Medical emergencies while traveling – essential travel advice

by Mar 19, 2019Insurance

Medical emergencies while traveling can happen anytime to even the most experienced travelers. Here are essential, practical tips for medical emergencies — ones we learned first-hand during a personal travel medical emergency while on the road. These tips go way beyond just having travel insurance.

If there is one thing we feel we know a lot about, it’s medical insurance, travel safety, and how to be prepared for travel emergencies. And then a real medical emergency struck while I was traveling and suddenly I discovered there are a few things I wished I had planned better for – a gut check even for those who frequently travel the world. I learned a few essential tips from my own travel emergency I’d like to pass on so you can travel smart and be prepared.

9 essential traveling tips from my own travel emergency

I was visiting Berlin – a town we know pretty well – and I headed out on a run I have done many times. Not more than about a half-mile from where I was staying, I skipped down some stairs, gained a little speed, and was thrilled to hit the little trail I knew well. It was a cloudy, gray day, with rain still threatening, and the dirt path had a puddle across its width, so I calculated that I could place my left foot in front of a bench, then spring from there with my right foot reaching across the puddle.

I did just that, but immediately felt a sharp pain in my left upper calf, so decided I should stop to see what was going on. Once I rolled up my tights, I was shocked to see a large chunk of skin and underlying fat ripped right back in a V-shape. I stared at it in disbelief, pushed the skin back down into place, pressed the palm of my hand over it, and looked around. What now? I was alone in Berlin at the time.

Travel Emergencies and the Bench

Note the puddle and the “offending” bench with the small metal support bar in the middle that I didn’t see — and sliced open my leg.

Medical emergency preparedness: Carry ID and cash

Spying a popular café overlooking the urban pond beside the path, I decided I could make it there. The staff sprang into action, called emergency responders (as they should have) despite my protests, got the wound bandaged, leg elevated, and I waited. Suddenly I realized I had nothing on me except my smartphone and key. Now what? The hospital would likely ask for ID, and I would need insurance information and then cash to pay for a taxi home!

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HITT TIP #1: Even if just a walk around the corner or a “short” run or hike, always have on you an ID of some sort, an insurance card, some cash, and perhaps a credit card – this is traveling advice you just cannot ignore, as I learned at my destination. Small waterproof bags can help protect these items. We recommend either Loksak or this waterproof wallet from Nite Ize.

In this case, the manager at Café am Engelbecken just handed me 30 Euro (a little more than USD $30) from his wallet. I was stunned. Side note: “Engelbecken” translates into English as “Angel’s Pond,” and these folks were my angels!

Cafe Am Engelbecken

The Cafe am Engelbecken is an oasis in the middle of a busy city that offers peace and nature — and really nice staff.

Know your travel insurance details

The emergency personnel loaded me into the ambulance and off we went. In my slightly discombobulated state, I was trying to remember what insurance we had that would cover my fateful medical emergency while traveling. And I was just drawing a blank. I tried to reach my husband and HI Travel Tales business partner, Michael, (it was the middle of the night in California!) to help me think through this. Once he realized the incessantly ringing phone likely was important, we sorted through it all together, and he emailed and messaged me copies of cards, contact numbers and other information. As I sat on the gurney in the ER waiting my turn, I was on my phone typing and calling non-stop.

HITT Tip #2: Know precisely what your regular health insurance covers if you are traveling internationally and want to be sure any medical emergency travel assistance is covered. If your medical insurance does not cover medical emergencies while traveling internationally, do get an add-on or some other travel insurance with sufficient medical coverage. We have separate international medical insurance. We’d also recommend you look at purchasing accident insurance which will cover any out-of-pocket medical expenses for any accident anywhere in the world.

HITT TIP #3: Some credit cards may also cover some medical emergencies while traveling, but only if you used that card to book your trip. Be sure to verify exactly what travel emergency medical coverage you have prior to your departure – and then carry that card.

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Be a smart traveler, check the travel insurance network

Of course, in my state, I had not thought to check which hospitals are in-network so I was now at one that was not. I got on the phone with our insurance to figure it out. At the time, representatives were wonderfully patient and helpful as I fumbled to figure out what name or email or address our insurance was registered under, and what the ID number was. Once that was sorted out, they told me not to worry, they would contact the hospital, send me a letter called a “guarantee of payment” I could show them as needed, and they would take care of it all.

Hospital How To Be Prepared For Travel Emergencies

I sat on a gurney in the hospital corridor waiting my turn to get the wound properly clean, stitched and bandaged.

HITT Tip #4: When you are on the road, travel smart with a little preparation. Look up the preferred network providers in the areas where you will be so you know where to turn for any medical emergencies while traveling. Put them in a document accessible on your smartphone, even if you are offline (No smartphone? Then print and carry the paper!). Also, be sure to have an insurance card and ID number accessible, even if you are offline, and put the insurance company phone numbers in your contacts so you can reach it with a push of the button – mark it as a “favorite” so it’s at the top of a list. 

HITT Tip #5: Create a contact with emergency “911” type numbers in any country you are going to be in, as I did a couple of years ago, and have a list with the likes of 155 for Slovenia and 19 for Morocco. Star or otherwise mark so it’s at the top of your lists.

How to be prepared for travel emergencies – think vaccinations

But, wait there’s more: What about any vaccinations you may be asked about, other medical history, or even your blood type? In my case, since I had run straight into a gray metal support post sticking out from the front of the bench where a couple of bench slats were missing (and it just sliced me open), I was asked about tetanus. I had actually just updated my medical record prior to departure with some new immunization information and scanned it into our cloud storage. But, guess what? Without my reading glasses, I was struggling with everything on my phone!

HITT Tip #6: Be sure to also have your medical history accessible on your smartphone, if you are offline, too, or carry a paper copy if necessary. In a medical emergency while traveling, your brain may not kick in, as mine didn’t. 

HITT Tip #7: Carry any reading or prescription glasses with you, even small emergency ones. I often carry a tiny thin pair from ThinOptics but had left them out of my waist pack for some reason for this “quick” run. Luckily, my husband was able to read the form and find the date of my last tetanus shot, which I had missed with my impaired vision.

Communicating during medical emergencies while traveling

Another lucky stroke for me was that I speak German fluently. Sure, I was thrust into a language area where I didn’t know some of the terminology, but I could work around that. Even GeoBlue sent the forms I would need (within minutes of my call, I may add!) in German so I could show or pass on to those who needed them.

HITT Tip #8: If you don’t speak the language, have a translation app handy in case you are in a country where medical providers may not necessarily speak some English. If an app doesn’t work for you, then carry some printed medical terminology or some pages from a phrasebook. Read our story “9 ways to communicate when traveling in a foreign countryfor more communication advice. 

Stitches Medical Emergency Travel Assistance

Once a journalist, always a journalist: Had to record for history the leg being stitched up!

Consider emergency evacuation insurance

I did not need evacuation, thankfully, but we do also have emergency evacuation insurance from a company called Global Rescue. The need for this can be so sudden and unexpected (that’s why they are called “accidents,” right?) that it’s always a good idea at foreign destinations. We actually witnessed a horrific cycling accident on a group trip we were on in Croatia a few years ago where the woman nearly died and her husband was struggling to communicate with hospital staff and to get her home. They did not have international insurance.

HITT Tip #9: Consider emergency evacuation insurance. We use Global Rescue for our evacuation coverage – although thankfully we have not had to use it yet!

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Good travel medical insurance makes a difference

Of course, after being bandaged and sutured, I was told I’d need to see a doctor the next day to check on the wound, for follow-up care, and to have the stitches taken out in about 10 days. Doctor? What doctor? Now, however, I was more prepped mentally for finding medical emergency travel assistance. Back with my computer and with my wounded leg elevated, I could go directly to the GeoBlue website and find in-network providers. A doctor not more than a half-mile away was in the network, making it very easy to go in the next day and not worry about a thing. Nevertheless, after I had arranged it, I called GeoBlue, and they sent another letter of “guarantee of payment,” again in German, both to the doctor and to myself. I was never so grateful for the response of the GeoBlue team – It helped me feel as if I truly had a support team although I was alone!

You’re now prepared for travel emergencies while traveling

I did end up with a slight infection, got antibiotics and stronger pain medications from the doctor a few days later. I also went back to Café am Engelbecken the day after the accident to express my extreme thanks and to pay back the 30 Euros I had been given without a thought.  Since I was heading off to Morocco a week later, I also input all the Moroccan emergency numbers into my phone list and followed all of lessons I learned to be prepared for any medical emergencies while traveling in what were to be perhaps more remote areas.

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  1. Freedom56Travel

    This is such helpful information. I have never thought to check specific providers in the countries I am visiting or to make sure that I had all my details with me while out and about. Not to mention the reading glasses! Thanks so much for tuning me up about this!

    • HI Travel Tales

      glad it was helpful. it was certainly eye-opening when you think you have covered it all, but then find out it’s the little things that you don’t! feel free to share because my goal is for sure to help others.

  2. The.Holidaymaker

    You are such an amazing storyteller. I hung on every word, and then to read you were a journalist, well it all made sense! You were very lucky, to have generosity by the Cafe help you and to know fluent German, it could have been a much more stressful event. Good advice for us all to plan ahead. Dankeschon!

    • HI Travel Tales

      Thank you for your kind words! Knowing German certainly helped, but without the guardian angels that day (including the
      Café am Engelbecken) it would have much more challenging a day, and experience.

  3. Jerry and Fiona

    Yeesh, what a nasty cut….

    We’ve been good in the past about vaccinations, but spent a year on the road in Mexico and Central America without any travel health insurance, and we carried none in the US while we were traveling. I once had to visit the ER in the the UK without any travel health insurance and that was no bother at all. I often consider dealing with insurance to be way more painful or miserable than anything that would land you in the doctors office/ER/hospital. My experience dealing with that in the US has been awful and I cringe having to deal with insurance while away, but it is nonetheless something we should consider ourselves, especially as we are not getting any younger…
    Great post! Thanks for sharing!

    • HI Travel Tales

      Travel insurance, from a reputable company, is essential coverage to have and very easy to use. As we stated, we use Global Rescue for emergency evacuation and security and World Nomads and they are both terrific. Also, if you have a good travel credit card (we prefer Chase Sapphire which provides excellent travel insurance coverage though unfortunately for this trip, Therese paid with American Express which did not cover her for her emergency) that can make it easier for you too.

  4. Rodes On The Road

    Great reminders! I surely pick to read your article as I am a weak person. Not an easy feeling to be in medical service need while we wanted to enjoy the place we visit. Glad you manage and handle it well even if you are just yourself! Thanks…

  5. Sarah

    This is super helpful! I never want to prepare for the worst and your calf injury sounded pretty bad…but to travel smart I really should. Thanks for the tips!

    • HI Travel Tales

      Traveling smart is traveling with tools and information at your fingertips to take care of any emergency that arises. Glad you found the post helpful.

  6. Joanne

    I’ve always thought of myself as a very prepared traveller but although I’ve thought of much of these things, there is so much I hadn’t considered. I don’t have everything in my phone. It’s usually in my wallet … that I leave at the flat. You are so fortunate to have met the guardian angel that day. Quite often I’m even travelling with little money in my purse until I come across a convenient ATM. Great message to cash on you at all times and keep records of all important information in your phone.

    • HI Travel Tales

      Us too Joanne … been traveling all of our lives are consider ourselves VERY prepared. This was a good reminder for us that no matter how prepared you think you are, taking a few moments to check your preparations, the little details, to be sure you have what you need with you before you head out, even for a short time, is so essential.

  7. Brianna

    Yikes! I’m glad you’re ok and everything worked out for you. Obviously great tips for travelling abroad. I’ll be sure we have all of our insurance information stored and readily available should something happen on our own trips. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • HI Travel Tales

      This was a good reminder to us that we need to have emergency contacts, insurance, and medical information readily available no matter where we are when traveling. Glad our story, and experience, was helpful.

  8. yarasam

    Great tips. Like many of us, I travel often and sometimes, only sometimes do I purchase insurance (travel/medical). This is an excellent reminder that things just happen and you have to be prepared especially abroad to face the light. Thanks for sharing your recommendations.

    • HI Travel Tales

      Lesson learned for us is always know you have proper travel insurance coverage (including medical) for every trip because you never know.

  9. Yukti

    Thanks for sharing useful tips regarding medical emergencies. Medical Travel insurance is must and also carrying ID proof and cash is also another important tip. For specific countries vaccinations is also necessary.

    • HI Travel Tales

      Indeed Yukti … as we said money, ID and medical information as well as insurance info on your person at all times. Vaccinations are also necessary, though for an emergency, that isn’t much help when it happens. That’s more about preparation for any travel. It is essential no matter where you travel though that you are vaccinated (and carry proof of that vaccination with you) for Hep A & B and also have your TDAP vaccine current (Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis).

  10. The Travel Bunny

    I take travel safety seriously, and I always pack a small first aid kit and pills I or fellow travelers may need. I also took a first aid course and will do a refresher this summer. however, I still took some tips from your advice, thanks 🙂

    • HI Travel Tales

      Glad you found this useful. We’re probably better trained for travel emergencies than most as Michael used to teach wilderness first aid, was a former mountain guide and we both have lots of first aid and medical exerience. We also carry a first aid kit with us, though that would have been of little use here where the injury required immediate medical attention. But none of that prepared us for what happened to Therese, and that is the lesson. You can NEVER be too prepared.

  11. Kevin | Caffeinated Excursions

    This is a really effective post because you preface it with the accident that happened to you, Therese. That is so unfortunate but it’s great that locals were so friendly and helpful, and in the case of medical emergencies, you just never know when bad luck can strike! Great advice and thank you for sharing your experience!

    • HI Travel Tales

      Well, Kevin, Therese would have preferred the post NOT to have been a personal experience 😉 But that said, it did make for a good story … doctors and nurses were a bit curious about her taking notes and photos throughout. Glad you found the article helpful. Be prepared for emergencies is something that we all need to pay more attention to and plan for.

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