Have Cards, Will Travel

Medical tourism: Using travel rewards for good health

Triple dip on savings, adventure and good health by using your credit card rewards points for a medical tourism holiday


Medical tourism: You’ve probably done it (or thought about it) without realizing it. Here’s what it is and how rewards points make it a little easier.

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Sitting in my bed at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok (one of my favorite Bangkok hotels), I hop on Google Voice to make a free call to my ophthalmologist – in Portland, Oregon – to request a digital copy of the medical records from my last eye exam.

Within moments, I am emailing the records to a Thai hospital to arrange a specialized eye test that my doctor in the U.S. had prescribed, but my health insurance wouldn’t cover – all for a fraction of the cost.

While most other tourists are out visiting temples, I’m here to get my annual health check-up, have a scan of my optic nerve, get a crown for a lower molar and meet an optician for new prescription glasses.

I’m visiting a general practitioner and ophthalmologist in Thailand, and a dentist and optician in Cambodia. This is what modern-day medical tourism looks like in a connected world – and of course, I’m funding the travel with my credit card rewards points.

See related: Destination celebrations and shoulder season weekends away with rewards

Modern-day medical tourism

According to Medical Tourism Magazine, today’s top medical destinations include Brazil, Turkey, Malaysia, India, Thailand, Mexico and Costa Rica – all destinations you can easily get to on points!

I’ve personally been a fan of doctors in Thailand since I got a bad ear infection in Bangkok in 1997 and visited Bumrungrad International Hospital for the first time. Since this introduction, I’ve dabbled in medical tourism.

I have visited Thailand consistently over the years for my annual health checks. And I’ve added a dentist in Cambodia after I nearly lost my front tooth in an adventurous travel accident in 2009.

While I still have a dentist, naturopath and eye doctor in the U.S., I mostly visit them when I get sick at home – or for the limited preventative care covered by my basic, yet expensive, health insurance.

Thanks to technology and points, my medical care no longer has to be in one place or the other. I save money on medical care by using my dispersed doctors as needed, sharing medical records and test results across borders and leveraging my awards points when I need to get care on the other side of the world.

How medical tourism savings add up

How do I possibly save money by going to the doctor so far away in Asia? Here’s how it adds up:

Full workup and more: $450

Each year, I get a full workup done when I pass through Thailand. People from literally all over the world visit Bumrungrad Hospital for their exhaustive check-up packages.

They include a full blood screening, physical exam, chest X-ray, EKG, abdominal ultrasound, stress test and even a breakfast buffet after they take your blood (you had to fast, after all). All this for approximately $300 out-of-pocket.

On this visit, I also got a specialty optical scan that was recommended by my state-side eye doctor during my annual vision test. This test, plus two face-to-face visits with the ophthalmologist, ran me about $150.

I have no idea how many thousands of dollars these two appointments, alone, would have cost at a hospital in the U.S. – but I wasn’t prepared to find out.

Dental Visit: $35

When my dentist in Portland told me I needed a new, non-emergency crown that was going to cost $700 with insurance, I decided to wait until my upcoming Asia trip to get my tooth fixed in Phnom Penh at Roomchang Dental Hospital.

Using the X-rays from my U.S. dentist, Dr. Loung determined that a $35 composite filling would prevent the need for a crown for another 2 years – saving me $665.  I left with a shining smile and lots of money in my pocket.

Prescription glasses: $189 (three pairs)

Prescription glasses and a visit to the optician are always on my list in Phnom Penh since frames and lenses both start as low as $20.

In 24 hours, I got two new pairs of glasses and splurged on a third pair of prescription sunglasses to make poolside reading more practical – all for less than what one pair of frames would have cost me at home.

Totaled up, I had a full medical workup, a specialized eye exam, three doctor visits, a fancy new tooth and three pairs of prescription glasses all for $674 out-of-pocket.

Those $674 covered an entire year’s worth of medical work, and it was still less than what I pay for two months of U.S. health insurance. And did I mention no waiting? This all took less than 10 hours of my vacation time.

Logistics of traveling to the doctor on points

There’s plenty of ways to get to Thailand on your credit card rewards points if getting blood tests on your holiday sounds like your idea of a good time.

On this trip, I took Cathay Pacific’s new service from Seattle (SEA) to Hong Kong (HKG), and then onward to BKK. The one-way business-class flight was 60,000 points booked with American Airlines miles with my Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard. This included the Alaska Airlines segment from my originating point in Portland (PDX).

To get from the doctor in Bangkok to the dentist in Cambodia, I booked a Thai Airways flight for $80. As Thai Airways is a Star Alliance carrier, I could have booked via United using points from my Chase United Explorer Card. However, I opted to pay cash using my Chase Sapphire Reserve card because the close-in booking fee on the award flight was nearly as costly as the whole ticket price!

Leaving Phnom Penh (PNH), I’ll be flying Qatar Airways via Doha (DOH) to eventually make my way home. Where exactly I’m flying is still to be determined (and perhaps the subject of next week’s post on using your points when all your travel plans change!). For the award ticket, PNH to DOH, I paid 40,000 American Airlines points for one-way business class.

Staying in Bangkok within a stone’s throw of Bumrungrad Hospital on points is easy. The JW Marriott Sukhumvit or the Aloft Bangkok are both easily walkable and bookable on points with the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card.

The new Hyatt Regency Bangkok is another gorgeous hotel on the block that also offers a hospital shuttle and is bookable with 12,000 points from The World of Hyatt Credit Card. I stayed three nights in Bangkok for a total of $0.

In Phnom Penh, the city is growing and there are now a few properties like the Courtyard by Marriott that are bookable on points and a Hyatt Regency coming in 2020.

My personal preference here, however, is to stay at one of the many gorgeous and inexpensive boutique hotels set in the old, French colonial villas. Check out The Pavilion that runs around $60 a night – I spent three nights there for $180.

Total out-of-pocket travel cost was less than $300 – including flights, taxes and hotels.

To pay for the doctor’s visit, it is possible to pay with a credit card, an HSA debit card (if you have an eligible health savings account) or you can file with your insurance if you have benefits that cover international healthcare.

I personally paid all my medical expenses using my Chase Sapphire Reserve because there are no foreign transaction fees on the charges. I’ll then use the receipts to file a reimbursement with my HSA, so I don’t miss out on earning the points.

I guess collecting rewards points is a healthy habit after all!

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