My Travel Insurance Adventure
Floating the Kanektok with lives on the line.
By Chris Santella

I’ve been lucky enough to float Alaska’s fabled Kanektok River on four occasions. It’s a DIY trip in a true wilderness setting, and as such, is fraught with certain perils, including but not limited to: landing in float plane on a remote lake; half-ton brown bears rummaging through your camp; gravel bars peppered with bowling-ball size rocks, ever ready to break an ankle, especially as you rise in the dark to pee, painfully conscious of the ursine visitors that might be lurking outside your tent; size 1/0 hooks that could lodge in a sensitive body part as it parts ways with a feisty silver; and the myriad travails that can accompany rowing a raft 90-odd miles (like choosing the wrong river braid, having to tow the raft ½ mile upstream and experiencing a coronary event).

It’s been 8 or 9 years since I made the trip. In those early adventures, the question of travel insurance didn’t even occur to me. As one of my fellow floaters is a doctor and the other a seasoned wilderness adventurer, I figured we (well, they) had things covered. We had a satellite phone, if worse came to worse …

First you got to get there, and in Alaska that can mean flying over some very remote country, often in bad weather conditions. The chances are slim that your plane goes down, but having the right insurance means you’re not paying your way out of the bush if, in fact, there’s a problem.

A few years after my last Kanektok float, a group of my angling buddies decided to visit Christmas Island. For that trip, travel insurance was required. As I was already dropping $3,000+ on the package, I didn’t think much about the extra $80 or $100 for the insurance. Somewhere around the time of the trip – it might have been on one of the long travel legs to Kiribati – I read a bit about the evacuation service package I had purchased…and was shocked to learn just how much it costs to ferry someone from the South Seas to a western-style hospital. The cost of a new car. A very nice new car.

The costs for an evacuation from the Alaska bush (one of the scenarios highlighted in the insurance literature) was not quite as egregious—around $25,000 on average, according to Travelex Insurance. But it was enough to cover a number of destination fishing trips.

So when my buddies and I made plans to float the Kanektok this summer, I did some soul-searching. Given that I’m ten years older than when I last did the trip (and feel 20 years older some mornings), I decided that my odds of an injury have increased. Travel insurance was something worth exploring. What did it cover? What didn’t it cover? Was it redundant with my existing health insurance? Was it just this side of a scam, like the liability package rental car agents flog?

Here’s what I learned.

Camping on the banks of remote rivers means you’re going to see wildlife. Moose, caribou, wolverine and grizzlies use these travel corridors to access prime feeding grounds. At any given time you might be dealing with a serious situation. Bear spray or a Defender can help, but the outcome is always uncertain.

Travel Insurance Can Mean Many Things

For starters, it’s important to note that there are several types of coverage that fall under the umbrella of travel insurance. Loretta L. Worters, Vice President of Media Relations at the
Insurance Information Institute, a non-profit that “provides objective, fact-based information about insurance,” provided a cogent breakdown of the four general classifications:

Trip cancellation insurance – Reimburses you when certain circumstances prevent you from taking your trip—such as if your cruise line or tour operator goes out of business or if you have to cancel the trip due to sickness, a death in the family or another calamity listed in the policy. In addition, if you or an immediate family member becomes seriously ill or is injured during the trip most policies would reimburse you for the unused portion of the vacation. (Worters noted that trip cancellation insurance should not be confused with a cancellation waiver that some cruise and tour operators offer; waivers are cheaper, but offer much more limited coverage.)

Baggage insurance or personal effects coverage – Provides coverage if your personal belongings are lost, stolen or damaged during the trip. (Before purchasing this type of coverage, find out how much insurance the airline or trip operator provides for your belongings. Also check your homeowners or renter’s policy, which will usually provide coverage for off-premises theft, such as stolen luggage.)

Emergency medical assistance – Covers expenses related to medical crises, which can be very costly. Emergency medical assistance covers situations like: being airlifted off a mountain after a skiing or hiking accident; a prolonged period stay in a foreign hospital; or needing to be flown home due to a serious illness or injury. (Before purchasing this type of coverage, check with your own health insurance carrier to find out what type of coverage you have when traveling at home or abroad and what the limitations are. Depending on where you’re traveling, consider getting insurance enough to cover a flight home or to a country with first-rate medical care.)

Accidental death – Provides coverage in event you or a family member dies during a trip. Depending on your life insurance plan or other financial provisions for your loved ones, this may be duplicate insurance.

The author and his friends discovered just how quickly a great time can turn very serious. This grizzly came into camp and didn’t want to leave. With a can of bear spray and steel nerves the boys were able to turn back this inquisitive griz.

Worters pointed out that there are many other types of travel insurance—even coverage for lost loyalty plan points. Without disappearing down that marmot hole, here are a few basic takeaways from the overview provided by III:

If you’re spending a lot of money on a trip – be it a romantic tour of Italy on a wedding anniversary or giant trevally adventure in the Seychelles – get the cancellation insurance…especially if you have a loved one with an unstable health condition, a job that demands you to drop everything when the hammer falls, or any other circumstances that might impact your ability to travel. (Justin Walker, an Associate Manager with Global Rescue, a company that works with a number of fly fishing booking agents, believes that trip cancellation insurance has been a lifesaver for both agents and clients alike during the COVID pandemic. “It’s enabled lodges, outfitters and booking agents to hold on to deposits and stay afloat, and clients to get their money back. It’s a happy medium. Though premiums have gone through the roof—from 10% to 18% of the trip cost.”).

If you’re checking a suitcase full of camera equipment, a quiver of rare bamboo rods or an armful of Bogdan reels, consider baggage insurance, as it’s not likely that your credit card or homeowner’s coverage will cover the value of your items if they go lost/broken.
(Whether you take out insurance or not, it’s a good idea to photograph everything you are taking on the trip before departing so you can prove what was in your luggage, especially the bigger ticket items.)

Read the specific policy options closely. Then read them again. Then copy and paste them into an email and forward it to your travel buddies, significant other, attorney friends and anyone else capable of giving a legalese-riddled document a close read. Among other fine print hijinks, timing provisions associated with trip cancellation insurance will sometimes trip up travelers.

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. If the policy you choose is especially inexpensive, read closely…as it might very well not cover all the situations you may experience.

I asked Lynda Phillippi, a travel consultant and owner of Renaissance Travel in McMinnville, Oregon, about her general experience with travel insurance. “The most common misconceptions consumers have is that it’s an unnecessary expense, and they don’t need it. This is especially true if they’re price conscious. I try to use the car insurance analogy—you get it because something could happen to disrupt your trip, or you could have a problem once you’re travelling. If you’re properly insured and something goes wrong, you’ll get your money back.”

A friend who used to book fly fishing travel (and would prefer to remain anonymous), said this about travel insurance: “We always offered it to clients but very few folks took us up on it. Then when something went amiss, they were pissed. For our folks, the usual cancellation reason was business related which of course was not covered.”

When your plane departs, leaving you with a load of gear and a little twinge in your gut, you are alone. Anything can happen now—kidney stones; heart issues; a bad step and a broken leg . . . . Head for the bush without insurance and you might be paying a charter flight for one, and who knows how much that might cost you in the end.

We Gotta Get Out of This Place

Reviewing the categories above, it’s clear that my Kanektok concerns are most closely related to emergency medical assistance. I’d purchased my ticket on Alaska Airlines with frequent flyer miles, and I’d only paid a modest deposit to the outfitter who would fly us into Pegati Lake, where the trip would begin. As for the value of my checked baggage, it’s well below the $3,800 maximum liability that Alaska assumes. But that $25,000+ evacuation expense looms large.

There are a number of entities that provide evacuation services for travelers experiencing medical emergencies. Most of these entities contract their underwriting (e.g., the coverage should they have to pay out for a rescue) to larger insurers, and act as a dispatcher of sorts…or at least a call center (not to mention a marketing arm for said services). As mentioned above, Global Rescue is an entity in this space with a presence in the fly fishing market. Associate Manager Walker described how they operate: “If a client calls in with an emergency, we have a team of logistics people (2 to 4 on a team) on it immediately. Most of our logistics staff are ex-military, and have extensive emergency training. We try to determine if we’ll need a doctor or other specialist at the site, and locate the nearest medical facility capable of dealing with the emergency. At the same time, we’ll reach out to the local Search & Rescue and any private rescue operators we have vetted in the area. Will we need a helicopter? Is a boat better? On one level, we’re a dispatcher like everyone else. But we’re a dispatcher with emergency expertise on the other end of the line and an extensive on-the-ground infrastructure in terms of the rescue experts we’ve vetted – and often compensate with a seasonal retainer – to be ready to jump into action should the need arise. If you use a company like Global Rescue, you’re paying a little extra for the back-end logistics expertise we can provide.”

As a self-employed person, I purchase health insurance for myself and my family. While I may drive a 13-year-old Toyota, we have Rolls Royce medical coverage; this thanks to my wife, who in her nursing career has seen firsthand how poor insurance can wreak financial havoc. When I pay our mortgage-size premium each month, I sometimes grumble—“We’re paying through the nose, and we still haven’t met our deductible?!? What are we paying for?” One thing we’re paying for, I realized after delving deep into the Pacific Source website (and some discussion with the provider’s Community Relations department), is Global Emergency Services. Per the PR representative:

PacificSource doesn’t offer “travel insurance” as a separate plan or policy for purchase, but we do have a global emergency services program offered through Assist America that does support our members in emergency type situations when traveling more than 100 miles from home or in a foreign country, for less than 90 consecutive days. Assist America needs to arrange the services in order for them to be covered under the program. Assist America is not an insurer so for example, they would not pay medical claims – those type of bills (office visit, ER, hospital stay) would still come to PacificSource for processing and member cost share would apply. They do however cover the cost of things like evacuations or repatriation of remains. They won’t reimburse someone if they paid out of pocket for those type of expense.

The phrase “Assist America needs to arrange the services in order for them to be covered under the program” gave me pause—what if I couldn’t get through and it was a life or death situation? I emailed Assist America for clarification after dinner on a Friday night. Though it was past 11pm eastern time in Princeton, New Jersey where Assist America is located, I soon received a reassuring response:

To answer your question, you can call us in the event of an emergency while traveling. If it is a true medical emergency and you require immediate medical assistance we advise you to dial the local first responders or 911 prior to notifying us. Once, you are admitted to the local hospital we will being monitoring your care and gather clinical information regarding your hospitalization in order to provide transport plans based on medical need.

Both the content and the speed of Assist America’s response did a great deal to set my mind at rest.

The Decision

When I set out to write this story (and determine my own course of action), I hoped to uncover some definitive answers to the question: Do I need travel insurance when I head to Alaska in August? And if so, how much, and from whom should I buy it? My takeaway is that there is not one good or easy answer—this, because there are so many variables to take into consideration, not least among them being:

The level and nature of your personal insurance (health and homeowners) and coverage afforded by your credit card(s) and any other memberships (e.g., AAA) that might offer some travel-oriented benefits
The relative isolation, infrastructure and danger elements of the place you’re visiting
The likelihood (given your health, the health of loved ones, work responsibilities, likelihood of a surprise invitation to accompany a tech billionaire on his next trip to outer space) of needing to cancel your trip
The value of the objects you’re carrying or stowing in the hold of your airplane
Your general appetite for risk

(App developers out there—I sense an algorithmic opportunity.)

As I write, there are five days before I deport for Bethel and my float plane to Pegati Lake. Having taken the time to research options and pore over the fine print, I feel pretty comfortable about the pros and cons of the options before me. It seems that my current health insurance plan provides enough coverage to get me to Anchorage…or at least Bethel. But will the operators on hand at Assist America be able to locate my GPS coordinates on the map? Do they have good contacts in Alaska? Is it worth $149 to work with a provider that comes recommended by other fly anglers—that, as Justin Walker put it, can “call in the cavalry” when my SOS comes in?

Right now, I’m leaning toward not purchasing additional coverage. If I were in the South Pacific, or northern India, or Bolivia, I wouldn’t think twice about it. But though the Kanektok is a wilderness destination, it’s not too far from several hospitals. And there’s a decent number of bush pilots and other outfitters operating in the area. I’d love to think I’m getting some extra horsepower from that Rolls Royce health care coverage.

But at the same time, I’d hate to find myself in a bare-bones clinic in Quinhagak overseen by a young first year resident who’s still a little squeamish about blood …

Chris Santella
Chris Santella is the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Fifty Places To Fly Fish Before You Die, and carries frequent bylines in the Washington Post and The New York Times. When not writing, Santella creates and plays music, or chases steelhead from his home base in Portland, Oregon.