Teresa McUsic

Her loved one died in China, but travel insurance eased getting him home

Alicia Nash, left, and George Gomez with Dignity Memorial Shannon Rufe Snow Drive Funeral Chapel bring the remains of Jim Martin into the sanctuary of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church for funeral services on Nov. 21. Mr. Martin died Oct. 22 while visiting China.
Alicia Nash, left, and George Gomez with Dignity Memorial Shannon Rufe Snow Drive Funeral Chapel bring the remains of Jim Martin into the sanctuary of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church for funeral services on Nov. 21. Mr. Martin died Oct. 22 while visiting China. Star-Telegram

At age 71, Jim Martin of North Richland Hills still had the attention to detail you would expect from a retired Bell Helicopter engineer who worked for decades on the development of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

So when he took the trip of a lifetime to China with a tour group in October, it was no surprise that he also paid for a travel insurance policy.

But even Martin likely didn’t realize how much that policy would pay off for his family.

At 2 a.m. on the 12th day of the 15-day tour, his daughter Angela McCulley of Coppell got the call no daughter wants to receive. Martin, a widower who was traveling by himself, had collapsed in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and was rushed to the hospital.

“The medical personnel said they were working on him and doing everything they could,” she said. “They told me they would call the U.S. Embassy in China and then hung up.”

At a loss for what to do next, McCulley pulled out the itinerary papers her Dad had left with her. Among them was his travel insurance plan with a 24-hour emergency help number.

“I called them and they immediately started up a case,” she said.

An hour later, she said she received another call saying that Martin had passed away of an apparent heart attack.

Even though they surmised the cause of death, getting her father’s body home to a Fort Worth funeral home wasn’t simple. McCulley had to endure a three-week ordeal that included an investigation and autopsy, as well as interactions with the Chinese police, morgue and funeral home.

Through it all, she said, her father’s travel insurer, Aon, and its emergency service, On Call International, provided translators and helped with paperwork, basically walking her through the process of getting her father back home.

And financial costs of the crisis — including more than $10,000 in charges from the morgue, funeral home and preparation and air shipment of the remains — were completely paid by Aon. The policy had cost him just $138.

“We are so thankful that we didn’t have to pay for it all,” McCulley said. “And if he hadn’t had travel insurance, the process would have been much more complicated and lengthy.”

Death on a trip is not a common use of travel insurance, said Rachel Taft, spokeswoman for SquareMouth, a travel insurance comparison website.

Approximately 30 percent of travelers take out travel insurance, according to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association. Eighty percent of claims on travel insurance are for medical issues.

Interest in travel insurance is rising, Taft said, as travelers increasingly want coverage for everything from earthquakes in New Zealand and Italy to terrorist attacks in France.

For example, travelers with an upcoming trip to New Zealand would be covered if the November earthquake there damaged their hotel or delayed their flights by 12 to 48 hours. For travelers in New Zealand during the earthquake, travel insurance would cover medical treatment and evacuation, as well as an early return home if the policy had trip interruption coverage.

But policies vary significantly both in coverage and cost.

“Policies are still very specific for when coverage is triggered,” Taft said. Shopping for a policy that fits your specific needs is important.

While the average cost of travel insurance is typically 3-7 percent of the trip’s cost, Taft said costs for the same coverage can vary widely among the many insurers offering policies.

“There is no need to spend twice as much for the same coverage,” she said.

Filters at www.SquareMouth.com let you choose what type of coverage you want, then provides a listing of policies from lowest to highest in price. A similar shopping tool can be found at www.InsureMyTrip.com. Both also offer 24-hour access to an agent to talk through policies; SquareMouth can be reached at 800-240-0369 and InsureMyTrip at 800-487-4722.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net

Picking a policy

Tips for purchasing travel insurance, according to Consumer Reports.

1. How many choices does your seller offer? Travel agents may have only one or two insurers and policies, while a shopping tool like SquareMouth will offer dozens of insurers and more than 100 policy options.

2. Beware of cheap policies, and overpriced ones. Policies running just $10-$25 will be very light on benefits, while policies running 10 percent of the cost of the trip may include benefits you don’t need.

3. Purchase waiver to avoid cancellation of pre-existing conditions. In general, pre-existing conditions — generally defined as conditions diagnosed or treated in a recent time period such as 60-180 days — are not covered by travel insurance, Taft said. But you may be able to add a pre-existing waiver in addition to or as part of a comprehensive policy. Typically you must purchase such coverage within 14-30 days of your initial trip payment, she said.

4. Check for healthcare coverage. Be aware that most health insurance policies including Medicare don’t usually cover you outside of the U.S. Healthcare coverage may be part of a comprehensive travel insurance policy or you can buy it separately for the additional benefit. This part may include a higher deductible option for lower premiums.

5. Check for medical evacuation coverage. Depending on how exotic your destination is, Consumer Reports recommends adding this to your travel insurance benefits. Cost vary from $200-$300 per trip or $200-$250 annually for frequent travelers. But an air ambulance or rescue nurse on a commercial flight can cost tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket without travel insurance.

6. Don’t worry about bags. The credit card you used to purchase your trip will likely have lost bag coverage. Check with your credit card provider before adding this to your trip insurance. Also, around 15 percent of credit cards provide some form of travel insurance, according to CreditCards.com, so check with your card company before you buy anything.