Do you need travel insurance as a backpacker, digital nomad or expat?

You’re ready to go and live abroad, or you’re about to set out on your backpacking adventure. No one wants to think about the worst happening. You are imagining exploring chaotic new cities, seeing incredible animals, lying in a hammock under a palm tree on a tropical beach and partying with lots of new found friends.




Valentine’s Day sunset at El Nido, Palawan, Philippines in 2013.


You can’t imagine lying in a hospital bed with a severe stomach bug or dengue fever, getting your wrist treated because of a motorbike accident or suffering a twisted or broken ankle on a mountain trek.


But this happens. Facebook is full of links to ‘Go Fund Me‘ accounts from travellers or expats who have had an accident or become seriously ill while abroad. Medical costs can run into the hundreds of thousands (and probably higher), depending on where you are and what’s wrong with you. If you need to go back home for treatment, medical evacuation is really, really expensive. What if something terrible happens and you are killed. Somehow your body has to get back home. Do you want your family to have to pay for this, on top of everything they are suffering? I’m not trying to scare you, but it happens.



Get travel insurance!


I can’t stress this enough. In fact I’m going to say it again.


A photo by Volkan Olmez.

Get travel insurance!

And make sure it’s adequate for what you need. Normal travel insurance is designed for short trips. You might get annual travel insurance free with your bank account or credit card, or have bought it before, but check the maximum trip length if you have it. It’s usually about 30 -60 days. If you trip is longer than that, you won’t be covered once that period has expired.


Companies also offer backpacker travel insurance for a year to 18 months. This usually also includes cover for your valuables and trip curtailment – so if you have booked your flight and some accommodation already, take it out so if you have to cancel or have to come back early because of illness or a problem at home, you can claim the money back. You can also insure your possessions in case they get stolen or broken, and cover your passport. It costs a lot to replace your passport and the visas in it.


European Health Insurance card

If you come from many countries in Europe and are travelling to another, you usually have access to a European Health Insurance card, which used to be the E111 form. This entitles you to public healthcare while you are on holiday, if it is necessary.


However, as the website says:

“The EHIC is not an alternative to travel insurance. It will not cover any private medical healthcare or costs, such as mountain rescue in ski resorts, being flown back to the UK, or lost or stolen property. It is also not valid on cruises”

It’s really just for seeing a doctor, not for repatriation in the event of your death or serious injury. Apply for it, as it could save you money. However, you still need to take out travel insurance.


When deciding what travel insurance company to go with, ask yourself:

  • What cover do you get? Are you covered for all the activities you are planning to do? Extreme things like mountain treks requiring ropes, working with wild animals or long distance motorbike or scooter riding may not be. Check it out carefully if you are planning on volunteering with big cats, or driving from Hanoi to Saigon in Vietnam by motorbike. You might need additional cover from a specialist company. If you are thinking of doing less extreme, but still adventurous things like scuba diving, mountain biking, skiing……are you going to be covered? Some policies come with exclusions, or you need to buy extensions.
  • How easy will it be to make a claim? Can you claim online? You don’t want to have to wait until you get home to get your money back.
  • Can you extend the policy? If you decide to stay longer than you originally planned, you will need to extend your insurance. It’s not possible with many companies. The length you take out is fixed.
  • Does it include coverage for personal items, and what is the limit for each item? Sometimes it’s a low amount – which may very well not protect expensive items like your laptop, flash camera, iPad or iPhone 7.
  • If you are carrying expensive items, do you have proof of ownership, like receipts or photographs of the items? This is easier now with the internet, as we often have email copies of the receipts. Check you have them, or you might not be able to claim.
  • What is the excess? Insurance policies don’t usually cover 100% of your expenses or loss. You have to contribute part of it yourself. How much will that be?

Looks exciting! It’s not us though. Far too cold for our liking.

World Nomads

Recommended by Lonely Planet, and many long-term bloggers and digital nomads like Nomadic Matt and Goats on the Road. The positive thing about this company is that you are able to extend or take out the policy while already abroad. They also cover a wide range of activities that you might get involved with while travelling, like climbing, paragliding, scuba diving, and skiing. You have to pay a supplement for some of the more dangerous activities.


We used them for our first couple of years on the road. We never had to make a claim, luckily, so we can’t comment on that aspect, but in terms of customer service, they were good.


Other things to consider.

  • Are you going to be covered in the areas you are planning to visit? If a country or region is mentioned on things like the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office ‘Advise against all but essential travel’ list, you might not be covered by your travel insurance. Right now such areas include parts of Egypt, including the popular dive and beach resort of Dahab, the southern provinces of Thailand, and large areas of the African continent, among many others.
  • Are you covered to ride a motorbike if you don’t have a license? Lots of backpackers rent a scooter to drive around new cities, islands or national parks, even though they have never ridden one before back home. Are you covered if you have an accident? Lots of expats in this part of the world hire or buy scooters and motorbikes to get them to-and-from work. If you do this, are you covered without a license from home, or from the country you live in?
  • Are you covered for accidents while drunk? It happens. As World Nomads state in their exclusions:

“We do not expect to avoid drinking alcohol on your trip but we will not cover any claims arising because you have drunk so much alcohol that your judgement is seriously affected and you need to make a claim as a result.”

  • If you need medical treatment, will the insurance company pay directly or will you have to claim the money back from them?

All of the exclusions will be in the policy wording, so read it carefully before taking it out.


Thinking about motorbiking across a country? Think about what insurance you need. (No, this isn’t us either).


Long Term Health Insurance

Even World Nomads travel insurance has a limit to how long a policy you can have and how long you can extend it for. If you plan to live abroad longer term, you should consider taking out expat health insurance. Travel insurance health cover is emergency cover. It is designed to treat you for a problem while you are away and assumes you will be able to get treatment back home once you return. In case of an acute condition, this will be as soon as you are well enough to travel. It won’t cover treatment for a long-term chronic condition. In all cases, cover stops once you get home.


With expat health insurance, you can get long-term medical treatment abroad. If you end up in hospital because of an accident, you will get care in the country you are in. If you get symptoms of something, you can get tests and treatment where you are living. If you have a heart attack, stroke, or some other emergency condition, you will be treated there.


Sometimes you get some cover through your job. In many jobs, this is comprehensive enough. We have cover through our school here, but isn’t very high, so we need an additional one to top it up. One of our schools in Vietnam gave us a large discount on health cover, and the other paid for it in full. It depends on your package. Ask whoever you are working for for a copy of the policy to check out to be sure what you are covered for and for how much.


The professional Hobo has a good rundown on expat health insurance, but in brief, there are two main types:

International cover

International cover means you can be covered if you return home at some point. As UK citizens, we are used to the NHS. However, since we don’t live in the UK at the moment, there is no guarantee of treatment there. If you are entitled to free or subsidised healthcare back home, it’s best not to assume that it will be still there if you live away for a long period of time. It also covers you if you move to a new country, although you do usually need to tell them. Since we move on relatively frequently and don’t want to take out a new policy each time we move, this is the type we have.


Local cover

Local cover is specific to your country of residence at the time of taking out the policy. For example, there are many policies for treatment within Thailand, at the range of international hospitals here. However, outside of Thailand, you may still need to take out travel insurance as health cover. You also won’t be able to transfer it if you move to a new country or back home. This type of policy is usually cheaper. Karsten at Thailand Starter Kit has a very comprehensive blog about different Thai health insurance policies.


Within these two types, you can decide on whether to have inpatient only cover, or to include outpatients. You can also add on maternity and dental cover for extra. As with travel insurance, there can be a deductible, meaning you have to pay a certain amount towards the cost. The higher the deductible, the cheaper the premiums.


Who do you use for travel or health insurance abroad? Have you got any experiences with World Nomads, or another company, to share? Comment and let others know what you do.

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