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Two women celebrate Chinese New Year in Bangkok. Image credit Florian Blümm

Don't Get Your Teeth Pulled—Get a Passport
Millions of Americans get their teeth pulled when they can't afford to see a dentist. But good dental work can be much more affordable than they think.

Last Updated: June 1, 2017

“I am trying to think that this is not demeaning,” a recently-written Washington Post article quotes Dee Matello. She's talking about free dental clinic she attended, in which thousands of America's working poor showed up and waited in line for over ten hours to see a dentist. The people waiting in line, some for two days, were forklift operators, librarians, postal workers—in other words, normal people. These were everyday Americans who, despite having full-time jobs, still don't have affordable dental care or insurance. Over two days, 116 dentists treated 1,165 patients and pulled 795 teeth. According to the Post, after finding themselves unable to afford root canals and crowns, many Americans choose to have their teeth pulled, to the point that nearly 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 65 do not have any of their real teeth left.

“It’s like a Third World country,” Matello said of her situation.

The Washington Post article is heartbreaking for many reasons, and one of them is that Matello is wrong: her situation is not like a Third World country. Due to many factors including lower rent, lower wages, and lower education expenses (the Post also reported that the average American dental graduate exits dental school $260,000 in debt), many less developed—so-called “Third World”—countries offer dental care for prices that are incredibly affordable to Americans. In other words, the situation Matello and millions of other Americans find themselves in is not what they would find in a Third World country—it's worse.

Though medical travel, more commonly called “Medical Tourism”, has something of a flippant reputation for fun-in-the-sun surgery packages, the fact is, it is a frequently-overlooked option that can improve healthcare access for millions of Americans. The Washington Post reported that more than 2 million US emergency room visits were due to neglected teeth. But many dental issues are longstanding, meaning that there is time to research, or even travel to, the solution. For example, the volunteer dentists helped Matello with a dental issue she had been struggling with for several years. If more people went abroad for affordable dental work before they ended up in the emergency room, their health would be better and that number would be reduced.

For a concrete example, The Washington Post reported that the panoramic X-ray and extraction Matello received would have cost $600 to $800 in a regular American dental office.

By contrast, the Bangkok Smile Dental Clinic in Bangkok, Thailand, offers panoramic dental X-rays for under $34. An initial exam and consultation costs between $14 and $28, and a tooth extraction is between $28-$56. That brings the grand total of equivalent dental work to under $120 USD— that's less than one-sixth the cost of American prices. If a customer were to opt for a porcelain crown instead of an extraction, the grand total would be more like $350. The Post reports that upper-class Americans will pay $2,000 per tooth on porcelain veneers. “If I see someone with perfect teeth, I think, ‘Oh, man, they’re out of my league',” Mattello elaborated. At Bangkok Smile, these perfect teeth are significantly more attainable, at prices that start at less than $300 per porcelain veneer.

No doubt many people are thinking, this is all well and good for people in Thailand, but what about the cost of getting there? Of course this is true, anyone whose imagination is soaring after seeing these prices needs to factor in additional costs, like flight, hotel, food, and, if you don't already have one, a passport. But all of this is also significantly more affordable than many people think, and to prove it we have created an example budget to illustrate how much a dental holiday to Bangkok might cost.

Bangkok, Thailand
The cityscape and Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, Thailand. Image credit Florian Blümm


Example Budget: Washington DC to Bangkok for 1 Week

1. Flight

Nowadays there are so many sites, apps, and blogs devoted to helping people find flight deals, no one should ever pay more than few hundred dollars for a flight. If you book well in advance and are flexible on the specific dates, you can often find flights from major US airports to Bangkok in the neighborhood of $600. At the point of this writing, using an any city, cheapest month, Skyscanner search from USA to Bangkok, a roundtrip flight can be found for less than $500. The flight arrives in Bangkok from Washington DC, a mere 2 hour drive from Salisbury, Maryland, where the free dental clinic took place.

To find flights from your location, download the Skyscanner App for Android, Skyscanner App for iOS, or just go to the Skyscanner website.

Round Trip Flight Budget- DC to BKK:
$500

Screenshot of flight options to Bangkok, September 2017
Screenshot of a broad Skyscanner flight search, Washington DC to Bangkok

2. Accommodation:
A quick search on agoda reveals that prices in Bangkok start at only $6 a night, but these tend to be for cheap backpacker hovels, maybe not the stuff dream vacations are made of. However, filtering the search to only include hotels with 3 stars or more still finds plenty of rooms starting at $12 each night. A higher budget of $20 a night should make it easy to find a nice place to sleep, for a generous weekly total of $140.

Hotel Budget- 1 week:
$140

3. Transport:
Bangkok is a city known for terrible traffic but excellent public transportation. Bangkok has not only two rail systems, but also 24 hour all-night bus lines, and a fleet of river and canal boats that have earned it the nickname, "The Venice of the East." The price of a ride on the above ground BTS Skytrain or below ground MRT depends on the distance, but will generally run for under $2, and busses and boats cost even less. If your hotel and dental office are not near the mass transit lines, taxis in Bangkok are plentiful and also cheap, with a base fare starting at only 35 baht, or $1 US dollar. The full fare depends on the distance, of course, but it's quite common to get a metered-taxi ride for only a few US dollars.

Transport Budget- 1 week:
$50

Monks and tourists taking a riverboat in Bangkok, Thailand
Riverboat mass transit on the Chao Phraya River. Image credit Florian Blümm

4. Food:
Bangkok is famous for its street food, so much that CNN has repeatedly given it the #1 position for “Best Cities for Street Food”. Although Bangkok, like any other major city, offers 5 star restaurants that can cost just as much as fine dining in the United States or Europe, it's easy to find meals for 35 Baht, just over $1 US dollar. For specific examples, The Uncornered Market travel blog features a list, including prices, of 15 favorite meals in Bangkok. For even more inspiration, see the mouth watering photos on Nerd Nomads' 7 Favorite Places To Eat Thai Food In Bangkok.
Food Budget- 1 week:
$50

Street food in Thailand
Thailand is world-famous for high quality, low price, street food. Image credit Florian Blümm

5. Entertainment:
The Adventure in You travel blog has compiled an example one-week itinerary for things to do in Bangkok, including night markets, muay thai fights, temples, and museums. The most amazing thing about this list is not the pictures (though they are also stunning), but the fact that the end-of-week total comes out to only $105 for all activities.
Entertainment Budget- 1 week:
$105

Muay Thai fight in Bangkok, Thailand
Free Muay Thai fights every Wednesday at MBK Center. Image credit Florian Blümm

Total Bangkok Travel Budget:
500 + 140 + 50 + 50 + 105 = $845

market in Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok is home to the most varied and colorful markets in the world. Image credit Florian Blümm


Not Just for the Wealthy

“[Teeth] are the telltale, visible sign of wealth,” Matello said to the Post.

Clearly, a cross-continental trip is no small expenditure, neither in money nor time, and is not a perfect solution for America's healthcare access crisis. Though many would say that spending approximately $1,000 total for a dream vacation and beautiful smile is an incredible bargain, for some that is just too much money, even as a once-in-several-years expenditure. It should be noted, however, that many dental clinics like Bangkok Smile accept major credit cards, international health insurance, and also offer easy payment plans. Nonetheless, even if they have the money or credit, some people will still find it impossible to take a week off work. And obviously, medical travel does not directly address the growing inequality and health care access problems that many Americans are experiencing today. However, in small scale of individual, day-to-day lives, medical travel can help people find care they need at prices they can afford, and have a great time while doing it.

Bangkok, Thailand
Ayutthaya is a popular day trip from Bangkok, Thailand. Image credit Florian Blümm

Disclosure: This post was not sponsored in any way. Bangkok Smile Dental Clinic was selected by Well Traveled as an example of a high quality, low cost, dental facility in Bangkok, but in fact there are many more to choose from. To plan your own dental holiday, search Well Traveled for dental clinics in Bangkok, or filter search results to include Bangkok dental clinics for which Well Traveled has dental treatments listed. This post includes affiliate links to Skyscanner and agoda, but affiliate relationships did not influence content recommendations.

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Plan for health with your next vacation, or book travel to meet your medical needs. Well Traveled gathers medical tourism information and healthcare provider sites worldwide to help you find the best health travel for you. Compare medical travel destinations, treatments, healthcare providers, and wellness facilities with Well Traveled. Find the best health care for you at the best prices.

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