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Travel Insurance

I buy travel insurance for my South Pacific trips for three prime reasons. First, the airlines out here have relatively few planes, thus the chances of a canceled or delayed flight are greater than in more populous areas of the world. Second, health care is not up to Western standards in most islands, so I like the idea of having medical evacuation coverage in case of an emergency. And third, there always is a chance that hurricanes or other unforeseen events can seriously disrupt my travel plans between November and March.

Check your existing insurance policies and credit card coverage before you buy travel insurance. You may already be covered for lost luggage, cancelled tickets or medical expenses.

The cost of travel insurance varies widely, depending on the destination, the cost and length of your trip, your age and health, and the type of trip you're taking, but expect to pay between 5% and 8% of the vacation itself. You can get estimates from various providers through InsureMyTrip.com. Enter your trip cost and dates, your age, and other information, for prices from more than a dozen companies.

The major U.S. travel insurers are Access America (tel. 866/807-3982; www.accessamerica.com); Travel Guard International (tel. 800/826-4919; www.travelguard.com); Travel Insured International (tel. 800/243-3174; www.travelinsured.com); Travelex Insurance Services (tel. 888/457-4602; www.travelex-insurance.com); and Travel Assistance International (tel. 800/821-2828 or 202/331-1596; www.travelassistance.com). The latter is a U.S. agent for Europ Assistance (www.europ-assistance.com), one of the largest worldwide travel insurers.

U.K. citizens and their families who make more than one trip abroad per year may find an annual travel insurance policy works out cheaper. Check www.moneysupermarket.com, which compares prices across a range of providers for single- and multitrip policies.

Most big travel agents offer their own insurance and will probably try to sell you their package when you book a holiday. Think before you sign. Britain's Consumers' Association recommends that you insist on seeing the policy and reading the fine print before buying travel insurance. The Association of British Insurers (tel. 020/7600-3333; www.abi.org.uk) gives advice by phone and publishes Holiday Insurance, a free guide to policy provisions and prices. You might also shop around for better deals: Try Columbus Direct (tel. 0870/033-9988; www.columbusdirect.net).

Trip-Cancellation Insurance -- Trip-cancellation insurance will help retrieve your money if you have to back out of a trip or depart early, or if your travel supplier goes bankrupt. Trip cancellation traditionally covers such events as sickness, natural disasters, and Department of State advisories. The latest news in trip-cancellation insurance is the availability of expanded hurricane coverage and the "any-reason" coverage -- which costs more but covers cancellations made for any reason. You won't get back 100% of your prepaid trip cost, but you'll be refunded a substantial portion. TravelSafe (tel. 888/885-7233; www.travelsafe.com) offers both types. Expedia offers any-reason cancellation coverage for its air-hotel packages.

Medical Insurance -- I always buy a travel insurance policy that includes both health coverage and medical evacuation in case of life-threatening injury or illness. Otherwise, the cost of a flying ambulance would wipe out my life's savings.

Most U.S. health plans (including Medicare and Medicaid) do not provide coverage outside the United States, and the ones that do often require you to pay for services upfront and reimburse you only after you return home.

If you require additional medical insurance, try MEDEX Assistance (tel. 410/453-6300; www.medexassist.com) or Travel Assistance International (tel. 800/821-2828; www.travelassistance.com), the U.S. agent for Europ Assistance (www.europ-assistance.com). American Express (www.americanexpress.com) cardholders can sign up for a standing travel policy providing health and medical evacuation coverage whenever they are more than 150 miles from home.

Canadians should check with their provincial health plan offices or call Health Canada (tel. 866/225-0709; www.hc-sc.gc.ca) to find out the extent of their coverage and what documentation and receipts they must present in case they are treated overseas.

Lost-Luggage Insurance -- On international flights (including U.S. portions of international trips), baggage coverage is limited to approximately $9.07 per pound, up to about $635 per checked bag. If you plan to check items more valuable than what's covered by the standard liability, see if your homeowner's policy covers your valuables, get baggage insurance as part of your travel-insurance package, or buy Travel Guard's "BagTrak" product.

If your luggage is lost, immediately file a lost-luggage claim at the airport, detailing the luggage contents. Most airlines require that you report delayed, damaged, or lost baggage within 4 hours of arrival. The airlines are required to deliver luggage, once found, directly to your house or destination free of charge.

Car-Rental Insurance -- Your own auto insurance policy may cover you for loss or damage to the car and liability in case a passenger is injured. The credit card you used to rent the car also may provide some coverage. Check your own insurance policy, the rental company policy, and your credit card coverage for the extent of coverage.

Even if you have such coverage, rental car companies in the islands are likely to require that you pay for any damages on the scene and sort it out with your insurer or credit card company when you get home. Given the hassles this can cause, I always buy the collision damage waiver and liability policies offered by the local companies. It adds to the cost, but it's a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Staying Healthy

The South Pacific islands covered in this guide pose no major health problems for most travelers, although it's a good idea to have your tetanus, hepatitis-A, and hepatitis-B vaccinations up to date.

If you have a chronic condition, check with your doctor before visiting the islands. For such conditions as epilepsy, diabetes, or heart problems, wear a MedicAlert Identification Tag (tel. 800/825-3785; www.medicalert.org), which will alert doctors to your condition and give them access to your records through MedicAlert's 24-hour hot line.

And don't forget sunglasses and an extra pair of contact lenses or prescription glasses. You can easily replace your contacts and prescription lenses only in French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and Fiji.

Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) (tel. 716/754-4883 or, in Canada, 416/652-0137; www.iamat.org) for tips on travel and health concerns in the countries you're visiting, and for lists of local, English-speaking doctors. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region or country and offers tips on food safety. Travel Health Online (www.tripprep.com), sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, may also offer helpful advice on traveling abroad. You can find listings of reliable medical clinics overseas at the International Society of Travel Medicine (www.istm.org).

Band-Aids -- Cuts, scratches, and all open sores should be treated promptly in the tropics. I always carry a tube of antibacterial ointment and a small package of adhesive bandages such as Band-Aids.

What to Do If You Get Sick Away from Home -- Hospitals and clinics are widespread in the South Pacific, but the quality varies a great deal from place to place. You can get a broken bone set and a coral scrape tended, but treating more serious ailments likely will be beyond the capability of the local hospital everywhere except in Tahiti.

You may have to pay all medical costs upfront and be reimbursed later. Medicare and Medicaid do not provide coverage for medical costs outside the U.S. Before leaving home, find out what medical services your health insurance covers. To protect yourself, consider buying medical travel insurance.

Very few health insurance plans pay for medical evacuation back to the U.S., the U.K., or Europe (which can cost $10,000 and up). A number of companies offer medical evacuation services anywhere in the world. If you're ever hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, MedjetAssist (tel. 800/527-7478; www.medjetassistance.com) will pick you up and fly you to the hospital of your choice virtually anywhere in the world in a medically equipped and staffed aircraft 24 hours day, 7 days a week. Annual memberships are $225 individual, $350 family; you can also purchase short-term memberships.

U.K. nationals will need a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to receive free or reduced-cost health benefits during a visit to a European Economic Area (EEA) country (European Union countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway) or Switzerland. The European Health Insurance Card replaces the E111 form, which is no longer valid. For advice, ask at your local post office or see www.dh.gov.uk/travellers.

All the islands have pharmacies and drug stores which carry over-the-counter and prescription medications. Most medications can be purchased without a prescription, but bring your own medications (in your carry-on luggage), in their original containers. Also bring along copies of your prescriptions in case you lose your pills or run out. Carry the generic name of medicines, because local pharmacies primarily carry medications manufactured in France, Australia, and New Zealand, and the brand names might be different than in the United States.

Healthy Travels to You -- The following government websites offer up-to-date health-related travel advice.

  • Australia: www.smartraveller.gov.au
  • Canada: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/index_e.html
  • U.K.: www.dh.gov.uk/en/Healthcare/Healthadvicefortravellers/index.htm
  • U.S.: www.cdc.gov/travel

Common Ailments

Among minor illnesses, the islands have the common cold and occasional outbreaks of influenza and conjunctivitis (pink eye).

Tropical Illnesses -- There are plenty of mosquitoes but they do not carry deadly endemic diseases such as malaria. From time to time the islands will experience an outbreak of dengue fever, a viral disease borne by the Ad√ęs aegypti mosquito, which lives indoors and bites only during daylight hours. Dengue seldom is fatal in adults, but you should take extra precautions to keep children from being bitten by mosquitoes if the disease is present. (Other precautions should be taken if you are traveling with children.)

Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns -- YOU WILL FIND THAT WE COOK ISLANDERS ARE AMONG THE FRIENDLIEST PEOPLE IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC, a sign in a Cook Island resort advises its guests. AMONGST ALL THE FRIENDLY PEOPLE, WE ALSO HAVE THE FRIENDLIEST ANTS, ROACHES, GECKOS, CRABS, AND INSECTS, WHO ARE ALL DYING TO MAKE YOUR ACQUAINTANCE.

Indeed, the South Pacific islands have multitudes of mosquitoes, roaches, ants, houseflies, and other insects. Ants are omnipresent here, so don't leave crumbs or dirty dishes lying around your room. Many beaches and swampy areas also have invisible sand flies -- the dreaded "no-see-ums" or "no-nos" -- which bite the ankles around daybreak and dusk.

Insect repellent is widely available. The most effective contain a high percentage of deet (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide).

I light a mosquito coil in my non-air-conditioned rooms at dusk to keep the pests from flying in, and I start another at bedtime. Grocery stores throughout the islands carry these inexpensive coils. I have found the Fish brand coils, made by the appropriately named Blood Protection Company, to work best.

Multitudes of Animals -- Don't bother complaining to me about the multitude of dogs, chickens, pigs, and squawking myna birds running loose, even in the finest restaurants. They are as much a part of life as the islanders themselves. And don't be frightened by those little geckos (lizards) crawling around the rafters of even the most expensive bungalows. They're harmless to us humans but lethal to insects.

Sun Exposure -- The tropical sun in the islands can be brutal, even on what seems like an overcast day. Accordingly, it's important to use sunscreen whenever you're outdoors, especially at midday. This is particularly true for children.

HIV/AIDS -- Throughout the islands, sexual relations before marriage -- heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual -- are more or less accepted (abstinence campaigns fall on deaf ears here). Both male and female prostitution is common in the larger towns. HIV is present in the islands, so if you intend to engage in sex with strangers, you should exercise at least the same caution in choosing them, and in practicing safe sex, as you would at home.

Be Careful in the Water -- Most of the South Pacific's marine creatures are harmless to humans, but there are some to avoid. Always seek local advice before snorkeling or swimming in a lagoon away from the hotel beaches. Many diving operators conduct snorkeling tours. If you don't know what you're doing, go with them.

Wash and apply a good antiseptic or antibacterial ointment to all coral cuts and scrapes as soon as possible.

Because coral cannot grow in fresh water, the flow of rivers and streams into the lagoon creates narrow channels, known as passes, through the reef. Currents can be very strong in the passes, so stay in the protected, shallow water of the inner lagoons.

Sharks are curious beasts that are attracted by bright objects such as watches and knives, so be careful what you wear in the water. Don't swim in areas where sewage or edible wastes are dumped, and never swim alone if you have any suspicion that sharks might be present. If you do see a shark, don't splash in the water or urinate. Calmly retreat and get out of the water as quickly as you can, without creating a disturbance.

Those round things on the rocks and reefs that look like pin cushions are sea urchins, and their calcium spikes can be more painful than needles. A sea-urchin puncture can result in burning, aching, swelling, and discoloration (black or purple) around the area where the spines entered your skin. The best thing to do is to pull any protruding spines out. The body will absorb the spines within 24 hours to 3 weeks, or the remainder of the spines will work themselves out. Contrary to popular advice, do not urinate or pour vinegar on the embedded spines -- this will not help.

Jellyfish stings can hurt like the devil but are seldom life-threatening. You need to get any visible tentacles off your body right away, but not with your hands, unless you are wearing gloves. Use a stick or anything else that is handy. Then rinse the sting with salt- or freshwater, and apply ice to prevent swelling and to help control the pain. If you can find it at an island grocery store, Adolph's Meat Tenderizer is a great antidote.

The stone fish is so named because it looks like a piece of stone or coral as it lies buried in the sand on the lagoon bottom with only its back and 13 venomous spikes sticking out. Its venom can cause paralysis and even death. You'll know by the intense pain if you've been stuck. Serum is available, so get to a hospital at once.

Sea snakes, cone shells, crown-of-thorns starfish, moray eels, lionfish, and demon stingers can also be painful, if not deadly. The last thing any of them wants to do is to tangle with a human, so keep your hands to yourself.

Staying Safe

While international terrorism is a threat throughout the world, the South Pacific islands are among the planet's safest destinations. Tight security procedures are in effect at the major airports, but once you're on the outer islands, you are unlikely to see a metal detector, nor is anyone likely to inspect your carry-on.

The region has seen increasing property theft in recent years, however, including occasional break-ins at hotel rooms and resort bungalows. Although street crimes against tourists are still relatively rare, friends of mine who live here don't stroll off Papeete's busy boulevard Pomare after dark, and they keep a sharp eye peeled everywhere in Fiji. For that matter, you should stay alert wherever you are after dusk.

Don't leave valuable items in your hotel room, in your rental car, or unattended.

Women should not wander alone on deserted beaches any time, as some Polynesian men may consider such behavior to be an invitation for instant amorous activity.

When heading outdoors, keep in mind that injuries often occur when people fail to follow instructions. Hike only in designated areas, swim and snorkel only where you see other people swimming and snorkeling, follow the marine charts if piloting your own boat, carry rain gear, and wear a life jacket when canoeing or rafting. Mountain weather can be fickle at any time. Watch out for sudden storms that can leave you drenched and send bolts of lightning your way.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.