What to do when you need more than travel insurance

If you’ve shopped around for travel insurance, maybe you’ve stumbled across something that looks a lot like insurance, works a lot like insurance, but isn’t quite insurance.

It’s a travel security membership, and can cover medical evacuation, security services and kidnapping protection, often acting as a supplement — or substitute — to a traditional travel insurance policy.

Which has travelers wondering: Do I need insurance for my next trip? Or one of these membership options? Or, even, both?

In at least one sense, the two products accomplish a different goal, say experts.

“Travel insurance protects you from financial loss,” explains Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, a medical evacuation services company. “Medical evacuation offers protection from physical loss.”

But there are also some more nuanced differences that are important to understand before you take your next trip.

“While there is some overlap between the two products, they are different in a number of key ways,” says Jack Plaxe the founder and managing director of the Security Consulting Alliance, a boutique consulting firm based in Louisville, KY.

Travel insurance is a regulated insurance product, and it covers named events like flight cancellations, lost or stolen passports, lost luggage, severe weather, and medical emergencies. While most insurance offers a hotline with “concierge” style services, the focus is often on reimbursing travelers for unexpected expenses.

A travel security membership can also help with medical emergencies, including those that require medical evacuation. But, true to its name, its focus is on safety. For example, most travel security programs offer detailed country and city information, such as pre-departure travel briefings, that will provide insights into the security environment.

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Also, many travel security companies have vetted providers who can provide secure airport transfers, ground transportation, and executive protection services. In the event of civil unrest, many companies will help you decide if it’s best to shelter in place or to evacuate. When evacuation becomes necessary, they’ll determine the safest way to do so, whether by air, water or over land according to Plaxe.

In other words, to a certain extent, a travel security membership can cover what travel insurance does not. It doesn’t cover some things, like lost luggage reimbursement; but it does other things better, like offering no-questions-asked medical evacuation, sometimes with a dedicated aircraft.

“The choice of which is best depends on the traveler’s concerns,” he says. “If the concern is reimbursement in the event of cancellations — like Caribbean travel during hurricane season — insurance is the way to go. If the concern is security in potentially unstable countries, a travel security membership will provide access to expertise and a range of services when things go bad.”

But is it really that easy? Not exactly.

Often, it’s not a question of “either/or,” according to travel experts. Michael Holtz, the CEO of SmartFlyer, a luxury travel agency, says a medical evacuation program like Medjet Assist can cover an event that travel insurance might not. “It’s very reasonable and extremely valuable if one needs it,” he says.

Medjet operates a fleet of more than 250 private air ambulances that can evacuate members if they’re hospitalized. A one-year individual membership, which includes overseas coverage, costs $419, which is less than half the cost of an annual travel insurance policy.

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A security membership program has other advantages over travel insurance, says Spencer Livingston, a spokesman for Global Guardian, another membership program. For example, standard travel insurance reimburses you for costs, but a membership program pays for everything up front. Also, many travel insurance policies don’t offer real-time support. Membership programs do.

But these membership programs are not the same thing as insurance.

“Our membership program does not pay for medical bills unrelated to the costs of transport,” explains Livingston. But, unlike insurance, they’ll fly you to the hospital of choice — as opposed to the nearest appropriate facility. Also, programs like Global Guardian don’t have any financial limitations or coverage limits, while many travel insurance programs place limits on air evacuation.

In the end, deciding which way to go is a decision you should make in consultation with a travel professional. If there’s a consensus, it’s that you don’t want to skip travel insurance. “A traditional travel insurance policy offers much more benefits,” explains Helen Prochilo, a travel advisor with Long Island-based Promal Vacations.

But it you’re heading somewhere with substandard hospitals or have security concerns, you may also want to consider a travel security membership program. It could save your life.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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