Summer is when my family takes vacations together, which is likely the case in your family as well. Most of us are routine in our wanderings, venturing to the usual tourist destinations or someplace with a beach or picturesque mountains. But for the wealthy, more exotic locales often are the destination. Not just the French Riviera, but places only the hardy would dare to tread.
Travel to underdeveloped countries is increasing in popularity, particularly among affluent millennials and members of Generation X. In fact, rather than just connecting with people in less developed parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, these tourists also want to become educated about the economic challenges they confront, with the hope that they can make a difference.
These well-intentioned travelers confront an eye-opening array of risks, from infectious diseases and acts of violence to kidnap and ransom schemes. If ill or injured, appropriate medical care in such regions may be unavailable, necessitating the need to be medically evacuated to a nearby health care facility.
Another travel trend among the wealthy is to venture to parts of the world they have yet to visit. Tourism in China, Thailand, Belize, Costa Rica, Venezuela and many other regions is rising fast. Although these nations have more sophisticated medical facilities and fast-improving infrastructures, similar risks abound.
In fact, no place is 100% safe, not even the United States. The risks of traveling most anywhere in this age of radical extremists and terrorist attacks are sobering. Even routine travel destinations like Paris, London and New York now raise a skeptical eyebrow — and should. Tourists used to flock to places like museums and ancient ruins, but the high concentrations of people make them a target for terrorists. Sadly, the term “tourist trap” now has a more ominous meaning.
To get a better sense of travel risks, I reached out to a former colleague, Diane Giles, who specializes in serving high-net-worth families and individuals at Marsh, where she is senior vice president in the insurance brokerage’s Private Client Services group. Giles agreed that travel trends such as visiting underdeveloped countries and trips to far-flung locales have become commonplace among her high-net-worth clients.
Young, Wealthy and ‘Convinced of Their Invincibility’
“They consider themselves global citizens,” Giles told me. “In addition to traveling for pleasure or on vacation, they’ll own a home in Spain, Mexico or Greece, which serves as a launch pad for forays to places that are inherently dangerous. Sometimes they fail to tell us where they’re going, particularly younger clients that are newly wealthy and convinced of their invincibility.”
Giles related the tale of one such client in his early 30s who is a coffee connoisseur passionately interested in sustainable farming methods. “He has a habit of wanting to see where the world’s best coffee is grown, which is in Africa, Indonesia and South America,” Giles said. “He recently returned home from one of his coffee excursions in Venezuela. I learned this after the fact from his financial advisor. I told her, ‘Guess which country just emerged as a top region for kidnap and ransom schemes? That’s right, Venezuela.’ He’s now been informed to contact me first before his next voyage abroad.”
Hazards Abound: Big Ones and Those More Random
Certainly, the pleasures of travel far outweigh the risks. Wanderlust is embedded in our DNA. “To travel is to live,” said Hans Christian Andersen. Sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury would agree. “See the world,” Bradbury advised. “It’s more fantastic than any dream.”
Do so, indeed. But first understand the personal risks and have a plan. Not just for the big ones like the threat of kidnapping, civil unrest or a terrorist attack, but also the random events that can occur anywhere to anyone. A friend of mine was touring Italy with her daughter recently when she fell and broke her leg. She needed immediate care at a local hospital, which refused to provide services until it had cash in hand. This resulted in an out-of-pocket cost that she was unprepared to pay. Once fitted in a cast, she wasn’t strong enough to travel home on a commercial air carrier. She had to charter a plane. Regrettably, her health insurance picked up none of these expenses.
Giles told me another story about a client who suffered a compound leg fracture when a jeep driving him on safari in Nairobi overturned. “He had to rely on the driver to find him an orthopedic hospital in the city — not exactly an optimum referral,” she said.
Another client had a heart attack in the French Alps. “He was on a climbing expedition and had to be picked up by a helicopter for a two and a half-hour ride to a hospital for emergency care,” she said. “Meanwhile, his young wife and three children were left back at the hotel, didn’t speak French and were panicking over how to find him or what to do next.”
These tales of woe are just the tip of the iceberg. According to the World Health Organization, injuries are the leading cause of preventable death in travelers. Most people worry about contracting malaria or the Zika virus while abroad. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that infectious diseases account for only 2% of deaths to travelers in foreign countries, whereas injuries make up as much as 24%. “If a traveler is seriously injured, emergency care may not be available or acceptable by U.S. standards,” the CDC stated.
Packing for the Trip
Of course, stuck in similarly dire situations, wealthier people have the financial means to absorb the unanticipated costs. Still, no one likes to part with what could be tens of thousands of dollars, much less risk the possibility of inferior medical care.
No one is completely safe from perils on a vacation or other trip abroad. But there are common-sense ways to limit the risk of injury, illness, accidents and other hazards. “I tell people going to big cities to stay away from heavily populated spots and visit the lesser known historical places,” Giles said. “Recently, a friend mentioned that she’s taking her granddaughter to London. I handed her money and said ‘Do not take the Tube. Take a cab.”
What about limiting risks for travelers bound to more out-of-the-way places? “My advice is to see someone like me first,” Giles said. “There are insurance companies that provide comprehensive insurance protection and travel-related services in a packaged product.”
Depending on the insurer, these comprehensive insurance packages generally provide medical and political evacuation services and excess medical expense coverage, no matter how many trips are taken during the year. Added benefits include free travel assistance resources, such as the possible need to replace a lost passport, obtain language translation services, receive a proper referral to a medical facility or learn about the changing risk profile of a region before booking the travel. Additional coverage can be added to the package, such as kidnap and ransom insurance, and trip cancellation protection, among others.
“The packages are truly comprehensive,” Giles said. “We just had a client who had an eye injury on a remote island. Using an app provided by an insurer on his iPhone, he was able to FaceTime an image of his eye to a top eye doctor in the U.S., who diagnosed the injury as nothing to worry about. Without that app, he might’ve wasted a day or more seeking medical care.”
Knowing that you’re managing the risks of travel is the best way to ensure peace of mind.