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How to Buy Travel Insurance and Fear Giant Hornets a Little Less

One of the most wreckless things I've done is travel without insurance. It wasn't for long and there were no incidents, but there could have been. Travel insurance can be annoying to research, and you may question how necessary it is when in a country with much more affordable medical services than back home, but there are too many unknowns to go without it. A rare parasite may require expensive specialty treatment. An emergency may require a medical evacuation. The domestic cost of one air ambulance can easily range from $10,000 to $50,000 USD, and international transport back to your home country can be as much as $200,000. One bad accident can quickly devastate your life and savings.

I always travel with insurance now, and although I've thankfully never needed it to pay me back, it has bought peace of mind wherever I go, and at a monthly cost equivalent to one meal in a restaurant.

Japanese giant hornet warning sign and close-up of a specimen.
Left: Warning sign on a hiking trail in Japan that reads "Beware of suzumebachi!!" Suzumebachi literally means "sparrow bee", which I assume refers to the huge size of the hornet, known in English as the Japanese giant hornet. Right: Specimen that infiltrated a room I was staying in when I left my window open.

I've been fortunate to not experience any significant accidents in my adult life. I got scraped up from a bicycle accident in Kyoto once, and took a nasty fall on wet rocks in Australia, but neither required a hospital visit. The risk is certainly there though. I've heard gruesome stories from other travelers and seen backpackers return to hostels with bloodied limbs from motorbike falls. My own travels have been very safe by comparison, but sometimes little things remind me why I'm thankful to be insured. A skinned knee here, a buzzing sound there...

When I was younger I was fascinated by a documentary about Japanese giant hornets, a subspecies of the Asian giant hornet, which is the largest in the world and sometimes affectionately called the yak-killer hornet. With a moniker like that, you really don't need to know more details, but here you go: A body length of 4.5 centimetres (1.8 in) or more, a wingspan that can exceed 6 centimetres (2.4 in), and of course a prominent stinger in the range of 6 mm. A single hornet is capable of ripping apart 40 European honey bees per minute, and a few dozen can eradicate a whole hive within hours of a scout marking it with pheromones for extermination. They harvest the most nutrient-rich body parts of their victims, chewing it into a paste for their hungry larvae back at home. Lovely.

And so when I later found myself living in Kyoto and beginning to explore the local hiking trails, my mind again returned to that documentary. I was doubtful that I'd really encounter any giant hornets though, and figured I was being paranoid. I was wrong. I knew immediately the first time I happened upon one, because nothing else in the forest resembles a yellow hummingbird cutting through the air with the terrifying sound of an A6M Zero fighter. However, I also knew that Japanese giant hornets are generally only aggressive toward humans when they perceive them to be a threat to their nest, so such encounters mostly just reinforced my determination to always stay on the trail. Except for the one time I didn't.

It was autumn and I was once again hiking, seeking out the best locations for color. One particularly inviting spot happened to be off the beaten path. For the recond, when travel guides encourage you to get off the beaten path, they're not necessarily talking about a literal path, much less one in potentially hornet-infested woods. Anyway, as I made my way through a wooded area toward a clearing on the other side, a sound I was all too familiar with filled my ears, but nearer this time. Very near. My instinct was to immediately crouch down and hold still. The buzzing stopped for a moment, then I heard it again from just overhead. I looked up to realize I was crouched below a tree with a foreboding hole in the trunk no more than an arm's length from my head, a hole serving as the front door for a colony of Japanese giant hornets busily coming and going from the nest, no doubt transporting gifts of body parts to their ravenous young. Maybe mine would be next.

My mind has an annoying habit of reminding me about facts in such situations. Like how ten or more giant hornet stings require medical help, and that dozens of people die from them every year (often hikers), and how running seems to only make them chase you more – much like an overly excitable dog, a dog that stings you repeatedly when it catches you. My mind especially reminded me that these Olympian-like hornets can fly at speeds of 25 mph. What's my running speed? Probably only half that. Perfect.

What my mind neglected to recall is how to best handle such a situation. And so I broke into probably the fastest sprint of my life and mentally braced myself for the bullet-like stings that I expected to ensue. It was a mountainous area, so I figured if I did take ten or more stings I could at least throw myself down the hillside as a last resort and hope that tumbling at gravity-like speeds would somehow elude both the hornets and hundreds of tree trunks along the descent. Fortunately I didn't need to enact that plan. After what seemed like a hundred meters, my adrenaline rush burnt out and I collapsed to catch my breath. At some point during the sprint I thought I heard buzzing just over my shoulder, and so as I rested my legs I frantically checked my body and clothing for any hitchhikers, not knowing for sure what I heard and what I imagined.

This is why I'm insured. Because if I ever do end up hospitalized from something like a hornet attack and undergoing months of dialysis treatments, I don't want to survive the ordeal only to die from a heart attack when I get the medical bill.

Thankfully I did avoid getting stung, but the day could have very easily turned out differently. And there's worse out there than giant hornets, as the Monsters Inside Me documentary series can attest to. I don't mean to exaggerate, responsible travel is generally safe and so far that has been the case for me. Tragedies ignore general experiences though. Don't live in fear of what could happen, just be smart and be prepared for it.

What is covered by travel insurance?

Most travel insurance plans are designed to cover a range of medical emergencies, cancellations, and baggage issues with 24-hour support. You may already have some form of insurance coverage within your own country, but most domestic plans offer limited or no coverage abroad for devastating situations like medical evacuation. Travel insurance is designed with international coverage in mind, as well as emergency situations that aren't normally covered by other types of insurance.

A typical plan often includes coverage for:

  • Trip delay or cancellation
  • Trip interruption
  • Delayed baggage
  • Lost or stolen baggage
  • Medical emergencies
  • Emergency evacuation
  • Crisis Response
  • 24-hour emergency assistance

Some travel insurance plans focus only on the medical side of things and offer little to no assistance with baggage and cancellation issues, and are accordingly priced much lower. This might be a good option if you are not worried about cancellations or baggage, or already have coverage for such things through another program. You may want to consider what your personal expenses are and how much you stand to lose without sufficient coverage if you're only interested in medical coverage.

What is not covered by travel insurance?

Even when you're insured, there are still things you need to be responsible for yourself. There's several very common exclusions that disgruntled clients often overlook until their claims have been denied. Be sure to read and understand your policy thoroughly to know your obligations and limitations. Seriously, read it. Read and understand every single word. And remember that you can't simply buy insurance after you're in trouble. Sometimes coverage requires that you enroll a certain amount of time before your trip begins.

Common exlusions for coverage include:

  • Insufficient paperwork for a claim
  • Leaving your baggage unattended
  • Pre-existing medical conditions
  • Engaging in extreme sports or activities
  • Traveling despite government warnings

Common terminology and definitions

  • Annual Multi-Trip Plan - Coverage for all trips taken within the same year.
  • Premium - The amount you pay to purchase a travel insurance plan.
  • Deductible - The amount you have to pay before your coverage kicks in.
  • Co-Pay - The amount you pay after your deductible has been paid.
  • Pre-Existing Conditions - Medical conditions you had before purchasing insurance.
  • Repatriation - Coverage of expenses to return your body to your home country if you die abroad.
  • Medical Evacuation - Evacuation to a medical facility or home country if necessary.
  • Emergency Reunion - Coverage of expenses for a friend or family member who visits you while you're ill or injured.

How to choose the right travel insurance plan

There is no one-size-fits-all best option for travel insurance, because it will depend on variables like what activities you have planned, the duration of your trip, and what benefits are important to you. Your age, country, and destination may also affect what options are available and at what cost. Some things you'll want to consider are whether you need coverage for only yourself or your luggage as well, and whether you'll be engaging in any higher risk activities that need more specific coverage.

For myself, the number one most important thing is emergency medical coverage, because that is what can literally save not only my life but my savings. Smaller losses I can manage, and I'm always very careful with my belongings, which is made easier by the fact that I travel with only one backpack. When I first began living abroad, I originally had insurance with Blue Cross Blue Shield. It met my domestic health insurance coverage obligations while also providing some limited international coverage. After I fulfilled the conditions of remaining abroad long enough to drop the domestic coverage, I researched a new provider for exclusively travel insurance. I very nearly went with World Nomads, but ended up choosing Tokio Marine in the end. Here's my thoughts on those, plus a third option.

  • Tokio Marine Atlas Travel Insurance - The reason I ultimately chose to get insurance through Tokio Marine comes down to price and my travel style. While the Tokio Marine plan I got does include limited coverage for some cancellations and baggage issues, it is mainly focused on medical, which makes it very affordable (they do have a more extensive plan option too). And since I only travel with one backpack, I'm not concerned about lost, delayed, or damaged checked luggage (I have none). My backpack stays on my back, not in a hotel or hostel, so risk of theft is rarely on my mind. I tend to stay a long time in one area, only flying every few months. My flights are usually short and flexible, making them inexpensive, so I'm willing to eat the cost of a cancellation.

    I love that I can choose both the maximum coverage and deductible with Tokio Marine, which allows for plan customization and personalization. To give an example of how cheap the cost can be, the lowest priced plan that's available to me if I choose the minimum coverage of $50,000 and maximum deductible of $5,000 comes to just $16 USD a month. And regardless of the amount I choose for maximum coverage, it always includes an additional $1,000,000 for medical evac and $100,000 for emergency reunion. For reference, I decided on $100,000 maximum coverage for travel outside the United States and a $2,500 deductible. I'd probably go with higher coverage if traveling to the U.S. since medical costs there are crazy, but for international travel I feel good about my coverage.
  • World Nomads - If I traveled with more luggage, booked more frequent or costlier flights, or engaged in extreme sports with regularity, I probably would have given World Nomads a try. They have a variety of bells and whistles for those sorts of things, as well as reimbursement for various incidents affecting personal effects. They are well-known in the travel sphere and provide insurance plans for residents of 140 countries. While I don't have personal experience in using them, they've been recommended to me on several occasions by other happy travelers, which is why I was considering them until I came across Tokio Marine. I'm not sure how their pricing model works, but when checking their plans I noticed that the quotes I was given for 6 months of coverage seemed to offer a lower monthly price (about $60 USD a month for standard plan) than shorter or longer durations. So if you're booking long-term coverage with them, you might want to test what kinds of quotes you get for different coverage periods.
  • InsureMyTrip - Still mulling over insurance options? InsureMyTrip is my favorite website for comparing plans because it takes the frustration out of research. The site is basically a travel insurance search engine with coverage filters and user reviews to help you compare plans side-by-side. It also takes into account your means of travel and where you'll be staying. InsureMyTrip seems to take quality pretty serious, as they promise to remove any insurance provider who doesn't meet a minimum 4-star rating from customer reviews. Their search also includes plenty of sorting options for popularity, price, and rating to help you find the perfect plan for your specific needs and budget.
Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links, which means, at no additional cost to you, I may receive a commission for sign-ups or sales. I stand by the recommendations (and criticisms) I make, and refuse to promote a service if my experience with it is negative.