How to cash in on free medical care when traveling abroad

Almost nothing spoils a vacation more than being forced to sit out the fun because you're sick -- although you'll probably feel even worse once you're handed a huge doctor's bill because you didn't buy travel medical insurance.

Still, don't let that scare you into coughing up cash for additional insurance that you most likely won't use. Here are two ways to see a doctor -- and even get a prescription filled -- without spending a penny extra:

First, call your health-insurance provider before your embark on the trip to see if your plan will cover you abroad. That's what I did less than 10 hours before flying off to a two-week vacation in Guatemala and Belize in March.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my employer-sponsored Massachusetts health care would indeed reimburse me if I needed a doctor in Guatemala to stitch up any gashes that I could get from climbing Mayan ruins or if I needed to be hospitalized in Belize after a scuba-diving accident in the barrier reef.

That was a huge relief, as all of the travel guide books I read -- from Fodor's to Rough Guides -- said it was essential to buy travel insurance for a trip to Belize.

Next, before seeking medical care that your health insurance may partially pay for, see if you can get treated by a doctor at a community health clinic for less or even for free. (Only do this in non-urgent cases, of course.)

I stumbled upon that solution after I became nauseous, feverish, and unable to hold down any food or liquid the day I traveled from Guatamala to Belize.

When I limped up to my hotel's reception desk asking where the nearest doctor's office was, the staffers instead suggested I go to the town's community health clinic, which not only was closer but also provided free doctor's visits and medication to residents and travelers alike.

Sure enough, a doctor diagnosed me, prescribed four kinds of pills to take several times a day for up to five days, then pointed me down the hall to the in-house pharmacy that would fill the prescription for free. No one at the clinic even hinted that I could donate money to support their cause, but I was so grateful for their generous care-taking that I eagerly did.

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