How to navigate life-or-death scenarios that can happen abroad – advice from a travel emergency expert

Being prepared for the unexpected when traveling is a huge part of Susan Yates’s life as the Head of the Americas region for Falck Global Assistance, a global travel assistance company that’s part of the Falck Group.

She’s built a career supporting individuals and groups with travel-related health and safety solutions. For the past several years, Susan has led Falck’s growth and capability development in the Americas. With experience traveling in over 50 countries, as well as living abroad both in Singapore and Japan, she’s sharing her experience and insights into how to prepare and manage risk when traveling.  

How did you end up in the travel assistance space and what do you love about it?

Travel was not a priority for my family when I was growing up, but for some reason, I was driven to travel. My first chance to do so was after graduating from the University of Virginia when I went backpacking with some friends across Europe. We were broke and fresh out of college. I remember sitting outside youth hostels and eating bread and cheese and cans of food using our Swiss Army knives! 

In spite of the hardship, my passion for travel was absolutely confirmed. I returned to the U.S. and started a job that had nothing to do with travel, though, because we all have to pay our bills, right?

A few years later, I decided to move to Japan. Yes, it was a drastic decision – there was no reason for choosing Japan other than it seemed exotic and offered a good salary for Americans teaching English. So I moved and loved every minute of living overseas.

Four years later, when relocating back to the States, I decided to travel on the way home. Six weeks in, I fell on some steps in Sumatra, Indonesia, and broke my ankle. The first reaction of the locals was to have me drink locally made rice wine while their medicine men massaged my leg and ankle. They put me on a moped and took me to a local clinic. After 36+ (now-hilarious) hours of trying to get help, I ended up having surgery in an awful hospital a few hours away.

After recovering and returning home, I started looking for a job and was hired by a company that provided travel insurance and assistance. Every hour the phone rang, and it was always something different: a different country, a different problem, and a different obstacle to navigate through. My still-fresh experience in Indonesia enabled me to understand the challenges these people were facing and empathize with them, which led me to fall in love with the work I do. The travel insurance and assistance industry became my passion. 

What are your top travel tips, especially as someone who has lived internationally?

1. Bring your courage.
It’s scary to go to unknown places, manage foreign languages, and get lost. But people in this world are kind, and they will always help you. Navigating a new country will be frustrating at times, but it will also provide you with amazing experiences and stories, more resilience and patience, insane learnings, an appreciation for your own home country, and even more courage to do it all over again and again.

2. Prepare for all possibilities.
Don’t assume that your domestic health insurance covers your needs completely when traveling. You need travel insurance not just for the financial protection of your trip investment or reimbursement of medical costs but also for the 24/7/365 days a year help that they provide – that becomes your lifeline if something bad should happen.  Working in this industry, I can say that a very small percentage of people have issues when in-trip, but when they do, they are relieved to find that they can lean on a team of experts to help them get home. And sometimes, we literally save their lives. 

3. Protect your trip.
Shopping around for the right travel insurance is key.  Often the policies that are easiest to purchase (included in a package, checkbox when booking, etc.) have the lowest coverage. Go directly to your travel insurance company and make sure they have high financial limits and 24/7/365 travel assistance support. Choose companies that are innovative and have more advanced technological tools to make purchasing, using, claiming, and receiving reimbursements easy. 

What medical emergencies do you see occur the most and how can travelers avoid them?

Among older travelers, we see cardiac issues frequently. Older travelers should get a full check-up before departing to a developing country or to a remote area. It’s a simple step and can be life-saving.

And in general, when we are on vacation, we still need to use our common sense. 

  • Wear a helmet when riding a moped in a foreign country with a helmet. 
  • Don’t be reckless.
  • Avoid approaching an unfamiliar animal; lately, we have been seeing an enormous and concerning increase in dog bites with potential rabies exposure, and it is significantly more challenging in foreign countries to get timely and appropriate treatment in these cases.
Man on moped through a narrow alley

What’s your advice to travelers seeking emergency care abroad?

If you heeded the above advice, you would have purchased travel insurance. So my top tip is to use it. Travel insurance teams know how to help you with more than just filing a claim, so take full advantage. 

What new technology do you think is shaping the future of travel and travel assistance?

I’m fascinated by how technology continues to revolutionize the travel industry. Machine learning is, in my opinion, one of the strongest contributors enabling the travel insurance industry to understand and price risk and anticipate needs in advance or in real time. I think that having the technology to help personalize travel insurance and then watch over you is powerful.  

Let’s end with your #1 piece of travel advice!

Just go! Travel is available to you if you prioritize it. I talk to so many people who say, “I wish I could travel,” but they never make the choice to travel. Make the choice.

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