Travel insurance yes or no?

Heading off on a new travel adventure is an exciting but inherently costly business.  You’ve probably already coughed up for plane tickets to get you to your destination, maybe pre-booked accommodation and figured out a daily budget that will keep you fed and watered and allow you to get around and enjoy  the experiences that are on offer in your country or countries of choice. Given all that, an intangible purchase like travel insurance can seem like an added expense you could really do without.

And in many cases you might be right. I’ve been travelling for decades and have never made a claim on travel insurance. But that doesn’t mean I travel without it. That’s because, in my opinion, you don’t need travel insurance until you really, really do.

 By that I mean, keeping yourself and possessions safe through simple common sense and being alert to your surroundings is definitely something you have a degree of control over. But it’s the things you can’t control that have the potential to jump up and bite you in the wallet or threaten life and limb.

Far from home

Take for instance, travelling in India, a destination that presents both serious challenges and rewards to the independent-minded traveller. When I first went there (admittedly many years ago now) I arrived with a backpack on my back and my passport, money and onward plane ticket in a money belt hidden under my shirt. I arrived from London into a sweltering Delhi night and the culture shock was intense and immediate. For one thing, it was dark as there were few if any street lights but within that darkness there were an abundance of sights, sounds and smells that were seriously dislocating for someone with a Western background and I quickly developed the impression that I might be somewhere that was unsafe. It was dusty, dirty, crowded, there were people asleep at the side of the road, animals wandering in the middle of it, and the night air was a heady mixture of delight and decay.

Luckily, my Lonely Planet had good and firm instructions about proceeding only to the official taxi rank and to ignore all the touts swarming around, and I was whisked away to a hostel where I could easily find a bed even in the dead of night. In the light of morning, everything seemed far easier to assimilate and while the local people on the street could certainly be brazenly curious about you wandering in their midst, they were not in any way threatening.

In fact, I soon learned that the local preference was to cunningly attempt to scam you out of your money rather than knock you over the head for it. In one strange but ultimately charming incident, I was followed around by a group of young boys until they were able to engineer to place a dollop of dog poop on top of one of my boots as I climbed a set of stairs. They then loudly pointed out the offending mess and offered to wipe it off for a fee with the small rags they had in their possession. We then negotiated the cost of the service, agreed a price, the poop was wiped away and we parted on good terms.

It’s not your things you need to worry about

Given that English is so widely spoken in India, I also had no problem getting around or making myself understood and as this was long before the advent of smartphones, the most valuable thing I had with me was probably my small compact film camera. Clothes, I discovered, could be bought for next to nothing in the markets when the ones you were wearing ultimately rotted off your back in the heat.

All of this meant that as long as I kept my money and my passport safe, material possessions weren’t something I had to worry too much about losing. But that didn’t mean I had nothing to worry about because in developing countries it is your actual person that you most need to protect.  The local population will be immune to the multitude of pathogens in the food and water but you will not and the standards of hygiene in many situations will fall far below what you are used to.

Sickness and misadventure

During my initial two months in India, an English friend who received a steroid injection in a clinic for a persistent arm injury then developed a very serious infection at the injection site, another acquaintance contracted amoebic dysentery from eating street food and when I arrived at a hostel in Kolkata, there was a very seriously ill woman there who had not been able to get out of bed for a week and was moaning like she was at death’s door. I contracted a very nasty case of Delhi belly early on and later picked up Giardia in Nepal. Similarly, a family friend actually had to be medevaced home from India because she was so ill.

Risks of the road

Then, of course, there are the risks you take in boarding transport to get you from one place to the next. Indian trains are, on the whole, the best way to get around but sometimes you have no option but to take a bus and travel on India’s roads where some 150,000 people die each year. Unnervingly, Indian coach drivers tend to be extraordinarily fatalistic. Most are Hindu and it is up to the gods, they say, whether you safely reach your destination. One driver managed to smash out the entire rear window of the bus when he sideswiped a tree within the first hour of a twenty-plus-hour journey I had embarked on. Not confidence-inspiring. Speeding is also endemic amongst drivers, making many journeys a nerve-wracking marathon.

On the roads themselves there seems to be an accident every few miles. Overloaded trucks will be collapsed on their suspensions like dying elephants and the scene marked off not with orange plastic cones but with large rocks, adding further lethal obstacles to the obstruction. More gruesomely, vehicles will have collided with sacred cows left to wander freely or a bullock cart will have come off second best with a car.

For me, however, things did not get overly serious until I reached Nepal. After the heat and intensity of India, this Buddhist country is a cool and laidback relief and many people will try a buffalo steak for the first time after swearing off meat for the duration of their Indian travels. I felt invigorated by the beauty and charm of Kathmandu, but I was most excited to embark on the three-week mountain trek that was the Annapurna Circuit. On foot in the hills and mountain passes and far from civilisation seemed like the ideal adventure to conclude my travels on the subcontinent.

One more white-knuckle bus ride on a road that barely qualified for the name and that snaked its way above precipitous vertical drops brought us to the village of Besisahar and then we were on foot. Over the next several days we made our way ever higher through verdant river valleys and terraced hillsides with the snow-clad Himalayas crystal clear in the distance in the clean mountain air. Apart from the weight of our packs, my walking companions and I revelled in the scenery and the feeling of unhurried exploration. About three days in we arrived at the town of Bagarchhap where we were to stay for the night. As usual, we booked into a guest house, ate dinner prepared by our hosts, played some cards and went to bed exhausted from the day’s walk.

Circumstances change suddenly

In the morning, however, things had changed. It was pouring with rain. And I mean pouring. Looking at it, my instinct was to stay inside but my friend was all for continuing so I eventually gave in and we set off. In no time at all we arrived at a huge slip that was fresh and had wiped out the track. Perhaps foolishly, we descended to the river, crossed the slip and climbed back up to the track. Soon enough, however, we encountered another fresh slip and made a similar manoeuvre. By now we were starting to worry. It was still raining and these slips were big. As we wondered whether we should press on, we met walkers coming the other way who said some of the foot bridges further up the track had been washed out. At that point we decided to retreat to the nearest guest house and wait the rain out.

But sitting on the guest house balcony that afternoon and looking across to the other side of the steep valley I watched as a thin stream became a raging torrent that started to roll large rocks down the hillside and eventually began to peel whole trees out of the ground like they were matchsticks. Suddenly, I didn’t feel at all safe and that night I don’t think anyone in the guest house slept a wink as thundering and crashing echoed all around us.

In the morning there was carnage all around us and I’ll never forget the massive tree trunk that had come to rest just a few metres from the edge of the building. We decided then that we were probably not going to make it any further and decided to walk back out and try again from the other opposite of trek. Almost as soon as we set out, we came across a party of French walkers who were obviously distraught. One woman told us they’d had to run for their lives when a landslide hit their guest house. Their Nepalese cook had been killed and they had only what they stood up in. Shocked, we tried to comfort her and we all continued to walk back down to the town of Bagarchhap that we had left the day before.

Gone without a trace

The town of Bagarchhap was gone. Where once there had been a busy little main street and a multitude of guest houses, there was now just a featureless expanse of mud and rock. You could not even see where the guest house we had stayed in just two nights ago had been. A mudslide had come down the mountain and buried everything.  Appalled, we could only guess what had become of the Israeli friends we had played cards with and the many local people of the town.

A couple of days later, we came across the Israelis further down the track and they told us that someone who had gone to the outside toilet had sounded the alarm and they’d all jumped out the windows of their guest house and run into the night. Terrifying.

Back in Kathmandu many days later, it was a terribly sad scene with flyers posted up around the city asking for news of missing friends and family. The cyclonic weather pattern that had pushed in from the Bay of Bengal had engulfed many parts of the country causing avalanches as well as landslides. Saddest of all, we even attended a number of cremations at the city’s burning ghats out of respect for the trekkers who had not been as lucky as we were.

All of which is to say, you can do a great deal to look after yourself and your stuff while you travel but if you fall seriously ill, suffer a serious injury, or are left with just the clothes you stand up in, travel insurance is worth having. 

By Ted Gibbons