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Health Care When You Travel

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As part of your vacation planning, think about what you would do if you became sick or injured while traveling.

Nothing ruins a vacation faster than a sprained ankle or a case of food poisoning. And when you're far from home, the physical misery is compounded by the stress of finding health care in unfamiliar territory. Moreover, the medical insurance you have in Santa Cruz may not cover treatment you receive in Santa Fe.

So what exactly can you do to keep yourself in the pink—and your checkbook in the black?

If you get sick while traveling, the severity of the situation should, as always, dictate where you go for help. For emergencies, don't hesitate to go to the nearest hospital.

But for nonemergency health woes—an ear infection, say—skip the hospital and try to find a local doctor or clinic. If you're staying at a hotel, the front desk can usually refer you to a physician or medical facility. Better yet, if you have health insurance, call the customer service number on your plan's card. A representative may be able to direct you to a doctor and let you know what services are covered.

What if it's Sunday and all the medical offices are closed? For after-hours care, head to an around-the-clock clinic. (Check the yellow pages under "Clinics.") You can walk in without an appointment; most take insurance.

If you have health benefits, you may want to check your policy before you leave home to see if you're covered when you're away. Some health plans—particularly HMOs—will cover you "out of area" only for urgent or emergency care, situations in which symptoms are severe enough that you could expect your health to be in serious jeopardy if you didn't get medical attention. Even then, you may be covered only if you follow specific guidelines, such as notifying the carrier within 24 hours of treatment. Break the rules and you could end up footing the bill. When in doubt, call customer service.

What if your plan won't cover health care away from home? Before your trip, you can buy short-term insurance to fill the gap. For as little as a few dollars a day, you can get a plan that covers care, including evacuation services in case of a disabling health crisis, whether you're laid up in San Diego or Seoul. You can buy a policy from Access America through the AAA Travel Center. For more information, visit your local branch. Medical evacuation services are included in AAA Plus membership.

Illustration by Melinda Beck

This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.