Paying Doctors Out of Pocket Abroad

I have a lot of travel insurance companies as advertising clients on my various websites and am happy to have them as partners. But I have to admit I almost never buy travel medical insurance for myself when I’m traveling. The main reason is, it’s just so much cheaper to simply pay for medical care when you need it once you are outside the U.S.

Last month I did a lot of catching up on magazines and saw three different blurbs where someone talked about their doctor bill after having some kind of mishap on the road. One was in the funny letters part of Budget Travel, where a woman had a motor scooter wreck in Thailand—very common. She stopped in the emergency room and “x-rays, medication, bandage, and doctor’s visit came to $11!”

In another, a person in Ecuador said they saw the doctor, got x-rays, spent a couple hours with nurses’ care, and got a prescription filled for painkillers. The grand total was $19. When I got deathly ill from something I ate one time in Ubud, Bali, the doctor made a house call to my room, gave me a week’s supply of antibiotics, and charged me $12. A backpacker I met later said he got the same treatment for $7. (I was robbed!)

In Mexico a couple years ago, a little girl ran into my car from the side and I spent hours shuttling her and the family to a doctor then a hospital. After two exams, x-rays, bandages, stitches, and enough pills to medicate an elephant, I was out a grand total of $42. If she had needed to spend the night in the hospital it would have been $18 more.

My mom flew to Costa Rica three times last year to get her teeth worked on, with loads of implants, crowns, and who knows what else. Even after the flights and hotels, it came out to around half what her small-town home dentist had quoted her, in a nicer facility.

Now I’m not saying the peace of mind from insurance isn’t worth it if you shop around. Some people would gladly pay more to have one less thing to worry about. And high-risk activities (like heli-skiing or class 5 rapids kayaking) may warrant a high-risk policy. Plus I have bought annual medical evacuation insurance that is guaranteed to fly you or a member of your family to a real first-world hospital should you get bit by a python or chewed by piranhas in the middle of the Amazon.

Otherwise, if you’re in a cheap country or in a European one that covers tourists in an accident, it’s far cheaper just to wing it. Have money in your bank account, an ATM card, and a credit card and you’re good to go. No health care reform needed.

See travel health articles and resources at

[flickr photo from DanMcNeely]

  1. Suzie

    Can you write an article about your mother’s experiences with dentistry in Costa Rica? How did she find a dentist, costs, expectations, etc.? Or, point those interested in the right direction? Thanks!!

  2. brian

    Another benefit of going to inexpensive countries. I would still get some good travel medical insurance that has the company paying for any expenses as opposed to you paying and then being reimbursed. Medevac is important too.

    Medical tourism is a whole other topics. Costa Rica and India seem to be hot spots for that.

  3. kina

    Sure just about anyone traveling overseas can afford a trip to the doctor. However, what if you were in an area with poor medical facilities? What if they couldn’t treat you and you had to be flown back to your home country? Would you be able to drop $40,000.00 on a medical eveacuation? What if you were too unstable to be evacuated? Could you afford to fly a loved one down to be by your side? This is the reason you buy trip insurance, not to cover an $11 doctor bill.

  4. Coach Hire

    Trip insurance is seriously important, I like to travel down to countries like India, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, and even Malaysia and countries near by as the cheap travel and tours, help me spend more time, learn a lots of stuff, and I might like to tell you about what happend to me in Thailand,

    I got sick and the area I was in have no qualified doctors, what If I have not bought my trip insurance? Luckily the Coach Company I am working for here as a consultant for coach hire, minibus hire and limo hire always arranges my trip insurance each time I visit my home country or travel abroad for business and holidays, this really helps a lot.

  5. Mario

    I sense a few travel insurance company reps making comments on here, as always happens when you question their huge profits. Most trip insurance does not cover medical evacuation to another country, but they won’t tell you that. Read that fine print carefully—and remember that one of the biggest, TravelGuard, is part of discraced AIG. Do you trust that company with your life?

  6. Amy

    I am about to embark on a year long trip to Mexico. Can anyone recommend a particular company or policy to cover those emergency flights home? I have done some looking around and can’t find anything I feel confident about. Or are the facilities in Mexico good enough I shouldn’t worry about it? Thanks!

    • tim

      The only one I can recommend from personal experience is Medjet Assistance. I never had to put them to the test when I had a policy, but they have a good reputation for when the s&*t does hit the fan. If you have an Amex Platinum card a similar service is included gratis, but technically only for trips of three months or less. Honestly though, if I needed a medivac evacuation in Mexico, I would have them fly me to a good hospital in a big city like Guadalajara, Mexico City, Veracruz, or Merida before I would have them fly me back to one in the U.S. Unless I need some exotic experimental treatment, the facilities will be as good and it’ll cost less.

  7. George

    I’m heading to Costa Rica next week. One of my goals is to meet with couple of dentists to discuss a pile of work my son needs.

    I’ll give a recap after the meetings.


  8. travel insurance

    Even if medical urgent care is presumed to be insured in almost every decent country around the world you would still have to pay extra money. Usually it’s a small price to pay but often it’s more than the travel insurance policy.

  9. Heathrow Airport Transfers

    I personally like EFU when it comes to travel insurance, they are ethical with great customer support and provide you the solution on time

    Kind regards


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