Let’s get this out of the way: I’m not in the business of giving medical advice. I can’t say if traveling abroad for dental work — or a hip replacement or open-heart surgery — is wise, safe or worthwhile for you. Only your dentist or doctor can and, unfortunately for my bank account, I’m neither. What I am is a working parent who would rather spend my savings on a vacation than on a root canal. Call me crazy. So when costly dental work became unavoidable, I was willing to consider getting it done overseas and letting the savings from lower-cost care pay for a week on a tropical Thai island. My conclusion? Medical tourism is not for everyone, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds. I would do it again.
You’re Going Where for a Root Canal?
Many of the doctors and dentists at respected hospitals and clinics in places like Venezuela, where I had my wisdom teeth removed years ago while studying there, have trained in places like Australia, Britain or the United States, speak English and are internationally accredited. With that in mind, my biggest concerns were not quality of care, but cost and timing: Would the trip pay for itself and how long would we need to stay? Had I been in the market for major surgery, my calculations would have been different. For routine dental work, my main consideration was logistics.
Spin the Globe
There were 114 million Americans without dental insurance (at last count, in 2014), according to the National Association of Dental Plans, a trade association focused on the dental benefits industry. Dental Departures, a company that matches customers with clinics in 35 countries, lists the top destinations for dental tourism as Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Dubai, Hungary, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Spain, Thailand and Turkey. While some of those destinations are far-flung, most bargain hunters stay close to home. Many parents with young children prefer shorter, direct flights, which makes Mexico and Costa Rica popular with North Americans.
Flexibility Is Your Friend
Many clinics specializing in international patients make it easy to get estimates and make appointments online. Be sure to ask how much time is needed for the work to be done. Then add three days. Friends recommended two clinics in Bangkok. Both had good reviews and similar prices. But only one was able to accommodate our two-week window to complete our root canal procedures. While our experience was excellent, I regretted scheduling my final appointment the night before our early morning flight home, which didn’t give me a chance to return for a crown adjustment.
Once in the dental chair in Bangkok, I had to make decisions on care, materials and the like. I used the FAIR Health consumer website’s dental cost calculator to estimate what we would pay at home for the various options (porcelain versus amalgam crowns, for example). In most cases, I found the savings persuasive and opted for higher-quality, longer-lasting materials in Thailand rather than the lesser option that I would have been limited to at home. We saved about 50 percent (or $2,000 to $3,000), according to the FAIR Health calculator.
Travel Costs vs. Benefits
Airfare ate up a large chunk of our $2,400 Frugal Family travel budget: $728 each for Tim and me, plus a $121 infant rate for our 17-month-old, Roxie. But I was confident that we could get by on $50 or so a day, or about $800, once we were in Thailand. Even if we went a bit over budget, I reasoned, we would still end up significantly ahead after factoring in savings on dental work. Our total on-the-ground cost came closer to $1,200, including two $100 days in Seoul and some unexpected but necessary splurges (cars with car seats and hotels with reliable Wi-Fi). Not bad for a family of three for two and half weeks in two countries, especially since we still saved at least $1,600 over what we’d have spent had we stayed home.