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Edward Hasbrouck on "The Amazing Race 3"

Episode 2: Wednesday, 9 October 2002

Amacuzac, Morelos (Mexico) - Teotihuacan, D.F. (Mexico) - Ciudad México, D.F. (Mexico) - Cancún, Quintana Roo (Mexico) - Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo (Mexico) - Cozumel, Quintana Roo (Mexico) - Tulum, Quintana Roo (Mexico)


Road hazards, water hazards, and what to do about them

"The Amazing Race 3", for which the TV producers have manufactured "road block" challenges for the racers each week, hit a real road block in the latest episode, when the bus carrying five of the teams collided head-on with a car on a highway in Mexico in the middle of the night.

It's easy to be fooled by high-class busses -- if you forget about the roads. The ultra-deluxe ejecutivo busses the racers take are more luxurious than Greyhound busses in the USA or Canada. Most Norteamericanos would mistake the facilities and amenities of the "Terminal de Autobuses de Pasajeros de Oriente" (TAPO) in Mexico City for those of an airport, not a bus depot. And that's not even the largest of the Mexican capital's bus stations.

So where's the rub? The limiting factor in the comfort and safety of road travel is as likely to be the quality of the road itself as the condition of the vehicle. A ride on a truly bad road can be torture for the passengers (and, for that matter, the driver), even on the best of busses. And Third World roads at night are always dangerous enough to avoid if there's any reasonable alternative. Would I take an all-night bus in Mexico, for a chance at a million dollars? I'm not sure.

No one was badly hurt in the bus crash, but the passengers were delayed for several hours before a replacement bus arrived.

Later in the episode, when the racers were offered a choice of kayaks or jetskis, several of the teams chose the jetskis in spite of having, apparently, no experience operating motorized watercraft. Kayaks aren't toys (as I've been learning recently as a moderately experienced flat-water paddler but a beginning sea kayaker), but neither does an engine make a watercraft simpler or safer. Inexperience and lack of training are among the leading contributors to personal watercraft fatalities (along with alcohol).

Two of the teams capsized their jetskis repeatedly in the middle of a large open lagoon. Not a good place for novices: "self rescue", or re-entry from the water after a capsize, is a skill that takes practice in any watercraft, powered or not, and especially in open water. Most personal flotation devices (life jackets) won't keep an unconscious person's head above water. If one of them had hit their head and been knocked out -- an easy thing to happen while going overboard, or when you're in the water at close quarters with a heavy, high-powered craft -- they could easily have drowned before even the closest rescuers from the television film and production team could have gotten to them.

In the event, none of those who capsized was visibly injured. But they lost a lot of time: in the end, these were the two teams that finished last. One was eliminated, and the other will start last on the next leg.

As both the bus and the jetski "accidents" remind us, surface transportation is the greatest safety hazard of travel. And many of the hazards of surface travel are inherent in it, or beyond our control. No amount of skill and sobriety can keep you safe and sound on a road where everyone else is drunk or driving carelessly. Almost every time one of my clients has had to cut short their trip due to injury, it's been related to road travel: sideswiped by a taxi in Hong Kong, thrown out of a jeep when it hit a pothole in Zanzibar, or some such thing.

If we can't eliminate the risk of surface travel (flying is always safer than surface travel, of course, but it's not always an option), one thing we can do is to make sure that we have adequate medical insurance when we travel.

Travel insurance policies provide at least five types of coverage, intended for different types of travellers and trips:

  1. Comprehensive travel medical insurance is for people who don't have any other medical insurance, even at home. Since most people who can afford it have health care coverage in their home country, often through their employer, comprehensive travel medical insurance is mainly of interest to long-term travelers who've left their jobs and lost their insurance coverage at home, or to those living and working outside their country of citizenship or permanent residence.
  2. Emergency travel medical insurance is for people who have medical coverage at home, but whose health plan at home doesn't cover them while they are travelling. Emergency travel medical insurance only covers emergency services abroad; once you get home, you're on your own (or presumably, back under your regular home coverage) for any necessary follow-up treatment or continuing care. Most health insurance plans and health maintenance organizations in the USA include their own provisions for emergency care while abroad, at least for trips of less than 30 days. Check with your current insurer or HMO before you waste money on an emergency travel medical plan that duplicates your existing coverage.
  3. Medical evacuation (medevac) insurance covers the cost of an air ambulance, attending physician and nurse, etc. if you are so badly injured, or become so ill, that you can't come home (or get to a suitable medical facility) on a scheduled commercial passenger flight. Medical evacuations can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but are rarely necessary. Even very badly injured travellers usually can come home on regular flights after no more than a couple of weeks of emergency treatment and stabilization abroad. Some of the activities most likely to lead to a need for medical evacuation, such as scuba diving and extreme sports, are often excluded from medevac coverage. Read the fine print.
  4. Trip cancellation and interruption insurance covers the cancellation or refund penalties and the cost of getting home if you have to cancel your trip, or cut it short, for specified reasons. The covered reasons vary (read the fine print), but typically include injury or illness to you, a travelling companion, or a member of your immediate family. War and terrorism may or may not be included, or may be covered only at additional charge.
  5. Supplier default insurance covers any money you lose because of the bankruptcy of an airline, cruise line, tour operator, or other provider of travel services. Supplier default coverage has been drastically cut back since 11 September 2001. Some travel insurance companies no longer offer it at all, while others pick and choose which travel suppliers they will insure. Read the fine print.

Where do you find this sort of insurance?

Some travel agencies and travel suppliers offer travel insurance as an option along with travels services you buy from them. For example, Hotwire.com -- as a result of a suggestion I made to their president earlier this year -- now offers trip cancellation and interruption and supplier default insurance for four percent of the cost of tickets purchased from Hotwire, with a US$12 per ticket minimum. Airtreks.com offers a selection of travel insurance policies from Worldtravelcenter.com, selected to suit the needs of long-term, independent international travelers.

Some regular insurance agents handle travel insurance, especially long-term comprehensive travel medical insurance. If you're travelling for six months or more, or if you plan to travel regularly throughout the year, it may be cheaper to include travel coverage with your regular health coverage. Check with your regular insurance agent to see what they can offer.

You can also get travel insurance from specialists in the field. These include travel insurance companies, direct providers of medevac and travel emergency services, and independent travel insurance brokers and agencies that can help you compare the offerings of different insurers. Following are some of those I know of, with the types of coverage or services they offer.

These listings are not intended as endorsements. I've heard good and bad things about almost all of these companies. This is just a list to help you get strated on your own research, in case you have difficulty finding companies that offer this sort of coverage at all.

  1. Travel insurance companies and travel service providers

  2. Independent travel insurance brokers

    Each of these brokers offers a selection of travel insurance policies from multiple insurers. Note that none of these brokers offers any policies I can find that include coverage for supplier default.

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