve never been asked to show my proof of insurance at any of the borders. Have you?

The level of complexity is daunting, so of course, I always recommend you have travel medical when you leave the country.

Pro tip: Here’s how to unlock the full potential of your travel insurance plan, including medical benefits.

Learn how to get medical treatment

On a winter trip in Germany, we learned first-hand how their medical system works – and it’s very different from ours. Because of the research we’d done before leaving, we knew that when one traveler in our party was ill with some serious nasal and chest congestion, we could go to a pharmacist. 

Two days after a friendly chat about her symptoms (in German and English), she was feeling much better on the prescribed medicines that cost only $12, and she got a commemorative mug!

Without that earlier research, we may have floundered, unsure of what to do. Don’t do that to yourself.

Know who to contact

If you find yourself or a loved one ill while outside the US, knowing who to contact is your first course of action.

  1. Before you go, learn how to contact local emergency services.
  2. Depending on the severity of the situation, you can contact any local US embassy or consulate for a list of medical providers.
  3. If you purchased travel insurance, contact the provider immediately to alert them of the situation and get their advice. 

Note: Some travel insurance providers will not cover medical costs abroad unless they are first authorized, so take the time to check in with them.

In the event the situation is serious or life-threatening, you may have no choice but to contact local emergency services and manage the financial consequences later.

Have some medications with you

We ALWAYS travel with a medical kit that includes the common medicines we use to treat colds, allergies, cuts, etc.

It’s small and tucks into the suitcase, and we’ve relied on it more times than I can count

Here’s what to pack in your travel medical kit.

Make sure that you have basic medical information for each person traveling with you too. That includes:

  • Names and dosages of each medication you are taking, including antimalarials (copies of your prescriptions are a good idea because you may be able to get replacement medications if yours fall overboard on a river cruise, for instance)
  • List of allergies and any current or chronic illnesses – plus your blood type
  • Name, phone number, and email address of your primary care physician
  • Travel health insurance company name, identification number, and phone number

Keep this information handy in case a visit to the hospital is necessary.

Use a translation app to communicate

Your high-school Spanish skills are perfect for hiring a boat and ordering dinner, but they will not be helpful in a highly charged emergency medical situation.

Have a good translation app on your phone so you can speak with non-English medical providers and understand what’s going on. These are the best and easiest to use:

  1. iTranslate
  2. Google Translate
  3. SayHi

Pro tip: The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers is a helpful resource for finding English-speaking medical providers in countries where that language may be limited.

Take care of yourself

Whether you seek medical care in a foreign country or not, take care of yourself and avoid making your condition worse. It’s important to stay hydrated and try to get as much rest as possible. 

Don’t push yourself to get better just to stay on your itinerary.

Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.