Adventure Travel Insurance-From Crocodiles to Cholera

Adventure Travel Insurance-From Crocodiles to Cholera: Demand for adventure travel is surging. Solo travelers are leading the charge, especially women 50+ years old. Adventure travel as a category is not easy to define. One person’s idea of an adventure may be fishing in the remote Amazon Basin. Another traveler might seek adventure by helicopter skiing in Iceland. In any case for travel insurance coverage, “adventure” travel means a trip that involves an elevated risk. That ranges from select sporting activities to traveling via unscheduled forms of transport.

Although I have explored all 50 US states and approximately 68 countries, I still think of myself as somewhat risk averse.  In any case, I discovered that no matter how careful I am I have been an “inadvertent adventure traveler” for years. Like many other travelers, I was surprised to find that, without knowing it, I had at times been engaged in “risky” behavior. When I look back on it all, I am amazed that I am still in one piece.

In retrospect, in my worldwide countries to date, I have:

-navigated a low grade civil war in Africa.

-found myself in a crowd in Russia suddenly cordoned off by police and prohibited from leaving.

-arrived off the coast of Senegal in Santiago, Cape Verde to find a local cholera epidemic.

-toured Bermuda via a moped, the latter which now claim the life of about one tourist per month.

-narrowly missed being dinner for leering crocodiles when a footbridge over the Zambesi River broke under my feet.

-been robbed by an enterprising band of muggers in broad daylight in a European train station.

-discovered my innocent trek over the frozen Nevsky River could have resulted in an arrest in Russia!

-ran afoul of India’s laws upon arriving in (and departing) because of an error in the issuance of my visa.

Each “adventure” happened although I had carefully planned every step of my trip. What was the lesson learned? Each of my mishaps showed that even careful travelers abroad can have things go wrong. Is there any good news? There is. With careful planning, not every setback has to be a true calamity.

Travel insurance can be a real help. However, to choose the right policy, first you must know what the risk is for your specific trip.  The best solution is to take a dual approach while still at home. First, research carefully your destination, its health and safety issues to minimize the likelihood that problems will occur. Secondly, compare insurance policies in detail to find the best option for your vacation spot and selected activities.

Victim of Crime/Property Loss:

Theft or loss of luggage and other personal property is the most frequent risk travelers face when going abroad.

Why does this happen so often? Tourists are a good target since they are likely to be carrying cash and/or credit cards that entice pickpockets. In addition, jet lag combined with the distraction of exploring a new locale can make a tourist unaware of what is happening until it is too late.  One popular trick is to have a 2-man team approach each “mark”.  The first one approaches the tourist with a seemingly innocuous query, such as asking for directions. Meanwhile, the second one makes away with his wallet or her purse.

The Internet has made this a cross-border “business” opportunity which I have seen first-hand. When I traveled with a ski group heading for Andorra, we had a brief stay in Barcelona. While walking around the city, a “passerby” warned one of my fellow travelers that a wicked bird had left a “souvenir” on his jacket. While everyone looked up at the sky searching for those mischief makers, my friend’s wallet was sent on a journey of its own! Not to be outdone, when my same ski group traveled to Argentina for our “summer” skiing, ironically birds in Buenos Aires were equally poorly mannered. Believe it or not the very same male group member was again accosted by another helpful “passerby”! Just as in Spain, he was given a warning about the dangers of attacks by local birds. Once again, this trick enabled the wily pickpockets to have a good harvest that day at a tourist’s expense!

Our advice:

Don’t leave your wallet in your back pocket.

Don’t go sightseeing wearing a backpack filled with your cash and credit cards.

Even in low-crime areas of Europe, wear a money belt with cash, credit cards and passport in it. I put a scarf or tunic style blouse over it so that it is not visible.  If I need small amounts of cash, I put it in a pouch around my neck.  In addition, as a solo female traveler, I try to avoid sightseeing carrying a purse.  If I have to, I use a shoulder bag and in higher crime areas, such as subways, in cool weather, I have a light jacket or sweater concealing it.

Planning for Property Loss: “Know before you go”: Record the items you are taking with you, and their likely current value.

Note: Stolen or lost property may require proof of value in order to receive a reimbursement from your travel insurance provider.  If you are don’t keep all your past receipts, you may have trouble here. One alternative is to make a list of the items you are packing along with approximate purchase dates. Then photograph your belongings with their labels to prove ownership and quality.

Making Claims under an Adventure Travel Insurance Policy:

When I was robbed boarding a train in Europe, I recovered 100% of my claim from my travel insurance. In addition, the claim was processed quickly and without any problem. To streamline the process, it helps to have a police report. That is not always possible, especially where there is a language barrier. In my case, the train took off right after these enterprising pickpockets exited. Not only did I have to come up with all cash in local currency at two different national boarders, I had no way to make an official report. Worse yet, on that snowy day, I never knew when I would be thrown off the train since credit cards were not accepted on board. I then spent Thanksgiving Day at my destination in another country running up a $34 taxi charge reclaiming stolen documents.

Disease/Accidental Injury While on Adventure Travel:

For disease prevention, I always visit a travelers’ clinic before I go abroad and then do detailed research on the Internet. At least in the tropics, the two greatest disease risks come from first, contaminated water and secondly from mosquitoes and other insects. As to the first issue, even at top hotels around the world, tap water may not be safe. This can even happen at times here in the US. At one point when I had house guests from Africa, I had to warn them that here in Washington, DC, there was a temporary alert not to drink the tap water! Luckily, it was quickly resolved. If there is an issue, hotels usually provide bottled water. If not, on arrival one of my favorite “go to” spots is always the local mini-mart and/or the full service supermarket. Keep in mind though: If local tap water is not safe, don’t brush your teeth with it. Beyond that, be aware that coffee or tea may not have been boiled long enough to be safe either. Lastly, local pharmacies may sell tablets to purify the water.

On adventure travel, polluted water is not just an issue when it comes to drinking it. “Fresh water” ponds may carry serious diseases, such as bilharzia. However, I know too well the temptation to throw caution to the wind. On safari in Botswana, I was enticed to join our group diving off the back of an elephant into a local swimming hole!  Fortunately, our guide’s insistence that it was safe was correct.  Although I did not contract a disease, I don’t recommend such lapses in judgment.

Accidents can occur at any time and any age. Most frequent are those that occur on the highway but are not limited to cars. Recent media accounts in the Washington Post described the high rate of tourist fatalities riding scooters in Bermuda, as described above.

Other accidents have occurred when tourists have gone for airplane or helicopter rides, even hot air balloons. The key is to check the credentials of the service provider before getting on board. When I took an Alaskan cruise disembarking in Vancouver, within a few days four passengers going back northward on the same ship were killed in a plane crash sightseeing. Although small planes in Alaska are often the only way to get from point A to point B, sudden bad weather can be a danger.  At a minimum, it is important to try to get information on the company and its safety record.

Another problem can be the lack of availability of medical assistance. Adventure travel to exotic locations can carry this risk in a myriad of ways. Islands: One such example is Easter Island with the nearest land mass almost 2,200 miles at sea.  Although there is a hospital, more complicated surgeries would have to be performed in Chile as the nearest point. Rainforests: When I went up-river in the Brazilian Amazon on a small boat, we were warned that we were “10 hours by fast boat from the nearest hospital”. Luckily, when two passengers were nibbled by a piranha, we did not have to end our holiday and head back to Manaus. Safaris: On elephant-back safari in the Okavango Delta, an unwelcome guest joined our 5-star campsite, a Black Mamba Snake, known colloquially as the 2-step.  The camp had a “zapper” in case of a snake bite, but the camp was about an hour by plane from any town.

Insurance coverage for medical evacuation varies but may run $100,000 or more. Common restrictions dictate where treatment can be given. Evacuation in a political crisis is a separate insurance issue with some providers offering coverage from $250,000 to $1 million.

Sports-Activities and Travel Insurance:  Adventure travel policies often focus on sports-related activities viewed as presenting a risk but eligible to additional insurance coverage under special policies. There are some surprises, but see these examples:

Paragliding & Kitesurfing

Scuba Diving

Rock Climbing

Mountain Biking

Skydiving

Trekking

Surfing

Zip Lining

Skiing!

Snowboarding!

I was surprised to see the last two on the list!

Travel Insurance Policy Exclusions:

When you are looking for an adventure travel (or other) insurance policy, you have to look carefully at definitions and exclusions.

Read each travel insurance policy’s language as to risks not covered or requiring a special rider or additional coverage, including:

  • Epidemics
  • War
  • Use of other than scheduled airlines (thereby excluding helicopter/small plane sightseeing)
  • Bankruptcy or failure of vendors, including the tour operator
  • Pre-existing conditions. Select policies may waive pre-existing conditions but only subject to certain restrictions.
  • Age-specific limitations on medical coverage

One often overlooked issue: How long with the travel insurance policy’s coverage last?

When you return home, your regular medical/health insurance comes into play rather than travel insurance. However, be aware that incubation periods can be lengthy. The result is that you may not discover that you have contracted a disease abroad for a long period of time. For example, if you had the misfortune to be bitten by a stray dog while on travel, the rabies incubation period can range from weeks to months. In at least one country I have visited, the Center for Disease Control recommended before leaving home taking costly rabies shots among other more common vaccines.

A more widespread risk in the tropics results from malaria.  It’s important to get medical advice as to the need for malaria pills and plan to wear protective clothing. Although less dangerous than malaria, mosquito-borne Dengue Fever occurs from time to time in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Civil/Political Unrest:

There are two dangers that arise where there is political unrest:

  1. The possibility of becoming a target of violence. 2. The potential of being caught up in a political demonstration or mass gathering and end up being arrested mistakenly viewed as a participant not just a bystander. This can easily happen where travelers don’t speak the local language. As a result, it may be impossible to know the difference between a legal gathering and one that is prohibited.

Coverage:

Unfortunately, political unrest and/or terrorist activity has become a global problem which is, by its very nature,  unpredictable making the risk unknown.  The summer before the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, I had a very tranquil two week holiday there. At that time, it was so peaceful that if two bicycles were stolen on the same day that was considered a major crime spree! What that demonstrates is that at home and abroad, there is no real way to predict random attacks on “soft” targets.  It still is key to research ahead of time and get a sense of problems that are widespread in your proposed destination.

Coverage for “repatriation” or “non-medical evacuation” may require that a specific authority  has declared the emergency and/or need to evacuate.

Legal Issues Abroad:

The Internet is filled with stories of Westerners in foreign prisons. One of my acquaintances as a US Foreign Service Officer was tasked with visiting Americans in jail in the Middle East.  Frequently, arrests are for drugs. Otherwise innocent travelers can run afoul of foreign drug laws involving medicines legal at home but not at their destination. In one such country, there are 200+ substances, including foreign prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs that can result in 4 years’ mandatory imprisonment.  An easy solution? Before leaving home, go online and check the information publicized by your destination’s embassy or government. Generally, if there are restrictions, instructions are clear as to the procedures required to be in compliance. Even certain European countries have such requirements. In my most recent trip, an EU Embassy recommended, at a minimum, an official printout from a pharmacy. That would help to show that the drugs imported were prescribed and for personal usage. For an interesting overview, see “Legal Issues When Traveling Abroad”.

Travel Insurance Coverage:  Select policies may cover legal issues abroad.  This commonly happens if there is an automobile accident.  However, if a traveler was driving under the influence or otherwise at fault, their claim might be reduced or denied.

In Sum:

The best way to avoid a calamity while on adventure travel abroad is two-fold: 1. Before booking your trip, research safety and health issues as well as regulations governing visitors for your destination. 2. Compare carefully the types of special travel insurance that can cover your risk factors as to locales visited and sports/other activities planned.

For solo travelers, choosing the right travel insurance is vital. The reason? Traveling alone means there is no ready companion to assist in case of an illness, accident, being the victim of a crime or getting caught up in political turmoil or a terrorist attack. With thoughtful planning and making wise decisions, even solo travelers can look forward to circling the globe.

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