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What does travel insurance really cover?

Kasey Cassells
Written by Kasey Cassells, Senior content editor

Edited by Chris Wheal, Finance Writer, 27 April 2022

After Brexit and Covid, ferries and flights are finally functioning again. Holidays abroad are back on. Find out why you need travel insurance and what you are covered for.
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What does travel insurance really cover?
What does travel insurance really cover?

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For many people, the promise of a holiday abroad after lockdown is a welcome relief. But don’t forget to buy travel insurance, which is more important now than ever.

After a brief period of refusing cancellation claims due to Covid at the height of the pandemic, most insurers (38 out of the 40 on our panel) will now cover cancellations if you contract Covid or are forced to isolate. Some have a short – 48-hour – Covid cancellations cooling off period, to avoid fraudulent claims straight after taking out the insurance.

All travel insurers will cover you if you are taken seriously ill while on holiday even with Covid – providing you are fully vaccinated. If you chose to remain unvaccinated, you may find you are not covered. Many insurers are excluding Covid treatment and cancellation or curtailment claims from unvaccinated travellers.

It is easy to see the exact Covid policies of each insurer on our comparison tool so you can be confident before you buy.

Post-Brexit it is vital you have travel insurance even in Europe. Some basic medical treatment will be covered by the UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC), which replaced the EHIC card when we left the EU – make sure you get one before you travel.

But unscrupulous companies will hire private ambulances and book you into expensive clinics that the GHIC will not cover. You could be left with a hefty bill if you are not insured.

Travel insurance will also cover the costs of additional transport home if you are delayed or need to be medically transported.

The one big travel insurance exclusion is if you travel against government advice. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office issues advice not to travel to certain countries where there are geo-political or environmental risks. Other governments also issue advice to travellers not to visit or to avoid key towns or regions. If you travel against this advice, your insurer has the right to refuse any claim.

Can I get travel insurance with a pre-existing medical condition?

If you have a pre-existing condition, you can still get a travel insurance quote. These conditions could include cancer, stroke, serious heart, respiratory and terminal conditions.

The Uswitch travel insurer panel will cover 80% of people with pre-existing medical conditions. You may be advised to take a single trip policy. Understandably, insurers are less likely to offer annual travel policies for conditions that could worsen within that year.

Some insurers might not cover you if you already have a serious medical condition, or if you have a number of conditions. Others might only offer insurance at a much higher price. The problem conditions for insurers include dementia and motor neurone disease.

If you're unable to find suitable cover, the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) has access to the British Insurance Brokers’ Association directory of specialist insurance brokers who can find cover for customers with pre-existing medical conditions.

You can contact the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) or you can telephone 0800 138 7777.

Will my passport be valid for me to travel?

It’s safest to have a passport that has at least six months still to run from the last day of your holiday (three months minimum) and that was issued less than 10 years ago (some have been extended but the EU does not like that).

The government is advising it can take 10 weeks to process passport applications. You can apply using a guaranteed service through the Post Office, at an additional cost of £9.50. And there is a fast-track service that involves a personal visit to a Passport Office.

The Passport Office offers a telephone number if you require an urgent passport for compassionate reasons, such as a death in the family or government business.

Waiting for essential travel documents can delay you travelling, so it’s best not to book a new holiday until you have received a new passport, if your current one has expired or is due to expire.

If I have to cancel my flight, can I get my money back?

Legally, airlines have a duty to refund your cash if they cancel your flight. As a result of millions of flights being cancelled because of the coronavirus, there were reports of airlines refusing to give refunds or telling customers to rebook flights for later or receive travel vouchers instead.

You are legally entitled to compensation, but it can be a struggle to get through to many airline help desks.

If you cancel your flights, you may not be entitled to any refund. This is where travel insurance would step in. If the reason you had to cancel was due to illness, injury, personal family circumstances, a change in the travel rules or a range of other insured events, your insurer would refund you, less your policy excess.

This is why it is always best to buy travel insurance as soon as you book a holiday, or have an annual travel insurance policy in place.

What does travel insurance really cover? - Image 2

How does travel insurance work?

Travel insurance covers four standard areas:

  • Cancellation, curtailment and missed departure

  • Personal belongings and money

  • Emergency medical care

  • Personal liability

It may also cover specialist sports and activities, but usually at an extra cost. The highest risk sports cost more. If you are doing something particularly unusual you might want to find a specialist insurer with expertise should you need help.

Travel insurance is also usually split by regions. These are based on the experience the insurers have had from claims – mainly medical claims.

The most expensive areas include the US, where medical costs are huge, but also other countries where costs get bumped up by local businesses trying to make a fast buck out of insurance companies. The rest of the world, excluding these high-risk countries, is the second most expensive group. Most of Europe is in the cheapest bracket.

An underwriter calculates the risk of you and your family making a claim and the likely cost of such a claim. You pay a premium to cover that and if you do need to claim, your insurer will either step in and help while you are abroad, or you can claim back your additional costs when you return.

What claims can I make on travel insurance?

You can claim on travel insurance if your departure is delayed, your holiday cancelled or even if you miss your flight. You can also claim if your holiday has to be cut short. Most insurers offer a fixed amount for delays, depending on how long you are stuck at the airport or ferry terminal, for example.

You can claim if you have valuables or luggage stolen, you lose them or they are damaged, up to a fixed amount. If you have high value items that are not covered by an all-risk clause on your home contents insurance, you will need to specify that to your travel insurer and pay the appropriate premium. Any crime must be reported to the local police for a claim to be paid.

If you are injured or taken ill, your insurer will pay for ambulances and other emergency transport, hospital and medical bills and repatriation if you are too injured to travel yourself. If you are in hospital beyond your due trip home, you can claim for a new flight or ferry crossing once you are better.

Many insurers will deal direct with doctors and hospitals and book travel for you – partly this way they control the costs and negotiate tough discounts with providers. Sometimes you may have to make a payment yourself and claim it back when you return.

You can also claim if you accidentally damage someone else’s property while on holiday, or, worse still, injure someone. If this involves you in any legal costs you can claim for those too.

If you have any other insurance policies that cover any part of the claim, such as home contents insurance that covers valuable all-risk worldwide, you will need to tell your travel insurer and the claim may be split between the two insurers.

Are there any exclusions in the small print of travel insurance?

Generally, travel insurance covers a wide range of risks, including medical treatment costs, loss of possessions, delay and curtailment. However, beware of the fine print as insurers will expect you to take reasonable care - so for example, if you leave possessions unattended, then they may not be covered if they are lost or stolen.

Also, beware of drinking heavily on holiday. If you are drunk - which is defined as anything over the UK legal limit – and then robbed or hurt, your claim may not be covered if the alcohol contributed to this.

There are also often areas missed by various policies. On a driving holiday you may find that your accident and breakdown policy will only bring your car back to the UK if it is damaged or broken down, but not if the driver is too ill or injured to drive it. You travel insurance will only repatriate the injured person, not the vehicle. Sometimes a claim can fall in the gap between policies.

Some policies also have an excess for each section of the policy, rather than a single excess per claim. You could find an excess deducted from your medical claim and your curtailment or baggage claim.

How can I make a complaint about my travel insurance claim?

You must first exhaust the insurer’s internal complaints procedure, which has to take less than eight weeks. If you still think you have been treated unfairly, you could take your case to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS).

It will consider claims on a case-by-case basis because policies are all worded differently. The FOS will look at issues including the wordings of individual policies, and a person's circumstances when they took out the policy.

The FOS has ruled against travel insurers even when the insurers felt their reason for denying claims were valid – the Eyjafjallajökull Icelandic volcano ash cloud of 2010 was a high-profile example.

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