Check your existing insurance policies and credit card coverage before you buy travel insurance. You may already be covered for lost luggage, canceled tickets, or medical expenses.
The cost of travel insurance varies widely, depending on 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.
Trip-Cancellation Insurance -- Trip-cancellation insurance will help you retrieve your money if you have to back out of a trip or depart early, or if your travel supplier goes bankrupt. Permissible reasons for trip cancellation can range from sickness to natural disasters to the State Department declaring a destination unsafe for travel.
For more information, contact one of the following recommended insurers: Access America (tel. 866/807-3982; www.accessamerica.com), Travelex Insurance Services (tel. 888/457-4602; www.travelex-insurance.com), Travel Guard International (tel. 800/826-4919; www.travelguard.com), Travel Insured International (tel. 800/243-3174; www.travelinsured.com).
Medical Insurance -- For travel overseas, most U.S. health plans (including Medicare and Medicaid) do not provide coverage, and the ones that do often require you to pay for services upfront and reimburse you only after you return home. As a safety net, you may want to buy travel medical insurance, particularly if you're heading to a remote or high-risk area where emergency evacuation might be necessary. 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; for general information on services, call the company's Worldwide Assistance Services, Inc., at tel. 800/777-8710).
Lost-Luggage Insurance -- On flights within the U.S., checked baggage is covered up to $2,500 per ticketed passenger. On international flights (including U.S. portions of international trips), baggage coverage is limited to approximately $9.07 per pound, up to approximately $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 comprehensive 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.
Health concerns should comprise much of your preparation for a trip to Southeast Asia, and staying healthy on the road takes vigilance. Tropical heat and mosquitoes are the biggest dangers. Travelers should also exercise caution over dietary change and cleanliness. Just a few pretrip precautions and general prudence, though, are all that you need for a safe and healthy trip.
General Availability of Healthcare
The best hospitals and healthcare facilities are located in the large cities of countries that have the greatest number of Western visitors -- Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), and Bangkok (Thailand). In rural areas of these countries and throughout the lesser-developed countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, there are limited healthcare facilities: Hospitals are few and far between and are generally of poor quality. Even in heavily touristed Bali, you're better off evacuating to one of the more developed countries if faced with a serious medical situation. Over-the-counter medications are available anywhere, but it's a good idea to bring antidiarrheal medication and rehydration salts, among others.
Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT; tel. 716/754-4883, or 416/652-0137 in Canada; www.iamat.org) for tips on health concerns and lists of local, English-speaking doctors in the countries you're visiting. The U.S. 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. You can find listings of reliable clinics overseas at the International Society of Travel Medicine (www.istm.org). The website www.tripprep.com, sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, may also offer helpful advice on traveling abroad.
Tropical Illnesses -- Among Southeast Asia's tropical diseases carried by mosquitoes are malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya, and Japanese encephalitis. Reports about malaria prophylactics vary. While most local health agencies tell you not to waste your time with antimalarial drugs, the CDC still advises people to take tablets, most of which cause uncomfortable side effects. In truth, your only sure way to avoid mosquito-borne diseases is to avoid being bitten. Repellents that contain DEET are the most effective, but gentler alternatives (look into baby-care products in any pharmacy) provide DEET-free mosquito protection without the chemicals. Also be aware that malaria mosquitoes bite between the hours of 5 and 7 in the morning and in the evening, so it's important to exercise caution at those times (wearing long sleeves and long trousers is a good idea, as is burning mosquito coils). Dengue-fever mosquitoes bite during the day.
Hepatitis A can be contracted from water or food, and cholera epidemics sometimes occur in remote areas. Bilharzia, schistosomiasis, and giardia are parasitic diseases that can be contracted from swimming in or drinking from stagnant or untreated water in lakes or streams.
Anyone contemplating sexual activity should be aware that HIV is rampant in many Southeast Asian countries, along with other STDs such as gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, and hepatitis B.
Dietary Red Flags -- Unless you intend to confine your travels to the big cities and dine only at restaurants that serve Western-style food, you will likely be sampling some new cuisine. This could lead initially to upset stomach or diarrhea, which usually lasts just a few days as your body adapts to the change in your diet.
Except for Singapore, where tap water is safe to drink, always drink bottled water, and never use tap water for drinking or even brushing teeth. Peel all fruits and vegetables, and avoid raw shellfish and seafood. Also beware of ice unless it is made from purified water. (Any suspicious water can be purified by boiling for 10 min. or treating with purifying tablets.)
If you're a vegetarian, you will find that Southeast Asia is a great place to travel; vegetarian dishes abound throughout the region. In terms of hygiene, restaurants are generally better options than street stalls, but don't forgo good local cuisine just because it's served from a cart. Be sure to carry diarrhea medication as well as any prescription medications you might need. It's acceptable to wipe down utensils in restaurants, and in some places locals even ask for a glass of hot water for just that purpose (some travelers even carry their own plastic chopsticks or cutlery). Bringing antiseptic hand-washing gel is a good idea for when you're out in the sticks.
So how can you tell if something will upset your stomach before you eat it? Trust your instincts. Avoid buffet-style places, especially on the street, and be sure all food is cooked thoroughly and made to order. If your gut tells you not to eat that gelatinous chicken foot, don't eat it. If your hosts insist but you're still afraid, explain about your "foreign stomach" with a regretful smile and accept a cup of tea instead. Be careful of raw ingredients, common in most Asian cuisines, but realize that questions such as, "Are these vegetables washed in clean water?" are inappropriate anywhere. Use your best judgment or simply decline.
Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns -- There are all kinds of creepy critters to be aware of in any tropical climate. In rural accommodations, mosquito nets are often required and, if so, are always provided by hoteliers. Check your shoes in the morning (or wear sandals) just in case some ugly little thing is taking a nap in your Nikes. Keep an eye out for snakes and poisonous spiders when in jungle terrain or when doing any trekking. Having a guide doesn't preclude exercising caution. Rabies is rampant, especially in rural areas of the less-developed nations, and extreme care should be taken when walking, particularly at night. In places such as Thailand, dogs are simply fed and left to roam free, and you are likely to run into some ornery mutts. A walking stick or umbrella is a suitable deterrent when out in the countryside. It's also important to know that all dogs have been hit with hurled stones sometime in their life, and, a nod to Pavlov here, the very act of reaching to the ground for a handful of stones is often enough to send an angry dog on the run, for fear of being pelted. If you are bitten, wash the wound immediately and, even if you suffer just the slightest puncture or scrape, seek medical attention and a series of rabies shots (now quite a simple affair of injections in the arm in a few installments over several weeks).
Respiratory Illnesses -- SARS hit the region hard in the winter and spring of 2003. Singapore reported some cases and essentially closed to tourism, and though most other countries in the region reported no cases of the disease, places such as Thailand suffered the fallout of the regionwide scare. There have been no reported cases of SARS since 2004. Tuberculosis is a concern in more remote areas where testing is still uncommon.
The avian influenza, also called the bird flu, is another public-relations nightmare in Southeast Asia. A number of cases have been reported in Thailand and Vietnam, and millions of chickens suspected of carrying the illness have been slaughtered. The victims of the bird flu have been few in number (statistically insignificant, really) and are mostly isolated to people working in the poultry industry. The countries affected have been unusually forthright about reporting new cases, and the disease is yet limited in scope. It is important to note that you cannot contract bird flu from consuming cooked chicken.
Air quality is not good in the larger cities such as Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City; with no emissions standards, buses, trucks, and cars belch some toxic stuff, so visitors with respiratory concerns or sensitivity should take caution.
Sun/Elements/Extreme Weather Exposure -- Sun and heatstroke are a major concern anywhere in Southeast Asia. Limit your exposure to the sun, especially during the first few days of your trip and, thereafter, from 11am to 2pm. Use a sunscreen with a high protection factor, and apply it liberally. Asians are still big fans of parasols, so don't be shy about using an umbrella to shade yourself (all the Buddhist monks do). Remember that children need more protection than adults.
Always be sure to drink plenty of bottled water, which is the best defense against heat exhaustion and the more serious, life-threatening heatstroke. Also remember that coffee, tea, soft drinks, and alcoholic beverages should not be substituted for water because they are diuretics that dehydrate the body. In extremely hot and humid weather, try to stay out of the midday heat, and confine most of your daytime traveling to early morning and late afternoon. If you ever feel weak, fatigued, dizzy, or disoriented, get out of the sun immediately and go to a shady, cool place. To prevent sunburn, always wear a hat and apply sunscreen to all exposed areas of skin.
Be aware of major weather patterns; many island destinations are prone to typhoons or severe storms.
What to Do If You Get Sick Away from Home
Any foreign embassy or consulate can provide a list of area doctors who speak English. If you get sick, consider asking your hotel concierge to recommend a local doctor -- even his or her own. You can also try the emergency room at a local hospital. Many hospitals also have walk-in clinics for cases that are not life-threatening; you may not get immediate attention, but you won't pay the high price of an emergency-room visit. In the larger cities of Southeast Asia, healthcare at hospitals and private clinics is of an international caliber and quite affordable.
You will need to pay in advance for any medical treatment and be reimbursed later.
If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before your departure. Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and keep them in their original containers, with pharmacy labels -- otherwise they won't make it through airport security. Also bring the generic name of prescription medicines, in case a local pharmacist is unfamiliar with the brand name. Prescription medication is readily available, often over the counter.
The good news is that anonymous, violent crime is not an issue in most countries in the region, but petty theft, pickpocketing, and purse snatching are common. It is a good idea to carry a hidden travel wallet with your passport and documents, and keep an eye on valuables in public.
Road conditions vary throughout the region, but most large cities, from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh, are busy and chaotic. Even for intrepid travelers who push their limits out in the wilds, crossing big-city streets, even at prescribed crossings, can be the greatest risk on your trip; move slowly and exercise caution. Rural roads in places such as Laos and Cambodia are often no more than dirt tracks. And even where the roads are good, Western visitors are often shocked at the seeming lack of rules and the fact that, on most roads, might is right: The biggest, fastest, and most aggressive vehicle takes precedence, and belligerent horn blowing is the rule. It is best to rent a car with a hired driver instead of trying to drive yourself. On some bus rides, you might want to keep your eyes just on the scenery and not on the road ahead.
In places such as the beach towns of Thailand, motorbike accidents are all too common, and you're sure to meet one or two road-rashed victims. Exercise extreme caution on rented bikes, especially if you're inexperienced, and always wear a helmet.
Dicey political situations arise and pass with frequency; it's important to check travel warnings with the U.S. State Department (www.travel.state.gov) or the most up-to-date sources on the region. Places such as Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, and southern Thailand are known to flare with separatist movements and terrorism, while the ongoing unrest in Thailand shows that even supposedly stable countries are susceptible to political turmoil. Stay abreast of any and all news before traveling.
When it comes to drugs: "Just say no." Grown, produced, and shipped through the region, drugs such as heroin, opium, and marijuana are readily available. There are island spots and mountain retreats where it might seem like the thing to do, but in all cases here, national laws are strict. Many visitors find themselves in an intensive language school of another variety (in other words, jail) in short order if they can't bribe their way out of it. It's certainly not worth it anywhere.
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.