14 Things Every Digital Nomad Should Know About Travel Insurance

by Niall Doherty Updated: September 25, 2018

TL;DR – If you’re just looking for my travel insurance recommendation for digital nomads, it’s SafetyWing.

“I told the doctor I broke my leg in two places. He told me to quit going to those places.” – Henny Youngman

Hi, I’m Niall from Ireland, and I’ve been digital nomading through 50+ countries since 2010.

Today we’re going to tackle the not-very-exciting topic of travel insurance.

In researching this article, I reached out to several digital nomad friends to ask who they buy their insurance from and if they’d recommend that provider to others. To my surprise, most responded that they usually don’t bother with travel insurance.

Friends, this is a mistake.

If you’re a digital nomad like me, you absolutely MUST buy travel insurance.

At the very least, you should have medical coverage. Even if you’re in perfect health and have never been sick before, you can easily get unlucky and find yourself badly injured down a hole somewhere, waiting for a helicopter to come rescue you.

How are you going to pay for that without insurance?

“But Niall, I’m only going to be digital nomading in cheap countries, where healthcare costs next to nothing. Why should I bother buying travel insurance?”

Gather round, amigos: it’s story time.

A few years back I was digital nomading through Bolivia and came down with a severe dose of altitude sickness while on the way to see the salt flats.

The salt flats look like this:

But I never got to see them.

Instead, I spent the day in a nearby hospital, looking like this:

And here’s the really fun part:

  • That eight-hour hospital stay in a remote town in South America’s poorest country cost me $650.

$650!!! 1

Luckily, most of that expense was covered by my insurance.

Also, if you’re going to roll the dice and settle for cheap healthcare when you get sick, you’re likely not going to get the best treatment. But if you have a solid insurance plan, you can opt for the best doctor or hospital in town regardless of the price.

Travel insurance doesn’t have to cost very much either.

I pay $1.32 per day for good coverage, and in some cases you can even get a decent plan for less than $5/month.

So there’s really no excuse.

Well, actually, there is one excuse. And it’s why a lot of my friends don’t bother with travel insurance.

  • It’s because figuring it all out is usually a gigantic pain in the ass!

My aim with this article is to make the whole process a lot easier for you.

That said, you should still expect to spend some time on this. If you want excellent coverage for a low price, you’re going to have to do your due diligence, because there’s no one plan that’s best for everyone.

Alright, let’s get started…

14 Things Every Digital Nomad Should Know About Travel Insurance

 

1. Every digital nomad should know:
The Difference Between Medical And Comprehensive Insurance

You should get medical protection at the very least when buying insurance.

A comprehensive plan will also cover you for things like flight cancellations, lost or stolen luggage, or having to travel home unexpectedly for a funeral.

Medical coverage is the most important because medical expenses are most costly. Break a leg in the mountains and you might be on the hook for $25,000, while losing your luggage or having a flight cancelled might only set you back a few hundred dollars.

However, the difference between medical and comprehensive coverage can be as little as $1 or $2 a day, so you might as well get the latter and have complete peace of mind.

2. Every digital nomad should know:
How Much Coverage Is Enough

Look for a plan that offers around $100,000 in medical coverage. You want at least
that much in case something really bad happens.

Also check that your policy covers emergency evacuation. This should be separate from the medical coverage, and be for about the same amount, if not more.

Ideally, emergency evacuation should include evacuation to your home country, not just to a local hospital. If you’re unsure, call the insurance company and check that this is the case.

3. Every digital nomad should know:
What You Should Be Covered For

Here’s a handy checklist from top travel blogger Nomadic Matt, who recommends that you choose an insurance policy that includes all of the following:

    1. Cover most countries in the world.
    2. Some coverage for your electronics (and have the option for a higher coverage limit).
    3. Cover injury and sudden illnesses.
    4. Twenty-four hour emergency services and help (you don’t want to call to be told to call back later).
    5. Cover lost, damaged or stolen possessions like jewelry, baggage, documents, cameras, etc.
    6. Cover cancellations such as hotel bookings, flight, and other transportation bookings if you have a sudden illness, death in the family, or some other emergency.
    7. Cover emergencies, strife in the country visited, etc., that cause you to head home early.
    8. Policies should include personal accident coverage.
    9. Cover any legal expenses that may be incurred.
    10. Have financial protection if any company you are using goes bankrupt and you are stuck in another country.

 

4. Every digital nomad should know:
If You Should Insure Your Possessions

Although Matt recommends so in the above list, my experience is that it’s only worth your while insuring very expensive items, like a high-end laptop or professional-grade camera equipment. Filing a claim for a $100 camera you had stolen will probably take more time than it’s worth.

The trick is to check for deductibles or excesses in your policy. I once made a claim for a broken Kindle and was reimbursed just $13 after the deductible :-/

Daniel Altman (he of the excellent Internet Adventure Club) did some research on
insuring $10,000-worth of film gear for his travels, and the best options he found were
as follows:

  • protectyourbubble.com – They let you insure individual pieces of tech (cameras, laptops, tablets, miscellaneous electronics, etc.) for a few dollars a month. With them I could insure all my gear for about $60/mo– while they do cover drops, spills, and other accidental damage, they do NOT cover theft, which is one of my biggest concerns. Low deductibles, too ($25 to $50 for most items).
  • insuremyequipment.com – They only offer annual plans that start at $455, and cover up to ~13k worth of gear. Additionally they’ll cover your costs of renting gear while they replace yours. Higher deductibles ($500) means they’re only really good for cameras, lenses, and laptops, but they DO cover theft in addition to accidental damage.

5. Every digital nomad should know:
The Limitations Of Coverage

Even a good comprehensive plan won’t cover you for everything that can go wrong.

You’ll be covered for most accidents and emergencies. You won’t be covered for things like:

  • Regular health expenses like a check-up at the local clinic.
  • Loss or damage resulting from what the insurance company deems irresponsible behavior on your part (e.g. anything involving excessive alcohol or drug consumption).
  • Pre-existing medical conditions.
  • Non-emergency health and dental.

Most companies won’t offer third-party liability, either.

And by default you won’t be covered for extreme sports or dangerous activities (skydiving, bungee jumping, riding motorcycles, etc.), but most insurance companies will cover such activities if you pay extra.

6. Every digital nomad should know:
What You Should Definitely Be Insured For In Southeast Asia

If you’re going to Southeast Asia, I would highly recommend getting a plan that covers you for scooter or motorcycle accidents.

Because the only thing digital nomads wear more frequently than flip-flops in that part of the world, are scars from scooter and motorcycle accidents.

Speaking of which, digital nomad Perlin Earth shared the following:

When getting cover for motorcycles, make sure you’re covered for being the passenger as well as the driver. Also know what CC (power of the bike) you’re covered for.

My friend’s sister was a passenger on a bike in South America. Tragically the driver crashed and she died at the scene.

The insurance company refused to fly her body back to Australia because the bike she was on was a higher CC than she was covered for. It was only when her family took the story to the press that the insurance company gave in and agreed to return her body to Australia.

MAKE SURE you know exactly what you’re covered for!

 

7. Every digital nomad should know:
If Working During Your Trip Will Void Your Insurance

Working online is fine, but if you’re thinking to pick up odd jobs as you travel (working in bars and hostels, for example), that might be an issue.

Read the wording on your insurance policy carefully before buying, or just call the company and ask.

8. Every digital nomad should know:
What Insurance Is Offered On Your Credit Card

My credit card insurance saved my ass in Costa Rica when I backed a rental car into a palm tree (damn thing came out of nowhere!). As my card had rental car insurance and I had used it to pay for the rental, I was off the hook for the $1,160-worth of damages.

Nowadays I try pay for everything travel-related with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card because a) insurance, and b) lotsa free travel with all the points I rack up.

However, be aware of the limitations of this kind of insurance.

Some travelers I’ve talked to see that they’re insured for a few things through their credit card and thus reason that they don’t need any further coverage.

That’s a big mistake.

Insurance via your credit card will be supplementary at best.

(Related reading: Renting a car? Know whether your card adds insurance)

9. Every digital nomad should know:
About Deductibles

Know what your deductible will be before buying insurance.

Nowadays I opt for a high deductible (like $1000) and pay a lower premium. This means that I’m on the hook to pay any eligible expenses up to $1000, but beyond that the insurance covers it.

If you want to be covered for every little expense, you’ll have to pay a higher premium.

10. Every digital nomad should know:
If Your Insurance Covers You In Your Home Country

Many travel insurance policies won’t cover you in your home country, only abroad. So if you make a quick trip back home for any reason, try not get hit by a bus.

Or, you know, buy insurance that covers your ass everywhere.

(See my recommendations below.)

11. Every digital nomad should know:
About Direct Pay Clauses

Some insurance companies will expect you to foot medical bills and then reimburse you later.

It’s obviously best to avoid this, lest you get stuck with a massive bill and have to wait months for your insurance check.

The wording to look out for here is “direct pay clause”. If your insurance company offers that for medical expenses, you’re good.

12. Every European digital nomad should know:
About The EHIC

If you’re not full-time digital nomading and qualify as a resident of the European Union, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway or Switzerland, you can get a free European Health Insurance Card which entitles you to free or discounted medical care in all 28 EU countries, plus a few others.

There’s a great overview of the EHIC scheme here.

13. Every digital nomad should know:
Where To Learn More About Travel Insurance

Read through the Travel Insurance page on MoneySavingExpert.com.

Their list of DOs and DON’Ts give a great overview of other things to look out for.

14. Every digital nomad should know:
How To Make A Claim On Your Insurance

Three very important things here:

  • Make sure your insurance information is very easily accessible. If you fall ill and are taken to a hospital in Mongolia, you should easily be able to present your insurance policy and the contact details of your insurance company. Carry print-outs of those documents with you, save them securely online, and even snap photos of them so you can retrieve the information just by looking through the pics on your phone.
  • If you get sick on the road, contact your insurance company as soon as possible. It’s best to do this even before seeking medical attention, as your insurance may only cover the cost of treatment at certain facilities. Of course, if you’re unconscious or incapacitated, it won’t be held against you, but in such cases you must make an effort to contact your insurance company as soon as you’re capable, or else have someone else contact them on your behalf. If your insurance company doesn’t hear from you within 72 hours of an accident, they’ll be suspicious of your claim.
  • When you do make a claim, make and keep copies of everything you send to the insurance company. You want to have copies for everything in case something goes wrong and you need to resubmit. The last thing you want is your only copies of medical receipts getting lost in the mail!

Recommendations For Digital Nomad Travel Insurance

Since becoming a digital nomad at the end of 2010 I’ve tried three different insurance providers.

Here they are in order of preference:

1. SafetyWing

The new kids on the block. I’ve been using them for ~4 months now.

Things I like:

  • Low cost ($1.32 to $2.42 per day)
  • Can buy while traveling
  • Comprehensive coverage
  • Covered in over 180 countries
  • No residency requirement
  • Coverage while visiting home country 2
  • Automatic renewal

Before signing up for their insurance, I peppered SafetyWing with a bunch of questions via email.

Such as:

  • What happens if I buy 12 months of insurance via SW and then the company goes out of business for some reason? Would my coverage be null and void?

Their response:

The insurance is still active regardless of SafetyWing’s status, that is one of the benefits of working with a strong insurance partner like Tokio Marine, and the policy itself being underwritten at a Lloyd’s syndicate.

Sweet.

(Just for kicks, at the end of this article I’ve included a handy checklist of questions you can pester insurance companies with so you know exactly what they cover and what they don’t.)

2. IMG Global Medical Insurance

I used them for a year before finding SafetyWing. They offer pretty much the same coverage – probably a bit better, actually – but for a higher price. I paid for a year up front to get a discount, worked out to $109/month overall.

I’d recommend going with them if you’re happy to pay more and would rather buy insurance from a more established company.

3. World Nomads

Seems like these guys have been around since the dawn of the Internet and many a travel blogger loves them.

Their coverage is good and inexpensive and I’ve bought policies from them several times in years past.

But then I saw this quote from them:

“The best single piece of advice we can give is to READ THE POLICY WORDING CAREFULLY. Let’s repeat that again: Take your time. Have a cup of tea. Sit down quietly and read the policy fine print. Especially the exclusions.”

So I went ahead and read the fine print of my last policy with them, and found a little something that worried me:

via this page

Since I haven’t been a resident anywhere for several years, I thought I’d fall into the first category. Which meant I’d be covered with World Nomads insurance outside my home country (Ireland), but not while back visiting friends and family.

Not ideal, but okay. I’m not in Ireland very often anyway.

But then further down in the fine print I found the following definition:

via this page

Hmm.

I usually list my parents’ address in Ireland as my “residential address,” but if I ever had to put in a big insurance claim, I doubt that would be sufficient.

So for a digital nomad who is not an official resident anywhere but would like to have full insurance coverage when visiting their home country, it would appear that World Nomads is not a good option 🙁

They’re definitely worth considering though if you do have a home base and have some other insurance to cover you while visiting your home country.

Before You Go Buying Insurance From One Of The Above…

A few more considerations:

See If Your Bank Offers Travel Insurance

Check with your bank to see if they offer a good travel insurance add-on.

Sometimes this will be your best and cheapest option for comprehensive coverage, though it often comes bundled with other, non-travel insurance that you may not need or want, so be sure to check that first.

Check For The Latest Insurance Deals On These Sites

This is assuming that you’re beginning and ending your trip in your country of residence, and you haven’t already set out:

This site is great because they offer a live chat with staff, so any questions you have get answered right away. Or you can just call them on the number displayed at the top of the site. Be aware though, that they only offer comprehensive travel insurance to residents of the United States. If you’re a resident anywhere else, you can only obtain medical and medical evacuation coverage. So if you’re not a US resident, it may be worth googling around for comprehensive coverage offered by insurance companies in your own country.

Avoid The Rabbit Hole!

Buying travel insurance is important and you shouldn’t rush it, but neither should you spend countless hours trying to get the absolute best deal.

You could spend several hours reading and emailing and making phone calls and end up saving yourself maybe $100. But is that really the best use of your time? It may be better to just bite the bullet and pay for a solid-but-expensive plan that saves you all those hours and gives you peace of mind.

Another option you should strongly consider is using an insurance broker.

Tell them what kind of coverage you’re looking for and they will get back to you with a short-list of options complete with quotes. You might worry about paying more if you go through a broker, but you usually don’t have to pay them anything (they take a commission from whatever policy you purchase) and they often have access to discounts consumers don’t, so you could very well end up spending less money on better coverage.

Questions To Ask Your Insurance Company Before Buying

You can (and should) read the wording of any insurance policy before buying. But sometimes it’s hard to translate all that legalize into English.

Which is why I like to call or email insurance companies and ask them direct questions like the following. 3

Feel free to use them yourself.

  • Am I eligible for this insurance even if I’m not a resident anywhere?
  • Will this insurance cover me while visiting my home country?
  • Say I’m hiking in Bolivia and fall and break my leg and have to get airlifted to hospital. Will this insurance cover me for ALL expenses?
  • Will this insurance cover the cost of transporting me back to my home country if I suffer a serious injury or illness?
  • What happens when I need medical treatment? Can I go to any hospital or doctor or only those approved by the insurance company? 4
  • Does this insurance cover me for horse riding / snowboarding / bungee jumping / whatever?
  • What happens if the company goes out of business? Will I still be insured?
  • What are the common mistakes or things people fail to realize or account for when buying insurance? What do they end up regretting?

Question For You…

Do you have any additional questions about travel insurance?

Any other providers you’d recommend?

Footnotes

  1. Fun fact: that’s more than the average Bolivian earns each month. They probably closed down the hospital for a week after I left and threw a big party.
  2. They only cover you for 15-30 days out of every 90 (details here), but that should be sufficient for most digital nomads.
  3. I’ve been known to record such calls as well, just to be safe.
  4. A writer for the New York Times asked this question of an insurance company and discovered that their coverage wasn’t as good as advertised.

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