It’s time for the perfect trip: you've researched the destination at length, purchased health insurance, and can't wait to hit the ground running. But once you're abroad, you need unexpected medical attention. What do you do? 

Even the most well-prepared traveler can face challenges navigating foreign healthcare systems. Here's all the information you need to avoid a major setback and get on the road to recovery. 

What should I prepare in advance? 

There are three types of medical materials travelers should assemble before a trip: personal information, destination information, and a basic medical kit. 

For personal information, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises travelers to carry a card that lists their blood type, chronic illnesses, necessary medications, immunizations, and allergies⁠—preferably in English and their destination's local language. If you're treating a chronic condition and taking medicine, bring a doctor's note with the names of prescriptions, including a generic option, that may need refilling. Always bring your insurance card and have your insurer's contact information on hand should you need assistance with coverage. Make copies of important documents⁠—including your passport, and credit card⁠—and store them somewhere safe in case they get misplaced. If you're from the US, consider registering your trip in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which makes it easy for US officials to contact you with destination-specific safety alerts and offer emergency assistance. 

Dr. Lin Chen, Director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital and Associate Professor at Harvard University, also recommends discussing your travel itinerary, necessary vaccines, and potential health concerns with your primary care doctor. “If it’s a more complicated itinerary, or if you have more complicated medical issues, the doctor should refer you to a travel medicine specialist,” she says. 

Next, gather important destination information like the location of nearby hospitals and clinics, and phone numbers for emergency services like ambulances and your country's local embassy. “If you go somewhere less frequently visited,” says Chen, “do a little research beforehand to figure out where you might go if you get sick.” If your destination is remote, it might be wise to sign up for medical evacuation insurance so you can get the help you need. There's a chance you’ll have limited phone or internet service while traveling, so write down this information and keep it somewhere safe. 

Finally, Chen says travelers should “definitely pack a first aid kit.” This should include basics like bandaids, pain relievers, disinfectant, antibiotic ointment, hand sanitizer, insect repellent, backups of any necessary prescriptions, and medication for easily treatable ailments like allergic reactions and diarrhea. Depending on your location, you may also want to consider things like malaria pills and chlorine tablets to disinfect water. Trying to find proper over-the-counter medications in unfamiliar countries or foreign languages can be confusing and frustrating. 

If I'm sick, can I just show up at a doctor's office or hospital? 

No one will stop you from showing up at a medical facility while abroad, but there's no guarantee you'll get the help you need. Do a little leg work before your visit to save yourself a potential headache. 

Start by contacting your travel insurance provider to see if and where you'll be covered. “It’s good to do your homework beforehand and expect that you’ll be paying out of pocket,” says Chen. Knowing the monetary assistance you'll receive will help you weigh your options accordingly. 

A doctor checks temperature at patient with infrared tool in hospital.
Do your homework on the local health care system before you travel © ozgurdonmaz / Getty Images

Next, make sure you can communicate clearly with your doctor or hospital. If you're in a country where you don't speak the language, it's imperative to find an English-speaking healthcare provider. Search for approved medical providers on the local US Embassy and UK Government websites. Navigate under "US Citizens Services" or "UK help and services" to find the proper resources. You can also visit the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) for links to databases with travel medicine specialists and other important contacts. If you're staying at a hotel, the concierge can likely help you find a doctor or hospital. 

It's also worth considering whether you need to see a doctor at all. In many countries, pharmacists have the authority to prescribe over-the-counter medications for ailments like sore throats, rashes, fevers, and upset stomachs. A quick visit to the pharmacy might not yield the results you need, but if it does, it'll save you a significant amount of time and money.

What do I do if I am experiencing COVID-19 symptoms? 

Even vaccinated people can contract COVID-19, and it's essential to treat a possible infection seriously. Start by getting tested and self-isolating until you receive your results. For more answers about navigating the coronavirus while traveling, read this article by Lonely Planet. 

READ MORE: What do you do if you get COVID-19 while you’re traveling?

How do I pay for health insurance abroad? 

Most insurance companies require travelers to purchase their insurance policy before departure, but if you're already traveling, you still have options. A few companies, including World Nomads, let travelers buy plans while they're away from home⁠—though you may have to wait up to 36 hours for your benefits to kick in. 

If you have travel health insurance, call your provider before any visits or procedures to see how payment works. Most plans require people to pay for medical expenses upfront and file a claim afterward. In some instances, the insurance company must arrange a procedure so you can get reimbursed. Filing claims can be complicated and time-consuming, so keep an organized paper trail of all your expenses. There's also the chance you'll need to meet a deductible or have a cap on the amount insurance will cover. Make sure you understand your policy so you can plan accordingly. 

Read more: Will my health insurance cover getting COVID-19 while traveling in the US⁠⁠—or abroad?

What if my insurance doesn't cover what I need?

Medical travel insurance can be a tricky beast, and there's always a possibility your insurer will deny a request for coverage. If this happens, re-read your plan's fine print to see what's excluded. Then, you can either accept the decision or file an appeal. If your appeal is organized, thorough, and delivered in a timely fashion, there's a chance you can get reimbursed. 

But insurance isn't the only way travelers can access affordable care. According to Health Care Insider, 780,000 Americans traveled abroad specifically for cheaper medical and dental procedures in 2019. Out-of-pocket costs for medical care vary worldwide; you may be surprised to find that care is cheaper abroad than at home. 

If price is still an issue, discuss options with your medical provider. There might be alternative treatments or payment plans available to alleviate the financial burden. Still, you should be prepared to encounter unlikely expenses. Having an emergency credit card with a high limit on hand may offer peace of mind for pricey procedures or hospital stays.

According to research conducted by the Associated Press, private and public hospitals in 30 countries have detained patients for failing to pay their medical bills. Although this unacceptable practice is widely regarded as a human rights violation, it can still happen, so don’t assume a medical expense won’t arise while traveling. When it comes to dealing with healthcare, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.

You may also like: 
9 expert tips for a safe road trip during the pandemic
What do I do if my flight gets cancelled—and can I get a refund?
PCR tests for travel: everything you need to know

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