Health Insurance on the road: Around the World in 80 Years

“We don’t pay for massages.”

What? I couldn’t believe my ears… how could she refuse to pay? This was outrageous… and I can’t deny it, I was really angry. But there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it, other than just accept her answer… I hung up the phone, and decided to find a different solution.

Now, before you ask me what massages I’m talking about and why she didn’t pay for them, let me give you some background… and a fair warning. Today I will have to talk about one of the dark sides of long-term travel… one of the scariest things that can happen to you on the road.

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It all began about a year ago in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. I was treading the pavement of what seemed like the entire city, a mega-metropolis of 12 million people, looking for an apartment… when I suddenly felt a sharp, crippling pain in my legs.

I played it off and thought it’s probably nothing serious – my grand-father had always told me: “any ailment that shows up out of the blue also disappears back to where it had come from”. I didn’t worry too much about it.

Unfortunately, he was wrong, this time… and after the pain persisted for about two weeks, I decided to see a doctor. Sports injury. Of course… I live a pretty athletic life style, and I like to work out at least 5 or 6 times a week. Apparently I had overdone it… and now I was in trouble.

And this is a question I get fairly frequently… what if you get sick in a foreign country? Who is going to take care of you? How are you even going to select the right doctor? And what kind of insurance will cover you when you’re 20,000 kilometers from home?

I used to think that I knew the answers to these questions… I had an international health insurance plan that I had paid into for about a decade, and I felt confident that they would cover me if I ever needed them. They had a good reputation and were part of a major bank. In fact, my personal banker had recommended them, and I trust her implicitly.

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The medical bills from my sports injury in Manila started to pile up… I had to pay for MRI scans, X-Rays, doctor consultations, four sessions of physical therapy per week, acupuncture, all kinds of medication and even ultrasound and laser-therapy… all of which was indicated by the relevant doctors.

Yet it quickly became apparent that my insurance provider was going to leave me in the rain… after over ten years of paying my dues every year, I finally needed their help for the first time – my first serious injury abroad. But when I sent my medical bills in for approval, they just replied: “We don’t pay for massages.”

I never had a single massage as part of my treatment… but that was their excuse so they wouldn’t have to cover the physical therapy sessions. And not only that… they kicked me out of their insurance plan and said they would never insure me again.
I was so frustrated and angry, and I really felt cheated. What a scam! Health insurance my eye… they collect for a decade, and then kick me out when I finally need them? There was a part of me that wanted to get a lawyer and pursue this matter in court. But that would only imply an even greater investment of time, money, energy and frustration… and I believe life’s too short for war.

I suppose that’s the insurance industry… it’s just another for-profit corporation, looking for ways to minimize costs if they can get away with it. There isn’t that much us “little guys” can do – we’re pretty much at the mercy of these huge, powerful organizations. Though a friend of mine actually had some good advice for me, and while it came a bit too late in my situation, it might help you out in the future, so I’ll share it… this is what he told me:

“Look, here’s the secret – if she won’t help you, ask to talk to her boss. If HE won’t help you, ask to speak to HIS boss. Eventually, at some point, you’ll reach someone who thinks it isn’t worth his time to have to deal with your headache who’ll just give you what you want. For someone higher up, it just isn’t worth the hassle.” Or as they say in England: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It’s just a question of whether or not it’s worth the hassle for YOU or not, to cause that drama to get what you want.

But as always, there is a silver lining… one of the great things about traveling for a long time is that you start to build a massive network of personal connections around the globe… and thanks to my network, I’m in touch with fellow perpetual travelers. I ended up meeting two of them in Manila for dinner a week later, and they had some recommendations for me… international health insurance providers that cover people from just about any country in the world.

I’m actually still in the process of comparing these providers to each other, but two of the most reputable international health insurances for travelers are apparently:

I will keep you posted as I find out more about them. I’ve grown a bit mistrustful of insurance providers in general, to be frank (if you pardon the pun)… but I suppose it’s probably a good idea to get at least the basics covered.

Alternatives are staying in countries where (1) public health care is free, or (2) private health care is very cheap. That’s probably a topic for another post, but if you’re at all interested in such things, you might look into the book “Patients Beyond Borders”. It’s the leading guide book on so-called “medical tourism”… something you might want to research on Google if it sounds like it could be useful to you. Here in Thailand, for example, private clinics are world-class and dirt-cheap.

So, this was a bit of a rant… I apologize about that. But some readers asked me about international health insurance, and my first-hand experiences haven’t been the best, despite choosing a reputable agency. So be very careful with your selection, read all the fine print and consider paying out of pocket wherever you can. Not ideal, but in some cases it might just be the better option.

Have you made frustrating experiences with insurance providers before? Or have you found a really good one? Let us all know in the comments below, I’m sure your knowledge could be useful to other people as well.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back with a more optimistic article shortly… I promise. There are hassles to be faced, no matter where you go – but I still maintain that life on the road is 99% positive. And soon I’ll write more about some of the (good) life-changing Kodak-moments you can experience while traveling the world.

So leave me a comment below, and we’ll talk soon…

~ Frank Florida ~


Frank Florida

Frank Florida é professor de idiomas desde 1994 e fala oito línguas. Viajando o mundo por 11 anos, ele visitou umas 300 cidades em mais de 50 países. Ele se graduou da High School nos EUA, se formou em didática na Austrália e é criador do site Fórmula Fluente.

Mostrar 18 comentários

  • 25/09/12  
    Michele diz: 1

    You know the real meaning of being free!! A happy guy, for sure!! As you said in another post: we don’t need a half of things we have. Tks a lot for sharing with us!! I hope u never stop writing these posts!!

    • 26/09/12  
      Frank Florida diz:

      No doubt Michele… freedom is really one of my most important values… and that’s what keeps me happy! :) Glad you like my posts, more to come for sure!


  • 25/09/12  
    Stephanie diz: 2

    Hi Frank!

    This is a really good advice, ’cause travelling alone with no insurance would be a big problem.

    But I was considering and I think you should show us some pictures of your travel, it would be amazing. :-D


  • 25/09/12  
    Luis diz: 3

    Hi, Frank? Otherwise this problem, everything is ok? I hope so!! Yes, I have wonderful experiences with these amazing guys.
    The first one, I had just arrived in England when it started a problem but, naively, I told I´d felt something before starting my trip. You can imagine the result, they told me they couldn´t cover any problem pre-existent. Fortunately, the british doctor that acted as a mediator helped me to find a public service.
    My second, and worse experience, it was this year when I injured my knee in Dublin. I had bought my insurance for just one year but I decided to continue my studies and this problem happened exactly when my insurance was about to expire. So I asked them for getting my plan extended. Then I discovered it wasn´t possible to do that but they could make another contract and, obviously, pre-existent problem wouldn´t be covered. That means my knee was out of coverage.
    “How?!!”, I said, “I´m your client and I just need to extend my insurance”. I was been naive again because I couldn´t accept that they would abandon me when I most needed!! I thought I´d bought a service but for them it was only a business. However the worst thing it was when I had to hear the attendant arguing with me and trying to pesuade me that it was absolutely reasonable the company´s politics. Brillant!!
    So, my friend, luckly you had this king of experience only now and I wish you wouldn´t experience it early.

    • 26/09/12  
      Frank Florida diz:

      Hey Luis, yeah, I’m fine again – thanks for asking! I’ve pretty much recovered completely, all of this happened last year but it has taught me A LOT about the health insurance industry.

      And to think that so many people never travel because they are afraid of medical coverage abroad… I’ll have to say that I feel I’m in much better hands out here in Asia than I would be at home.

      But from what you write, it seems my experience isn’t an isolated case. It’s really pretty amazing, the audacity of calling your problems a pre-existing condition as you renew your contract that you already had before.

      I really don’t like arguing with people like that… I much prefer finding a different solution, one where I don’t depend on what mood the insurance clerk happens to be in that day…

      Such is life! But hey, resourceful people always find a solution. ;)
      Abraços Luis!

      ~ Frank Florida ~

  • 25/09/12  
    João B. L. Ghizoni diz: 4

    Hi, Frank!

    I’m the first one to comment? I can hardly believe it!!

    What a lousy experience you’ve had, hey? I wish you more luck next time with the new insurance company.

    Best wishes,

    Florianópolis, SC, Brasil

    • 26/09/12  
      Frank Florida diz:

      Hey João, what’s up? Hehe… I think you’re the fifth, actually, the other ones just hadn’t been approved yet. ;) But it’s cool to hear from you. Florianópolis, eh? I *love* that city… I’ve been there a couple of times, I even celebrated Carnaval there with a couple of friends from São Paulo once… good times! :)

      ~ Frank Florida ~

  • 26/09/12  
    augusto monteiro diz: 5

    hey frank! ;)

    give us more pics and videos!
    see is more believable than reading! rsrrs

    good luck!!

  • 26/09/12  
    sandrom diz: 6


    Unfortunately we can´t trust in insurance companies in anywhere. If you have the money you should pay for the treatment and try to get it back in court. However, if your treatment is very expensive, you will have serious problems.

    Besides insurance issues many other things can make your trip in hell. A friend told me that she was robbered in Cancun (passport, money, credit cards, camera and id card were stolen) and the nearest brazilian consulate is in Mexico City. She had to go there by bus because she couldn´t take a plane without documents.

    Arguing with another country´s police or authority is not a good idea either.

    But, these things could happen in anywhere and we should not be afraid of them. We have to pay attention to the caution measurements (reading the insurance agreement, paying attention to the documents required, learning native´s habits and behavior, etc) and good trip.

    Thanks Frank for sharing one more experience with us.



    • 26/09/12  
      Frank Florida diz:

      Hey Sandro, yeah good point. When a treatment isn’t insanely expensive, I much prefer to just pay it myself than having to deal with bureaucratic officials, filling forms, arguing about details… :-/

      You know, life has its ups and downs, and probably even more so on the road… but that’s the thing, the ups are higher too when you’re on an adventure and that makes it all worth it… well, I think so. ;)

      Cheers man, I’ll see you on the forum!
      ~ Frank Florida ~

  • 26/09/12  
    Camila diz: 7

    Tks for sharing this experiences with us…..This is very useful for all of us.

    I loved your posts……I learned a lot with this!!!

    • 26/09/12  
      Frank Florida diz:

      Hey Camila, you’re welcome! Glad to know that I can help… stay in touch, willya! ;)

      ~ Frank Florida ~

  • 26/09/12  
    Jose de Assis diz: 8

    This is just as you have said. This is a insurance industry. I have had the same problem you had. I’m at this moment in Boston, US, visiting my doughters, like I have done every year. Now is the only one time I had to use my travel insurance, last week. And as I need to extend my stay in this country, they don’t want to renew my insurance.
    Why? Because I have used it. So they can’t renew it.

    • 29/09/12  
      Frank Florida diz:

      Hey José, what a nuisance, eh? None of this really makes a whole lot of sense to me… oh well. I hope you enjoy your stay in North America! I’ll be flying to the US on the 25th, but I’ll be only in Arizona and California. Cheers! :)

      ~ Frank Florida ~

  • 04/10/12  
    Elza diz: 9

    Hi Frank,

    I am so excited reading about your experience on the road. I am 64 now, mother of four children and started traveling six years ago by myself. The first all I did The Camino Santiago Compostela, from France to Spain almost 800kms, walking with my backpack. I really enjoyed it, so I continue knowing the world. I live in Araraquara, SP, Brazil. I have been in 18 countries already and wish to keep going…

    Thanks and good luck.


  • 11/10/12  
    Frank Florida diz: 10

    Hey Elza, thanks for stopping by… that is AWESOME! Wow, congratulations on your initiative. My parents are about your age, but they’ve never even come to visit me… they’re too tied down, mentally more than anything else. So, I always go there to visit them instead. :) I first heard about the Camino Santiago Compostela in one of Paulo Coelho’s books, actually, it sounds great… my aunt did a part of it once.

    Cheers, stay in touch!
    ~ Frank Florida ~