Travel insurance is an important topic for travelers in general, and especially volunteers heading overseas for weeks or months. If you’ve found your way to this review, then you likely already understand the reasons why you need travel insurance for your volunteer trip — not only do most programs require that you have a policy, but it’s a financially sound decision and you will be glad to have coverage if you encounter any health or safety concerns on your volunteer placement.
What type of insurance do volunteers need?
Travel insurance is a broad category that can cover anything from that weekend wedding across the country, to a long-term trip around the world — and everything in between. With such a broad range in the types of trips, it makes sense that there is a great range in the types of coverage offered by insurance companies. I have been on the road since 2008, and with so many years buying plans, I have a good bead on what type of policies work for each type of trip you might be planning.
Short-term volunteers may spend days or weeks at a volunteer placement somewhere outside of their home country. Whether you are planning this as a part of a specific organized volunteer placement, or if you are going in the indie route, where you plan it directly, you need a policy that covers you for the duration of your trip. Many short-term volunteers plan to generally travel either before or after their placement — or both!
For this type of trip, you will likely want a general travel insurance policy that widely covers you for travel-related mishaps and situations, from lost luggage to delays to health and medical evacuation. I have long used a company like World Nomads and IMG Patriot (more on both of those below). The time spent at your volunteer placement folds into a broader trip, so it makes the best sense to choose a plan targeted at backpackers, or travelers visiting a handful of places in a single trip. Even if that’s not you, if you’re going straight to the placement and then back home at the end of your trip, the shorter time-frame still means you won’t face many of the issues covered in policies for expats and long-term travelers. In this scenario, you need a policy that covers your trip, but you are maintaining your health insurance policy back home, and you pay travel insurance above and beyond your general health coverage (be it an individual policy if you are from the U.S., or your national coverage if you’re from Canada, the U.K, or other places of that like).
Long-term volunteers and travelers:
Long-term travelers and volunteers face an interesting situation that is unique and variable depending on each person’s unique health situation, your chosen destination(s), and the length of time — “long-term” could mean eight months, or it could mean two years. Like short-term volunteers, you might be planning a single placement, or you may plan to volunteer a bit but then also travel either on your breaks, or for weeks and months in between your volunteer experiences.
This type of trip has unique needs and you need to consider if you will maintain your health insurance in your home country for the duration of your trip, or if you are relying on your travel insurance to cover your general health as well as emergencies. And if you’re in one spot volunteering for a year, you can also factor into the equation the quality and cost of local healthcare for your general wellness checkups. Consider your destination — how good is the healthcare infrastructure and will you need the more “travel-y” and adventurous coverage provided by a policy intended for backpackers and round the world travelers? A long trip to a single destination might be better classified as an expat at that point, and there are policies specific to that type of travel. Whereas for some long-term travel you might be better served by a backpacker policy intended to cover lost luggage, health emergencies, and accidents from outdoor activities like snorkeling and hiking. Backpacker policies from IMG Patriot and World Nomads are among the best for many travelers on the road for a long while — more on that below.
Expatriate is the general term used to apply to anyone living outside their home country. And if you are moving overseas and setting up a house and a life abroad, and intend to volunteer (let’s say for perhaps eight months or longer), then you might be best served by an expat insurance policy. In this type of situation, you are living somewhere and not classifying your trip as a chance to “travel,” per se. You may explore your new home, but you’re not bouncing around to new countries every week and you spend most of your time at your volunteer placement.
These policies differ from backpacking policies and really are not fully considered travel insurance. Instead, the policies offer you primary health coverage in a foreign country. This type of policy allows you to see a local physician for a cough or cold, for your annual gyno visit, and that sort of thing. It’s not intended to cover adventurous activities like snorkeling, scuba, trekking, etc, although you may be covered inadvertently for some activities because you can see local doctors when you’re ill. These policies often also cover catastrophic medical evacuation and repatriation of remains (just like any good travel insurance). Many expat policies for U.S. residents also include the option to pay for the policy to include primary insurance coverage stateside as well — adding this to your expat policy raises your premium significantly because of the high cost of U.S. healthcare. If you’re living abroad, you might instead purchase a policy without U.S. coverage, and then buy a travel insurance plan for the weeks you return home to visit. I have found three main companies offering this type of coverage, Cigna Global, IMG Global, and GeoBlue Xplorer. A fourth option in some destinations is to purchase local insurance through a national provider — this is more complicated to navigate from abroad, but would be easier once you live there, open a bank account, and have a local address.
Pros and Cons of Recommended Insurance Companies
There are a ton of options out here, but here I will outline pros and cons for just the ones that I (the founder of GV, Shannon), have used and personally recommend. I can’t promise that these companies are perfect, but after diligent research these are the ones I decided best fit the wide range of circumstances that cropped up over the past decade when I traveled as a backpacker, as a long-term traveler, and when I bought an expat policy for long-term residency outside of the U.S. All three options allow you to buy and manage your policies completely online (until you must mail things in for claims and such). All three also offer medical evacuation and coverage for serious medical emergencies.
World Nomads: An insurance aimed at backpackers and world travelers on the road for weeks or years. The policies are very clear online and adventure activities are clearly outlined (seriously — it’s a comprehensive list), so you can research ahead of time and purchase a policy or additional policy rider to cover the activities you hope to experience on your volunteer placement. It covers all the basics in a travel policy, with some coverage of reimbursement for covered travel delays, trip cancelation, theft, and more. I have used this company for a decade and continue to highly recommend it for a broad range of overseas trips, from round the world travel to volunteering.
IMG Patriot: This one makes a great family plan if you are heading on the road for anything from a few weeks to a few months. The policy covers most everything you would expect, and you can change your deductible levels to easily raise or lower the price. The general policy covers fewer adventure sports and activities than World Nomads, but you can buy an additional rider if you have planned big adventures during or after your volunteer placement.
IMG Global: After researching expat policies in fall 2017, I settled on this IMG policy to cover me for my year of living in Barcelona, Spain. This policy better meets the requirements of long-term visas, so if you are applying overseas for a long-term volunteer visa, the requirements might mandate that you have an expat policy. IMG offers zero-deductible policies (which my long-term visa required), and covers all the basic and emergency health situations you might face. It does not cover trip delays and that sort of situation that travel insurance policies usually have well in hand. I will use this as my main policy but then I might buy travel insurance if I plan a trip well off the path from my expat destination.
Before You Buy! (Cautions and Considerations)
When volunteers search for specific “volunteer insurance,” they find an entire subset of the travel insurance industry offering plans for them specifically. Do you need a plan tailored to volunteers? Well, not usually. And in some cases it’s actually a bad idea.
If you are using a specific volunteer company that recommends one type of insurance, that might be ideal for your trip because the policy will likely cover everything included in your volunteer experience. But if you’re doing anything a bit unconventional — traveling before or after the trip, staying on the road for a while, you should probably just shop for general travel insurance, otherwise you might find yourself stuck in a policy loophole.
One of these loopholes? Some volunteer insurance companies (like what I found when I reviewed Volunteer Card) do not cover you at your destination unless you buy a roundtrip ticket before you leave. If you travel on a one-way or open-ended ticket, then it only covers you during transit to your location. That is not always ideal and not something that everyone understands before buying that policy.
Here is more advice you should read and absorb carefully, or you risk buying a policy that will not cover you for your intended trip. Although you may find terrible reviews online of your chosen insurance provider, I usually read those reviews with an eye toward understanding if the company exploited an unknown loophole, or if the traveler simply did not read their policy beforehand and did not understand their coverage. You should always read the requirements for making a claim if something goes wrong on your trip. Keep these things in mind:
- Document your valuables. To make a claim for lost or theft of valuables, you must first prove that you bought the item(s) (receipts), and that it was there with you (take a photo of valuables before you leave), and that it was stolen (an official police report). It is imperative that you fulfill each step here. Many negative reviews I read online are people who didn’t have a copy of the police report, or couldn’t generate ownership proof. Read your policy and understand exactly what is required to make a claim. Then, before you even leave for your volunteer placement find receipts and document ownership.
- Document your illness. Call your insurance company as soon as you are ill; they help you find the best providers in the region — plus it often states in your policy that you have to do that, so when buying a policy, you agree to allow them to help you choose a provider and be involved in the process. If you don’t they might not cover it. Also, keep your paperwork! There will be a lot of back and fourths as you make the claim and the more information you have the better.
- Follow the law. One sticky situation for backpackers and expats is the rampant use of motorbikes. If you’re not licensed to drive the vehicle in your own country, then you are not covered in an accident. This is a huge loop-hole. And it sucks. But double-check things like this before you assume that if you’re in an accident on a windy Thai road that you’ll be covered if something serious happens. (See note below for more information).
- Read your policy. Seriously. It’s dry and boring. It will take at least an hour. But read it, highlight areas you didn’t know and really understand what they are covering and what they are not. And if you’re unsure, email or call them! They do always answer questions before, during, and after you’re their client.
- Read this information on common things not covered. From pre-existing conditions to extreme sports, there are a few things you’re just not getting in a general travel policy, but some things might be covered in an expat policy.
What to Know: Travel Insurance & Driving a Motorbike
To qualify for coverage from your insurance company, you generally must be following the law when the incident happens. It surprises some travelers to know that. And even more, to understand that this applies to driving a motorbike. One reader from GV’s sister site provided more insight on driving a motorbike abroad.
From Matt of Great Distances: “For anyone who’s curious about motorbiking, the rule is this: If you’re going to pilot a motorbike in Asia (or really anywhere in the world), you need a motorcycle license in your home country as well as an international drivers license with motorcycle certification (this requires a prior motorcycle license, at least in the U.S.). Without these things, your travel insurance will NOT cover you whatsoever should you get in a wreck or injure yourself or others while on a motorbike. And people wreck and hurt themselves ALL the time, especially when they haven’t had proper safety training and find themselves wearing clothing that provides no projection from motorbike mishaps.”
Making the Right Choice for Your Situation
Never allow anyone — either in person or online — pressure you into buying a travel insurance policy. Not all policies are the same and you may prioritize some aspects over others. When I began traveling as a solo backpacker in 2008, I used World Nomads and I have used them on and off for a decade. But I have also switched companies when the policies better covered my needs, such as when my then 11-year-old niece and I traveled and volunteered in Southeast Asia for seven months. Although I had long loved World Nomads for the coverage of adventurous travel activities, and they worked when I volunteered too, I felt (and still feel) that IMG Patriot is often a better fit for families — the policy has better wording about what happens if the minor’s guardian is incapacitated and the minor needs another family member flown to the destination. When I decided to move overseas, instead of my peripatetic wanderings, that’s when I bought an expat policy. The right choice varied according to my personal situation, and it will for you as well.
I also carry a lot of expensive gear with me — a fancy camera, Mac laptop, and smartphone — so I carry a separate policy for my gear from Clements (which insures belongings for expats). That means that my travel and volunteer insurance companies don’t need as generous gear coverage since I insure it separately. You might go that same route, or pick a policy that fits with the amount of electronics and gear you will carry on your trip.
Every volunteer trip is different, so use this advice and information as a starting point for your own research. Best of luck and happy travels.
Founder of Grassroots Volunteering
While all the information in this post is correct to my knowledge, do your own research and verify all aspects of your travel insurance; GV cannot be held responsible for your use of any of the information provided here.