The venom crept up his legs, his torso. Fever and palpitations set in. His vision blurred, he staggered up the trail, where a park ranger presented his options: 'We can radio in a helicopter evacuation, which will cost several thousand dollars, or you can go back to your tent and see what happens.'
Unfortunately, Bret wasn't able to exercise a third option-travel insurance. He didn't have any, like a lot of other adventurous travelers who are good at taking a risk but not as good at calculating the consequences.
Travel insurers, on the other hand, get paid to calibrate those distinctions before you hand over your boarding pass. As grocers of probability, they weigh things, then price them-dengue fever, dismemberment, death, even diarrhea. They know that accidents will happen, whether it's a scorpion bite in Arizona or a bout of appendicitis in Peru. And when they do, it pays to be covered.
A good travel policy can provide immediate access to care, treatment and medication-when you need it, all over the world. It's one less thing to think about on the adventure trail. There's a certain peace of mind that comes from knowing you can quickly be put in touch with someone who speaks your language and can wire money, get you a bail bond or refer you to a doctor or lawyer in a foreign land.
Travel insurance absorbs risk, but as with any investment, there is fine print. Policies vary widely, so start with the basics: Where are you going? What will you be doing? What coverage do you need and what can you live without? How far does your home coverage go? Your credit card, renter's or homeowner's insurance may protect backpacks borrowed by the Hong Kong airport or laptops lifted in Addis Ababa. But that's about it.
Many travel insurance companies were set up by larger underwriters, like Pan-American Life Insurance Co. or Cigna, and are designed to let you pick and choose policies to fill gaps in your current coverage. 'Consumers should take time before leaving to investigate their coverage,' advises Jeanne Salvatore of the New York City-based Insurance Information Institute (III). 'If they are not covered, they can then purchase what they need.'
So what might fit your needs? Rental car insurance in Mexico? Evacuation coverage in Kenya? No problem. You can pick the type of protection you need (trip cancellation, evacuation or referral hot-line service); the extent of the policy (cheap or pricey); and the duration.
There are four main offerings: short-term or single-trip (10 to 90 days), long-term or multi-trip (three months to a year), foreign national (coverage for non-U.S. citizens) and expatriate (for those residing overseas). Travelers can pick up optional coverage for trip cancellation, or get a death and dismemberment 'benefit.' If that's the word.
These packages are comparable to standard insurance policies. Each has a deductible, ranging from $100 to $2,500 or more. Each covers office visits, X-rays, surgeries, medical supplies and prescriptions. 'Where travel insurance deviates from the norm,' explains Richard Wallach of Wallach & Company in Middleburg, VA, 'is in medevacuation from an area of weak medical care-say, in Africa-by air ambulance to a facility or hospital near your home.'
Medevacuation is one of those long-shot options that's worth checking out. 'The horror stories don't happen all that often,' concedes Jay Stolpestad, president of Universal Travel Protection in Monument, CO. 'But when they do, they're bad.' His company's evacuations have ranged from a seaborne New Yorker with a wave-induced heart attack ($7,350) to a traveler who got mauled by a Cape buffalo ($36,000). Medevacuation comes in handy in an area with a high HIV incidence in the local blood bank.
The second deviation, adds Wallach almost casually: 'We cover the repatriation of remains.' Apparently several thousand people die overseas each year, and getting a body returned home can prove a complicated, dragged-out process. When grief or rage obscures reason, it's good to have professionals cut through the red tape.
Those bureaucratic scissors may be the most commonly useful benefit. Most policy packages offer 24-hour, toll-free legal aid, referral assistance and multilingual help. Make sure yours does, too. It's invaluable when your rental jeep gets rammed by a Cuban bus driver in Havana and no one answers at the U.S. embassy, since, um, there isn't one.
How often do you really need travel insurance on the road? It's like auto insurance. Not often, but once can be enough. The firms that sell the packages don't provide any hard numbers on occurrences, though anecdotes abound.
Universal Travel Protection's website, for example, features a thank-you note from 'B.K.' While in Tobago, B.K.'s wife fell down some concrete steps. 'Unbeknownst to us, she had suffered a subdural hematoma. Unfortunately, there were no diagnostic facilities there.' Universal dispatched a Learjet with a medical team, and the couple was in Miami in eight hours. After recovery, 'the neurosurgeon told me that my wife was within 24 hours of death.' Moving. And difficult to verify.
Wallach can't release names, but he also offers 'the usual assortment of horror stories.' Like the uninsured man who nearly died in an auto accident in Uzbekistan. Evacuated to Germany, then back to the U.S., he recovered-though not as quickly from a $200,000 bill.
'Another passenger had to have her gallbladder removed,' adds Wallach, 'and was flown to the nearest hospital that could perform that to satisfaction, which was in Tel Aviv. They removed the gallbladder and sent her back to Uzbekistan.' This person was insured, and Wallach covered it all.
There are a few companies that specialize in assistance services, with advice at the ready in any situation, from arrest to losing your eyeglasses. In addition to medical coverage, Worldwide Assistance Services, Inc., in Washington, D.C., offers quick access to emergency cash advances, legal referrals and interpreters, as well as pre-trip security and health advice. Similarly, Philadelphia-based AEA International/SOS Assistance notes that it 'helped a woman arrested in a traffic accident in Mexico get released from jail and provided consultation for a member with a swollen ankle in Shanghai.'
Medevac, car insurance and adventure coverage are growing segments of the market. Again, study the fine print, the standard exclusions and limitations tacked on near the end of the policy brochures.
As with most insurance coverage, there are a number of things not covered by most policies, such as sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy, including miscarriage or abortion; mental illness; suicide; self-inflicted injury (that dirty needle used for a tattoo in Bora-Bora); off-road, all-terrain-vehicle accidents; bodily injury sustained in organized sporting events (including mountaineering, aviation, hang gliding, parachuting and scuba diving); and 'claims arising from war, declared or undeclared' (ruling out dozens of countries).
But don't lose heart. There will always be room for risk-taking. Simply shop around before playing soccer on that former minefield in Kuwait. Read all the fine print, and remember: Some of life's risks are always worth covering.
Contact:Champion Insurance Advantage, Ltd., Bel Air, MD (410) 879-4577; Insurance Information Institute, New York, NY (212) 669-9200; AEA International/International SOS Assistance, Philadelphia, PA (800) 523-8662; Universal Travel Protection, Monument, CO (800) 211-8952; Wallach & Company Inc., Middleburg, VA (800) 237-6615; Worldwide Assistance, Washington, D.C. (800) 821-2828.
FromEscape(Aug. 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.