Medical Tourism: Will you be paying in cash, credit or airline miles?

by John Kiernan on January 18, 2012

medical tourism using airline milesWhile renting the Hangover II is probably the closest most of us have come to visiting Thailand recently, thousands of people from the United States visit the country each year for a variety of reasons, which, interestingly enough, include the increasingly popular trend of medical tourism. The fact that people are willing to travel clear across the world for anything from cosmetic surgery to dental services is surprising enough in its own right, but that’s nothing compared to the fact that one may be able to use airline miles to not only book travel, but also to pay for the procedures themselves. In other words, the right credit card could conceivably be your ticket to free health care.

You see, Thai Airways – the 5th best international airline in the world, according to CNBC – recently offered a promotion that allowed members of its loyalty rewards program, Royal Orchid Plus, to use their miles for a wide array of medical procedures, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Breast augmentation
  • Eyelid surgery
  • Liposuction
  • Botox
  • Hair transplants
  • Laser hair removal
  • Teeth whitening
  • Kidney cleaning
  • Non-surgical facelifts
  • Check-ups

All you had to do was go online and book your flight as well as the procedures you planned to undergo at one of Thailand’s hospitals or specialty clinics. While this particular promotion ran from December 2010 to April 30, 2011, it is neither the first of its kind, nor is it likely to be the last.

“We do have a very unique relationship with Thai Airways,” Curt Schroeder, CEO of Bunrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, told 60 Minutes back in 2005. “So you can buy a ticket. You can use frequent flier mileage to get your checkup.”

The practical question that, of course, arises from all of this is who has enough Thai Airways miles to both pay for a flight to Thailand and a medical procedure once there?

Given that Thai Airways is a Star Alliance member, people can use miles accumulated through any other Star Alliance airline to pay for their flight and their Thai Airways miles to cover their medical costs. In addition, many credit cards tied to Star Alliance airlines offer lucrative initial bonuses, which can further boost the miles at your disposal. These cards include the Lufthansa Credit Card, the United Airlines Credit Card, and the US Airways Credit Card.

Chase’s recent aggressive pursuit of travel rewards partners increases the potential impact of medically-oriented rewards redemption as well. People who have Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, and Ink Bold credit cards can instantly transfer their rewards points to the loyalty programs affiliated with companies such as United Airlines, British Airways, Southwest Airlines, Continental Airlines, Korean Air, Hyatt Hotels, and Marriott Hotels.

Finally, the fact that past incidences of miles-for-medicine programs required booking on sites run by the likes of the Tourism Authority of Thailand makes you wonder about the compatibility of products like the Venture Card from Capital One, which allows miles to be used for any travel-related charges. This would likely depend on whether you can bundle flights and medical procedures together and how these charges appear on your statement, but it’s at least something to think about.

Ultimately, medical tourism is a growing industry – worth as much as $100 million by this year, according to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company – and the extent to which it pervades everyday life will continue to grow right along with it. Today, you may have the ability to use airline miles to pay for procedures. Who knows what tomorrow will hold?


[Disclosure: Some of the links within this article point to Card Hub, which is owned by the same parent company as Wallet Blog.]


Larry Westfall
Never trust anything sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
January 19 at 01:21 am

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