Travel Insurance

Asia Tourists Surprised by Crippling Medical Bills

Michael Lythcott remembered he needed to update to his travel insurance policy, and let the insurance company know he had left Europe for Asia. It was late, and the restaurant would soon be closing, so he put it off. Instead, he hopped on a rented motorbike with his travel companion, fellow American Stacey Eno, and headed into town. Lythcott, 39, a globetrotting web developer, had just recently met Stacey.

Globetrotting web developer Michael Lythcott in Morocco

Like most millennials, the typical global wellness traveller prefers yoga and relaxing meditation retreats over fitness-based programs or those focused in spas. About 40 per cent of under-35s who travelled overseas were uninsured, a 2017 British survey found; fewer than half of American travelers take out insurance.

Stacey Eno in Ubud, Bali, just hours before the motorbike crash last year that would send her to hospital.
Stacey Eno just hours before the motorbike crash last year that would send her to hospital

Stacey Eno, 26, a schoolteacher in South Korea. She was a riding on a motorbike with Michael Lythcott when they were in an accident. This photo was taken at the restaurant were they enjoyed a meal just hours before the motorbike crash last year that would send her to the hospital.

Lythcott and Eno never made it back to their hotel that night, in August last year. On their way home, a minor earthquake pitched them off their bike and down a deep ravine. Lythcott suffered internal injury, while Eno broke a wrist and several bones, including her jaw.

Lythcott was pulled out of a ravine with a cracked skull, collapsed lungs, several fractured ribs and a lacerated liver when the medical staff at the village hospital asked him a simple question: “Do you have insurance?”

Through a haze of pain, Lythcott’s mind flashed back to the previous night. He had needed to update to his travel insurance policy, and let the insurance company know he had left Europe for Asia.

No, he didn’t.

Stacey Eno and Michael Lythcott in a hospital in Kuta, Bali after their motorbike accident last year.
Stacey Eno and Michael Lythcott in a hospital after their motorbike accident last year.

He also didn’t know he could buy travel insurance online while traveling. Travelers who have a health emergency and aren’t insured or covered have few options. Many are forced to turn to sites such as GoFundMe to pay for care, and sometimes repatriation.

Their rescue may have saved their lives, but their accident – an emergency overseas requiring unexpected, steep medical fees – put Lythcott, 39, and Eno, 26, in a bind. It’s a situation that is becoming increasingly common as more young people spend months at a time traveling and living overseas, or have adjusted their professional routines to become digital nomads.

Faced with what would eventually be about US$70,000 in medical fees between them, Lythcott and Eno turned to a solution that is also becoming increasingly common as travelers encounter emergencies without insurance, or find their specific accidents uncovered by their insurer: they crowdfunded.

With separate pages on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, the pair were offered donations ranging from US$5 to US$500 from family and friends. They were lucky. After a CNN report picked up their story, funds came in from strangers as well.

Michael Lythcott in Sri Lanka

No one has exact numbers, but the need for travel emergencies has become a trend in the past couple years, spurred on the growing number of global tourists, in particular young people, whose travel habits put them at greater risk. In the past two months alone, digital nomads have needed at least US$200,000 for travel emergencies.

A couple of separate cases gained a lot of media coverage last month, after two young women required medical transport from Thailand to their home countries.

For British backpacker Sophie Wilson, special help was required after she dived into a pool and was left unable to move most of her body.

In another case, Caroline Bradner, an American schoolteacher working in Bangkok, needed emergency transport after suffering paralysis resulting from an autoimmune disorder.

“These are very difficult situations, especially [when families] are having to deal not just with the medical situation but also raising money,” says Phil Sylvester, a Sydney-based travel safety expert and spokesman for global travel insurer World Nomads.

Sylvester says he has seen crowdfunding for travel emergencies becoming a “noticeable” trend in the past two years.

Last year, cases included bids to raise funds for a New Zealand woman burdened with hefty US medical bills after breaking her pelvis while hiking; an American woman living in Bali who needed transport home after discovering she had brain tumors; and an Australian surfer who had to have part of his leg amputated after being hit by a truck while visiting Bali. In other cases families must bear the cost of transporting a body back home after a death.

In another case, Bradner, who was diagnosed with Guillain Barré syndrome after she woke up in her flat and couldn’t move. Her claim for medical transport home, totaled more than US$76,000.

Most of these health care emergencies are at home. The hurdles of affording health care can be further complicated by overseas travel, as many insurers only cover domestic medical costs.

The longer you spend abroad, the more likely it is that you will get ill or have an accident. These risks may be particularly acute for the millennial generation, who make up around 20 per cent of global travelers, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organization and who are typically less likely to buy travel insurance.

Riding a scooter without a license is common among backpackers.

“You might have larger amounts of money involved if these are catastrophic injuries and people need to be medevacked out, and if you are dealing with a demographic of people who are may be more predominantly traveling on a shoestring budget, then they are not going to have savings to lean back on,” says Jeremy Snyder, a professor of health sciences at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, who has researched medical issues for digital nomads.

The travel habits of young people may also put them at a greater risk, because they tend to spend a longer period abroad, either taking overseas jobs and then traveling on, or spending months at a time on backpacking trips, according to Greg Richards, professor of leisure studies at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, who has surveyed young travelers for the World Tourism Organization.

“There’s a large body of young people who are effectively resident in places while they are traveling,” says Richards, noting that rising levels of education and the relative ease and affordability of travel has contributed to swelling numbers of young travelers.

“The longer you spend abroad, the more likely it is that you will get ill or have an accident,” he says.

A 2017 survey by the Association of British Travel Agents found that about 40 per cent of 18-to 34-year-olds who travelled overseas were not insured. The percentage is similar for Canadian millennial travelers – the age bracket least likely to buy insurance, according to research by Allianz Global Assistance. Across age groups, only about 40 per cent of Americans take out insurance, according to non-profit AAA Travel.

“Very close family and friends will help out, but it’s going to get more and more difficult to appeal to a wider audience,” he says. When it comes to the injured and uninsured, “the goodwill of the general community will start to run out”. “Better to get a quote when you remember than wait until it’s too late. You can do it online.”

WorldNomad Expat Insurance
WorldNomad Expat Insurance