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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 during your volunteer placement.
What types 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.
The entire process is not always straightforward — you need to understand when your volunteer insurance is actually sold by a brand underwritten by a different insurance company (like Volunteer Card and World Nomads), as well as if and when that’s a selling point.
I, GV’s founder Shannon, have been on the road since 2008. With so many years buying travel insurance plans, I have a good bead on what type of policies work for each type of trip you might be taking.
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 the indie route where you arrange your program directly with the destination organization, 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’ll 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 World Nomads and IMG Patriot (more on both of those below). If the time spent at your volunteer placement folds into a broader trip, 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 the like).
Long-term volunteers and travelers:
Long-term travelers and volunteers face an interesting situation that is varies depending on each person’s unique health situation, 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 (something like United Healthcare offers short-term plans I use when I return to the states for a month every year).
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 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. The company also has a philanthropic arm called Footprints that allows you to tack onto your policy a small donation to a number of interesting development projects administered by a range of secular NGOs and nonprofits.
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 to fit your budget (and your level of risk tolerance — that’s something you can’t adjust if you use an out-of-the-box plan by Volunteer Card, which has some plans underwritten by IMG). IMG policies generally cover 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 insurance 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 use this as my main policy, but then I might bought World Nomads travel insurance when I was well off the path from my expat destination traveling in Kyrgyzstan.
Review: What About Volunteer Card?
Here’s the deal: I don’t mind companies like Volunteer Card, which is akin to a volunteer insurance reseller — it’s not actually the insuring company. The way that works is that Volunteer Card works with two companies to sell policies branded under Volunteer Card.
Pros of going with an insurance reseller: When you face an issue on the road, their team works with you to navigate the claims process. That’s a handy feature for anyone who has become overwhelmed by the paperwork involved in travel insurance claims. But, that paperwork is also not so overwhelming that it’s impossible. I have made claims directly through IMG (which underwrites Volunteer Card’s longer volunteer insurance policies), and it was a one-shot deal: I uploaded my untranslated, raw documents from the hospital, and a few months later the money was directly deposited into my bank account. A traveler I know firsthand made a more than $60K claim through IMG and similarly was able to navigate the claims process solo. So, if you really need the hand-holding, it can help. But then, you could also go with World Nomads, which is a reseller but with more robust plans that will easily cover your before-and-after travel plans, too.
Cons of going with an insurance reseller: When you use a reseller, you are locked into the policy that they have decided is best suited to the average volunteer or traveler — you don’t get to tweak and play with your coverage. When you go directly through IMG, they will offer a grid during the process that lets you hand select coverage limits in various areas. You decrease/increase your maximums and minimums to fit your own risk tolerance profile (perhaps you’d rather not pay for $500K in emergency evacuation because your destination isn’t incredibly remote, but you would like to allocate funds for more coverage than the paltry $50K in medical expenses that Volunteer Card’s plan covers).
Final thoughts on Volunteer Card: I like an insurance company that is straightforward and does what is intended. I am also philanthropic on my own account, so I am not much impressed by their integrated program for donations. Best I can figure out, 10 cents from every policy goes toward a meal for a Burmese refugee (they say every policy buys one meal, and that $1 equals 10 meals). What’s more, the money goes through the company’s own faith-based nonprofit, Venture, which is not shy about its overt proselytization goals of turning unresourced, poverty-stricken children in Southeast Asia into “future Christian leaders.”
The ethics of volunteering is murky enough itself. So while the GV database does list some religious organizations doing great work overseas, I (Shannon) find many nonsecular organizations deeply conflicting when they offer humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations alongside religious conversion efforts. GV’s founding goal was to help volunteers navigate all things murky in the voluntourism industry by providing volunteers with enough information to make educated, considered decisions on issues that have a very real effect on the very real humans you aim to help. So, the conflict is this: By proselytizing to marginalized, vulnerable, and easily exploited populations while providing fundamental human needs like food and shelter, it can make aid seem part of or conditional to religious conversion. If you’re into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I think of it this way: Populations that don’t even have physiological and safety needs met on the bottom of the pyramid have their motivations compromised when an outside organization offers to meet those deprivation needs only by also forcing a conversation on the very last one Maslow says should be addressed: self-actualization. Where you stand on this issue is for you to decide, and you can read a bit more on this entire moral quandary here and here.
Let’s move on! The volunteer insurance company you choose depends on your own travel goals, and we’ve discussed the four leading options out there that will cover most any traveler. Let’s now look more closely at the fine print you really need to know before you rely on any policy.
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 intend to return home. The policy wording uses the word intention and that’s a slippery slope if you travel on a one-way or open-ended ticket, with no firm idea if you might stay on the road for a good long while. That is not always ideal and not something that everyone understands before buying that policy. GV prefers policies that are extendable on the road and aren’t wishy-washy about what your travel intentions — perhaps you’re heading out for a few months but you’re also open to longer if the opportunity arises. Skip something like a Volunteer Card policy and select one that is directly through the insurer, or use World Nomads, which specializes in long-term travel.
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.
- 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. This is why you must read your 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.
If you pilot a motorbike anywhere in the world (although this is very common for travelers in Southeast Asia), you must have a motorcycle license in your home country, as well as an international driver’s license with motorcycle certification. For U.S. citizens, to secure this you must have a prior motorcycle license. If you’re missing any of these steps, the travel insurance will not cover you in the event of a motorcycle wreck that injures yourself or others. Motorcycle accidents are sadly very, very common even for experienced drivers—traffic rules in other countries, paired with bad/unknown roads means travelers wreck and hurt themselves all the time. If you’re renting a motorbike, proper safety training and certification may not only save your life, it’s required to qualify for travel insurance coverage.
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 and its founder cannot be held responsible for your use of any of the information provided here. No company has paid for placement in this post, the information is provided by personal recommendations. If you make a purchase based on these recommendations, GV may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.