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Taking the Kids

Travel Insurance Protects Far From Home

July 21, 2002|EILEEN OGINTZ

After two days at sea, the Olsons were in high spirits as they left their cruise ship to explore the Caribbean island of St. Martin.

Then 2-year-old Haley was hit by a truck.

"I was right there," said Doug Olson of Racine, Wis., still incredulous a year later. "One second was all it took."

One second and the entire group--14 members of the extended family were traveling together--was plunged into a vacation nightmare, made worse because they were in a foreign country. Haley was conscious, her leg badly injured. Someone called an ambulance, and the family raced to a small nearby hospital.

"They didn't even want to look at her at the hospital without cash up front," Kim Olson said. "We had trouble getting an outside line to call off the island. I was a complete basket case."

Even the most minor mishap or illness--a sprained ankle in Colorado, the stomach flu in San Francisco, an ear infection at the beach--can wreak havoc with a family vacation. That's why it's important to play the "what if" game before you go.

What if somebody gets sick?

"Treat a minor illness the way you would at home," said Dr. Tim Vega, an Illinois family practitioner and spokesman for the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Make sure you have a thermometer and fever-reducing medication, as well as first-aid supplies like antibiotic cream, adhesive bandages and gauze.

When traveling with kids to Third World countries, don't leave home without anti-nausea and anti-diarrhea medication, and remember that dehydration can become a major problem, said Kurt Kutay, founder of the adventure outfitter Wildland Adventures, which sends many families to exotic locales.

Don't stubbornly adhere to a vacation itinerary if an ailing family member isn't up to it.

"Don't push a child to keep going if they really feel sick," said David Fassler, a Vermont child psychiatrist. "It's important to make sure a child doesn't feel like they've done anything wrong or ruined the family's trip. Everyone gets sick sometimes."

If the ailment is worse than a minor injury or illness but still not an emergency situation, first call your pediatrician or family physician at home, suggests Dr. Richard Wayne, medical director of the Christus Santa Rosa Children's Hospital in San Antonio.

Physicians say that if someone in your family has a chronic condition such as asthma or diabetes, it's wise to get a just-in-case referral before you leave home and to carry a list of medications the family member uses.

In the United States and other countries with sophisticated health-care systems, families can find medical help at a children's hospital or university-affiliated medical center. And American consulates abroad can sometimes refer American tourists to English-speaking and Western-trained physicians.

The Olsons weren't that lucky. The doctors on St. Martin couldn't assess the true extent of Haley's injuries.

"The medical equipment they had just couldn't compare to the United States," Doug said.

Even the ship's doctor who came to the hospital couldn't help. That's when the Olsons became the poster family for travel insurance when traveling outside the country. Haley's grandmother remembered that the family had purchased a policy from a leading travel insurance carrier.

"We never considered the possibility of a medical emergency," Doug said. "We just wanted to cover costs in case our luggage got lost."

Within 36 hours of the accident, Haley and her parents were flown to Miami, where orthopedists quickly discovered that she had multiple leg and pelvic fractures and put her in a body cast. The insurance covered the medical evacuation, the flight home from Miami and Haley's follow-up orthopedic treatment for a year--more than $30,000 worth of coverage. The cost for the rest of the cruise was refunded.

"This could have wiped out all our savings," Kim said. "I won't go anywhere now without travel insurance."

That's true of many travelers who are willing to pay hefty charges (typically 5% to 7% of the cost of their trip) for travel insurance.

In the wake the events of Sept. 11, insurers have added new lower-cost policies to cover travelers who get stranded as a result of a terrorist incident or face a medical emergency.

"There's a new focus on safety," said Dan McGinnity, a company spokesman for Travel Guard.

Travel insurance policies can cover families if a child (or parent) gets sick and the family can't go on the vacation they had planned or if the family is forced to return home in case of emergency.

If you're traveling solo with children, some policies will provide a chaperon for the kids in case you are incapacitated.

The Web site highlights travel insurance plans from different companies and lets consumers shop for the best deal.

Other choices:

* Travel Guard is offering new "Sense of Security" plans. Call (800) 826-1300 or visit

* Access America offers "Travel With Ease." Call (866) 807-3982 or visit

* Travelex Insurance Services offers free coverage to children younger than 16 if their parents have coverage. Call (800) 228-9792 or visit

Jeanne Salvatore, vice president of consumer affairs for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, warns travelers to make sure they need the extra protection before signing on the dotted line. She says these policies are an especially good idea for those who have paid in advance for expensive trips or for those taking active vacations during which they may face a higher risk of injury.

As for the Olsons, young Haley has recovered from her injuries, her mother said.

"People always say it won't happen to them, but it can and does happen to you," Kim said. "You've got to be prepared."


Eileen Ogintz welcomes questions and comments from readers. Send e-mail to

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