If you’re like most travelers or expats, you probably politely click the “decline travel insurance” button when you purchase online flight tickets. I know I do. And why not? I’ll save a few bucks and let’s be honest; we’re all expecting not to need it anyway.
In the last 14 months though, several events have caused me to seriously rethink some of my habitual operating policies around insurance and travel. A single smart, and very exceptional, decision on my part not only saved me from disastrous consequences, but quite probably my life as well.
Allow me to explain.
A little over a year ago, I resigned from my position in advertising to take a year-long sabbatical and travel around the world. I had signed up for a month long yoga teacher training course in northern Thailand, but otherwise had a pretty flexible itinerary along with a fair number of places on my geographical bucket list. Partially because I was going to be gone so long, but mostly because of my predilection for adrenaline sports and a quest for adventure in places most people avoid, I made the decision to buy travel insurance from World Nomads this one time.
Rock Climbing in Krabi
After spending time in northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia; I was finally realizing a long time dream of spending a few weeks rock climbing in southern Thailand. More specifically Tonsai and Railay near the larger town of Krabi. The climbing there is just incredible and the landscape is completely surreal. It’s near the famous “James Bond” island of Roger Moore fame.
The rock is typically vertical to overhanging there and the routes start right off the beach. If you’re a climber, the whole experience is just fantastic. The climbing area is only accessible by long-tail boat from Krabi and Ao Nang. No roads. No planes.
On a warm evening after watching the ethereal airborne parade of glowing paper lanterns adrift in the inky black sky during the Loi Krathong festival, I became seriously ill with something that was definitely not food poisoning. By morning I had a huge fever, pounding headache, and every muscle and joint in my body burned in pain. I was dizzy and having a hard time remaining conscious.
Unable to find the people I’d been climbing with the last few days, I had to self-evac off the beach to seek medical help in Ao Nang; the closest town with anything resembling a hospital. I was too weak to carry my backpack so left it with a café proprietor and took a few essentials in my small daypack. I was so sick, I had trouble climbing into the boat and some kind tourists had to help me aboard. They even helped me find the medical clinic in Ao Nang once we arrived.
Ao Nang Medical Clinic
At the reception desk I couldn’t hold on any longer and passed out. My memories for the next few hours are just a patchwork of images and sensations, but luckily they managed to resuscitate and stabilize me. The doctor was baffled by the hodgepodge assortment of symptoms I was having, but put me on a whole slew of oral and intravenous antibiotics as well as a laundry list of other medications.
I spent the next 3 nights in the clinic and while things improved at first, my condition soon worsened. Not only that, new symptoms began to appear further complicating diagnosis and treatment. My feet and legs swelled up like balloons and huge lesions and blisters sprouted everywhere on my body. I was spiraling back down and the doctors there were patently outmatched by whatever it was. This is where my random decision to buy travel insurance probably saved my life.
The Bangkok Hospital in Phuket
I managed to get a hold of an agent from World Nomads Insurance back in the States and relayed my situation via cell phone. They immediately mobilized and went to work on my behalf. Ultimately they arranged for an ambulance to ferry me three hours to the world class Bangkok hospital in Phuket. Unfortunately the admitting physicians were also baffled by the range and severity of my symptoms. It wasn’t until the next morning when their top tropical disease epidemiologist along with the results from a battery of tests finally solved the question of how to treat me.
Apparently what likely happened is that I contracted some form of airborne Legionella (Legionnaires Disease) from an air conditioner somewhere before arriving in Tonsai, which explained the persistent cough and chest congestion I’d been experiencing prior. This lowered my immune system and I was treated to the full meal deal of tropical pathogens. The end result for me being a massive systemic infection.
It took another seven nights in the hospital before I was well enough to be discharged. However, I still had to remain in a nearby hotel for another week and a half until the doctors felt confident enough to let me leave the area. I can’t complain though, I am sure I was lucky to be alive at this point.
World Nomads Travel Insurance
Getting myself off that beach was critical, but once admitted to the hospital, I received great care and attention from the Thai medical professionals. Traveling solo just added to the challenging circumstances. There were language issues and people from the hospital Accounts Payable department were at my bedside several times requesting immediate payment rather insistently. Since I don’t carry thousands of dollars around in my wallet and there wasn’t an ATM next to my bed, options would have been interesting indeed.
The World Nomads insurance people back home worked like fiends to arrange payment and a host of other logistics. They were always available and proactive in making sure I was taken care of when I could hardly do so myself. It’s difficult to imagine the consequences of my situation if I hadn’t purchased that plan.
Ironically, my reasoning behind getting travel insurance had more to do with a concern over injuries sustained in adventure activities than serious illness. When vacations attack, they can really take a swing at you. On a positive note, I did end up contacting that café owner and received my backpack a couple of weeks later just as I’d left it. Given a lack of contact info and no phones there, I consider this a small miracle. The Thai people are truly wonderful in all respects.
World Nomads Travel Insurance to the Rescue Again
One other event occurred later while I was still abroad that cinched the travel insurance deal for me. I was visiting Peru for a multi-day trek to Machu Picchu and shortly after I arrived I received a call from home saying my father was gravely ill. He was in the hospital and I needed to go home immediately if there was to be a chance of seeing him in time. Needless to say the cost of buying tickets for the next flight out as well as abandoning existing booked flights and other travel arrangements was very expensive.
Again, the travel insurance company came through with flying colors and I eventually recouped virtually all the money I would have lost without it. Lesson received loud and clear. My experiences may have been somewhat extreme, but the return on my investment for travel insurance was right off the charts. The insurance policy only cost me $350 and wound up not only saving me thousands of dollars, but I’m quite certain my life as well.