Travel health insurance

Do I need to buy travel health insurance for a trip to Italy?

The Ospedale Civile in Venice
If you have to get sick, wouldn't you want your hospital to look like the Ospedale Civile in Venice, converted from a 15th century monastery? (For the record, I got excellent care in there.)
Picture this. You're sick, or you hurt, in a foreign country and it's the middle of the night. Or it's a Sunday.

Whatever the case, the pharmacies are largely closed, so you stumble into the front entrance to the nearest hospital. They take one look at you and whisk you off to an exam room...

Within a few minutes, there's a doctor in there with you, prodding and taking temps and asking questions. Sometimes he sends you down the hall for some X-rays.

After a few minutes, he gives you some medications to take on the spot whilst he's busily scribbling out a prescription for whatever it is you need to get better.

He gives you a few kind words of advice in broken English, smiles, and heads back out of the room while the nurse helps you to your feet, tells you how to find the nearest pharmacy that’s open 24 hours or on a Sunday, and she smiles, too. You leave the hospital, hail a taxi, and are on your way to the pharmacy and on the road to wellness.

At no point did someone ask to see your insurance card to prove you were worthy of receiving medical care. At most, you filled out a single form with your name and the word "tourist" under the "address" field.

And at no point did anyone ever ask you for any money. That's right: the entire hospital experience was free, from the exam to the X-rays to the first round of prescription pills.

Get sick in Italy, come home a champion of "socialized medicine"

Call me crazy, but socialized medicine is the greatest invention since sliced bread—heck, since the wheel—and we Americans are blind fools not to realize it. We have let ourselves become pathetically beholden to the thrall of big business and the daily incremental value of our 401K plans to see otherwise.

I've been to hospital in Italy at least five or six times—Venice, Florence, Rome (twice), Palermo (wrote an essay about that one)—either on my own behalf or accompanying friends of mine, and it has always gone down the way I described above. No fuss, no muss, no money changing hands. Just a strict adherence to the Hippocratic Oath and a fast track to getting better.

Since much of Europe—including Italy—enjoys at least partially socialized medicine, you can generally just pop into a hospital like that and get taken care of.

Should you have a more serious problem requiring serious hospital care and maybe even coverage to get you flown back to the States for further care. In these cases, a personal health insurance plan can come in handy—but check with your provider, as some will cover you when you're on the road, and some will not, or at least will not cover the major expenses (those legal thieveries known as HMOs are the most heinous culprits in this department—though Medicare/Medicaid are also largely useless outside of the U.S.).

For big, billable hospital stays, most care centers will bill you up front then leave it up to you and your insurance carrier to settle the costs. Blue Cross/Blue Shield is one of the exceptions.

Finding trip insurance and travel health insurance

The quickest, easiest, and most economical way to find insurance is to use the comparison shopping sites SquareMouth ( or ( You put in your trip details, it quickly shows you a side-by-side analysis of how much a policy would cost at each of 18 major travel insurers such as Travel Guard (

Medical evacuation and assistance insurance

If all you want is the assurance you would be able to get home quickly in the event of a medical emergency, consider signing up for medical evacuation insurance.

These programs are really intended more for travel to the developing world, where medical establishments may not be quite up to par, not a place like Italy with a first-rate medical system, but who am I to judge your level of comfort with foreign medical establishments? Plus, some people like the comfort of knowing they can get out of Dodge quickly from anywhere with any medical problem or medical emergency (like the time my brother-in-law needed to come home from Paris for surgery following an accident—don't worry, he's fine).

There are several outfits providing medical evacuation insurance starting under $100. Peruse them all; pick the one that best suits your travel needs:,,

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