When dream holidays go bad! Why you should never skimp on health and travel insurance
Written by Trevor Keidan on February 04, 2019.
I have never been an insurance doubter – I understand the peace of mind it gives and the fact that the day you realise you need it is always a day too late. However, I know that many Infinity clients often wonder if it is truly necessary and regularly decide to pass on health or travel insurance to save a bit of cash. This is a big mistake and here’s my cautionary tale to prove why.
In December, my family (my wife, seven year old son and I) were all set for a memorable Christmas trip to Niseko, Japan’s biggest ski resort, taking advantage of the Thai Airways route between Bangkok and Chitose airport. Everything was perfect: lovely ski-in, ski-out hotel, stunning scenery, tons of powdery white snow and a great variety of pistes for all levels from wide open powder bowls to tree runs.
We had a ball on the slopes ….until the trip became memorable for all the wrong reasons. On the third afternoon, my ski class of three reached a crossroads and our instructor asked us whether we’d like to take the green or the red piste. In what has become something of a Sliding Doors moment for me, we opted for the red. Two minutes later an unhappy meeting between a misplaced ski and a mogul left me spread-eagled on a 45 degree slope like a downward facing snow angel with a painful ankle.
“Leave me for the rescue guys,” I nonchalantly told my instructor as I reprogrammed the rest of my week in my mind, picturing myself with my sprained ankle in a support bandage, catching up with work in the hotel while the rest of the family enjoyed the slopes. Not ideal but these things happen.
Then the ski patrol arrived and they were not taking any chances. They adeptly manoeuvred me on to a rescue sled, immobilised my leg in an inflatable splint and skiied me down the mountain, which was a truly terrifying experience. A red-light jumping ambulance ride followed, which seemed excessive to me for a sprained ankle.
We arrived in hospital, handing over passports and insurance information so that my leg could be properly examined. It soon became clear that this was not a simple sprain and I thanked my lucky stars that I had health insurance (with Cigna) and travel insurance (via my American Express Platinum card). I informed both companies of my situation, files were opened and the wheels were set in motion to find out what was wrong and how to fix it. A Guarantee of Payment (GOP) of 5 million yen (around US$45,000) was issued to cover my treatment, all promptly arranged by Cigna’s on-the-ground logistics and assistance provider, International SOS.
Two morals here: firstly, health insurance is essential. Without it, I would have had to prove that I could cough up 5 million yen before the doctors would so much as wheel me into the operating room. If I couldn’t do that….well, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Secondly, it is important to use a well-established insurer with a strong network which can provide swift and efficient on-the-ground assistance. When you are in severe pain or, worse, in need of emergency life-saving treatment, every minute counts. As it happens, I was covered twice in Japan – my health policy with Cigna, and my backup travel policy with Amex which kicks in when the health policy gives out. Cigna agreed to pick up the tab for the medical treatment while Amex became a second level insurer for travel-related issues not covered by my health insurance (more on that later).
An X-ray revealed a double fracture of my tibia and fibula requiring the insertion of a titanium rod through each of the bones to be secured at the top and bottom with screws. The timing of my fall couldn’t have been worse. It was Saturday 22nd December and the following day was Emperor’s Day in Japan with a public holiday scheduled for Monday 24th, which meant that the operating theatre was closed until the 25th. Happy Christmas!
After two days with my leg immobilised in a temporary splint, I received the dubious Christmas morning gift of titanium rods in my lower leg. To my surprise I was hobbling around on crutches later that same day and gingerly weight bearing just 24 hours later. Only briefly though - the risk of DVT meant I had to keep my leg elevated most of the time.
Wonderful as the hospital in Japan was, and grateful as I was to the talented surgeon who performed the operation, I just wanted to get home. This is where my travel insurance came into play. Health insurance should cover your medical needs wherever you are in the world, but they may not cover repatriation. Cue my third piece of insurance advice: when travelling away from home always ensure you have travel insurance which includes repatriation and understand your policy before you go.
My Amex travel cover paid for a private van for the three hour journey to the airport so I could keep my leg up (US$500), flights home for my whole family - I went business class as I needed a flat bed, my wife and son went economy but only because there were no other business class seats available (total cost in excess of US$10,000), reimbursement of ski hire and lift passes for the rest of the holiday, US$100 per day for expenses while in hospital rising to US$250 per day over two days we were in Chitose awaiting our flights, treatment en route for changing bandages and so on. The costs added up frighteningly fast and it was a huge relief that I wasn’t having to dip into my savings to cover them.
I’m happy to be back at home in Bangkok and recovering well. There will be further medical costs to come. The staples from my surgery had to be removed and I will require plenty of physio sessions to get me back walking. In a year or two, when the bones in my leg have healed properly, I will need to have the titanium rod removed. I will be covered for all this with Cigna (as long as I am still insured by them and paying my premiums). I just really wish I hadn’t Googled the process and watched it on Youtube!
If there is one thing I have learnt from this experience - apart from that I am perhaps not as competent a skier as I thought! – it is this: if there is one time when you really don’t want to be cheap it is when buying medical and travel insurance.
And the latter is essential whether you are planning a high-octane trip or a relaxing city break. My accident happened when I was skiing but it could just as easily have been a car crash, a freak accident or a heart attack. And, with the best will in the world, any of those things could also happen to you or your loved ones.
Don’t take any risks – make health and travel insurance a priority and purchase the most comprehensive cover you can afford. We can take the hard work out of the process - just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'd be happy to assist.