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Travel insurance

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Travel insurance

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    This article is a travel topic

Travel insurance is short-term insurance available specifically against travel-related emergencies and expenses. International travellers will almost always want to obtain travel insurance because it covers medical expenses, but even travellers not leaving their own country may find it useful depending on their plans.

This article describes common items covered by travel insurance policies, and what to check for on your policy. With any policy it is important that you read the terms and conditions carefully, and that you especially review the exclusions (things that the policy definitely does not cover).

This article is a general guide to travel insurance policies, including some possible terms but is not a substitute for careful review of your own policy. Travel insurance policies differ markedly in their terms and conditions.

Where to buy

You purchase travel insurance for international trips through an insurer in your country of residence, which means the country to which you'd want to be evacuated to or return to after a serious medical emergency and/or the country you'd need to travel to if a family member became very ill (these are assumed to be the same country).

If travelling within your country of residence, you can buy cheaper domestic travel insurance within that country, but you may decide that you do not need it at all if you are willing to risk losing costs associated with cancellations and so on.

You can obtain travel insurance through your travel agent, your normal insurers, or any one of a number of specialist travel insurers. Travel agents sometimes sell overpriced policies as you are something of a captive audience. Shop around. Because travel insurance policies are somewhat interchangeable, there are a number of websites where you can compare policy costs. This article does not list specific insurers as they are both numerous and country-specific.

Sometimes you may be insured via an existing deal. Some credit card companies insure any trip you take as long as you buy the tickets on a particular credit card. Business travellers may be covered by a company-wide insurance policy, but if you intend to take any side trips or have a personal holiday check the coverage: usually personal holidays on the side must be of a fairly short length to be covered by a business policy. Be sure to check these existing deals carefully and ideally get confirmation in writing of your coverage. The credit card insurance deals, for example, have been known to be invalidated by, say, travellers who paid a deposit amount in cash.

Very regular travellers may find that ongoing travel cover, typically purchased a year at a time, ends up being cheaper than insuring all the trips individually. Most travel insurers offer this option.

When to buy

Some travel agents will offer travel insurance when you book travel, but you can purchase travel insurance between then and shortly before you depart, providing an opportunity to shop around. Of course, if you are injured or become ill between the booking and departure date, you're out of luck if you don't have insurance already. Many travel insurance policies cover only certain expenses, such as "cancellation for any reason" or cancellation due to airline bankruptcy, if the policy is purchased within two weeks of the initial trip payment.

What to buy

There are two major classes of travel insurance:

  • international travel insurance, covering travel outside your country of residence. This is an essential part of international trips because your normal healthcare arrangements won't apply in other countries and you either need insurance or to be able to pay all medical bills out of pocket; and
  • domestic travel insurance, covering travel inside your country of residence. These policies are generally cheaper than international policies because they usually don't include medical coverage--in your own country, you presumably have other arrangements. They focus on compensating you for purely travel-related problems like cancellations and closures. They are also much less essential and you can consider their worth on a trip-by-trip basis.

When buying travel insurance, you should review the dates of coverage (include the day you leave and the day you arrive home in your cover), that it covers what you need, and the exclusions.

Medical expenses coverage

It is usually the case that whatever standard health insurance you have will only pay claims for medical care in your country of residence. Also, even if your medical care is usually paid for by the government, this usually won't extend to medical costs incurred in other countries. Some countries with socialized medicine (e.g. Canada, UK, Australia) might have reciprocal agreements with other countries with similar health care systems. However, even if a country extends its subsidized medical care to tourists, it may not be up to the standards you are used to.

Unless you are covered by a reciprocal arrangement, or your regular health insurance covers international medical expenses, you will have to pay all medical expenses incurred while travelling out of pocket, and in some cases medical care might be prohibitively expensive. Therefore, all international travelers should be certain they have medical coverage via a travel insurance policy that covers medical expenses they occur on their trip.

When considering a travel insurance policy's medical coverage:

  • check the precise details of medical care that you will be able to claim. If your destination has a tiered health system, with, for example, public and private hospitals, are you able to use a private hospital?
  • does your insurer offer 24 hour contact with emergency advice? These hotlines allow an insurer to assess a situation and give some advice about medical care as quickly as possible. Your insurer may have local knowledge that you do not have.
  • if you take part in any adventure sports or activities like alpine skiing or scuba diving check your policy for medical coverage related to accidents that happen while you're doing that activity, and whether or not you need any formal training to be insured. If you can't find a general travel insurance policy to cover your activity of choice, you may be able to take out a second policy from an insurer specializing in that activity.
  • is there coverage for illnesses that become apparent after your return? International travel insurance policies usually exclude medical costs incurred in your country of residence, even if the costs stem from an injury or illness that happened while you were travelling. Medical costs in your home country are assumed to be covered by your normal healthcare arrangements.
  • does the policy have adequate cover for dental expenses? Some policies provide substantial amounts for general medial expenses, but only very small amounts (for example, only $500) for dental expenses.

Pre-existing conditions

You may have difficulty obtaining travel insurance if you have high-risk pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, or have been diagnosed with contributing factors towards disease (eg clotting problems and high blood pressure both increase risk of heart problems). Note that you must disclose any information about your medical history to your insurer when asked, even if you are not seeking coverage for pre-existing conditions; your policy will usually be completely invalidated if you fail to disclose something when asked.

Some policies may cover you with the pre-existing condition excluded. This is obviously undesirable, as if your existing disease or symptoms cause you any problems, you will have to come home or pay for treatment out of your own pocket.

Some policies will cover pre-existing conditions if you sign up within a short time after booking and paying for your travel (often 24–48 hours, a few up to two weeks). Otherwise, to have your pre-existing condition covered you may need to undergo a medical assessment and pay an extra premium for medical insurance. There may also be a moderate or large excess.

Pregnancy is considered a pre-existing condition. See Tips for women travellers for more information.

Older travellers

Travel insurance becomes increasingly difficult to get after age 55, with your age alone being considered something of a pre-existing condition. The precise cutoff for receiving insurance without an addition premium and/or medical examinations varies from 55 to over 70 for some insurers. As you age you will face increasingly higher premiums and excess charges on claims.

Medical evacuation coverage

A medical evacuation is a chartered trip (usually a flight) for a patient who is not well enough to return home by other means to better facilities, or to their home country. It typically involves travelling with medical personell looking after you and medical equipment to hand. Medical evacuations are very expensive and you must have coverage for medical evacuations. There are two reasons a traveler would need medical evacuation. In less severe cases (or after hospitalization) you may be just barely well enough to travel with assistance lying down, but not well enough to fly on a commercial airliner. In more severe cases, a less-developed country might not have facilities to treat serious injuries and illnesses. In that case, you need to be evacuated to an area with better facilities as soon as possible and might also then need to be evacuated home at a later time.

Even if your local insurer or government provides cover for medical expenses internationally, they are unlikely to cover the cost of an evacuation. The baseline level of acceptable coverage is about one million US dollars: medical evacuations can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (The U.S. State Dept's web site says "well in excess of US$50,000" and Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs says "sometimes up to (AU)$300,000 (about US$230,000"). Some supplemental insurance such as AFLAC in the USA covers medical evacuation, but only for about US$3,000. This is woefully inadequate for international travel, and is only intended to cover an air lift in a helicopter to the nearest hospital, not a medical evacuation to your home country.

Caretaker coverage

If you are incapacitated while travelling, some policies will pay for a relative or friend to travel to you and either stay with you or escort you home.

Lump sum payments

In addition to covering your medical expenses if you are ill or injured, some policies will pay a lump sum to you or your estate in the event of an accident or untoward event. For example, they may pay you a fraction of your salary for a certain time if you are injured while travelling and unable to work.

Cancellation insurance

Travel insurance will often cover expenses related to unexpected cancellations by your carrier or destination; for example, costs associated with a canceled flight, including accommodation, meals and other incidentals. Cancellations due to emergencies are often also covered, some possible examples include:

  • medical advice telling you that you cannot travel
  • a death or (sometimes) medical emergency in your family
  • a major disaster at home such as a house fire
  • disasters at your planned destination that occur after you booked your trip

Depending on what's happened, the insurer might pay rebooking fees, refund lost deposits, or pay for travel home. Travel insurance only pays for direct losses such as these, you won't get additional compensation for things like your disappointment at your holiday being cancelled.

More expensive policies may also cover your own discretionary cancellations, if there's an exceptional circumstance: for example, there are some travel insurance policies that will pay you the cost of your ski lift tickets if a resort has shut due to lack of snow.

There are always a raft of conditions about acceptable and unacceptable cancellations. Some examples of troublesome situations:

  • you can purchase insurance covering a trip home because of the death of a family member ― but a trip home due to the death of a friend almost certainly won't be covered and even a de facto partner's death might not be;
  • family medical emergencies other than a death often aren't covered; for example the insurance might not cover a trip home to be with a family member who has been hospitalized or diagnosed with cancer ― even if it's your own child;
  • many policies cover cancellations or delays due to terrorist activities, but the August 2006 terrorist threat in London demonstrated that few cover cancellations or delays due to the mere threat of terrorist activity;
  • if your transportation carrier goes broke, you usually won't get paid;
  • most policies will not cover a labor strike if you book travel after union members vote to approve a strike (which could be weeks or months ahead of the actual strike). Also, be aware of de facto strikes such as a "sickout" -- usually by just one segment of the airline (e.g. pilots). A few policies may not cover this, or cover it only as a delay.
  • some policies cover cancellations if a destination has recently become unsafe due to either a declaration of war or a recommendation by your government to cancel travel to a particular area; others do not cover this.

Resuming your journey

If you have to cut your trip short for certain reasons (usually illness on your part or on the part of a relative) some policies will pay at least the cost an additional return ticket so that you can resume your journey later. This may only apply before a certain time (ie, they won't fly you back if you only had 48 hours left of the holiday anyway!).

Loss, damage and theft

Some travel insurance policies cover the loss of or theft of your belongings while travelling. If claiming for theft, you must file a police report about the theft and get documentation, no matter how unlikely it is that the police will take any action. The insurance company will not pay your claim without a police report.

You may need to provide a list of items over a certain value, and pay an extra premium to insure them.

In the cases of expensive and easily disposed of items like cameras and laptops, policies may cover violent theft or forced entry only. If if you leave your belongings in a room while you duck out, and they are stolen, the cover may be invalid if there was no forced entry. When considering claiming for damage, check the terms carefully: many expensive and fragile items are only covered if damaged while being carried by you. It is very common to exclude any damage done to your belongings if they travel as checked luggage: you must keep them on your person to be covered. Theft from unattended cars and other vehicles will have limited coverage, as will theft of, and particularly simple loss of, cash, money orders, travellers cheques and credit cards.

Policies covering loss or theft of belongings are typically among more expensive policies, aimed at business travellers.


An insurance policy may cover expenses incurred by your estate related to your own death while travelling, such as the cost of arranging a local funeral and burial or cremation, or the cost of transporting your remains home. Having medical expenses covered by insurance is also very valuable to your next of kin in the event of your death, as otherwise he/she may be liable, and your children and dependants may have their inheritance greatly reduced or canceled.


The cost of policies depends on your destination. If you are travelling within your country of residence you will often be able to get a cheap domestic policy (partly because it may exclude medical coverage). On the other hand, certain destinations, including South America and Africa but also the US, Canada and Japan (because these countries have high healthcare costs) require more expensive policies. You may need to disclose your itinerary to the insurer, but some will simply allow you to nominate the continents (eg Europe, or North America) or may provide a worldwide policy for a higher premium.

Many policies require that you purchase them in your country of residence and that you start and finish your trip there—that is, you can't buy insurance halfway through your trip and it mustn't lapse before your planned return—although there are some exceptions.


Some insurers refuse to pay medical or any other expenses associated with particular activities. Aside from pre-existing medical conditions, common exclusions also include: anything that happened to you as a result of an act of war; suicide, attempted suicide and self-harm; anything that you caused by doing something illegal; anything you did while drunk or high; anything caused by a sexually transmitted disease (excepting ones you have covered as a pre-existing condition); any accidents you have while participating in an adventure sport not specifically listed as covered; anything caused by negligence on your part; any theft or damage to your belongings where they judge that you weren't looking after them sufficiently well.

Some policies may exclude all coverage in certain countries or regions within countries. Check the fine print of your policy, as in one section of the policy it may explicitly list a country as eligible for coverage, and then in another section exclude coverage in any country listed on certain government websites, such as the World Health Organization or Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.


Some policies have an excess amount, which is deducted from any claim you make, so that you will be paid the amount of the claim minus the policy's excess. Excesses commonly apply to higher value claims, such as hospitalisation. Higher excess amounts may also apply to high risk travellers. Some policies charge an additional premium to lower the excess amount.

Extending your trip

If there's any chance that your trip might extend beyond the period of your insurance, make sure that you know in advance how you can extend the policy, and whether you can do this while travelling. It is generally much easier to extend a policy if you request the extension while you're still covered: obtaining a policy when you're travelling but aren't presently insured is difficult. In addition, if you let your policy lapse you will obviously not be covered for anything, including medical expenses, while you arrange a new policy. Many policies require that you apply for an extension at least 7 days before your policy expires.

When planning a trip, pay for your policy to cover a few days after your intended return. In the event of last minute delays or changes of plan which extend your trip, you then have a few days to sort out any extension of the policy you need. Some policies will automatically extend if the delay is part of a problem that you could claim for: for example, if you have insured against delays, and the delay extends your travel past the end of your coverage, the policy is automatically extended. This typically will not apply to pre-existing conditions or to high risk travellers such as the elderly, even if you fully disclosed pre-existing conditions when applying for cover.

Extensions to your policy are never guaranteed to happen, they will always be at the discretion of the insurer and may be refused based on your previous claims and any other information that you disclose when applying for the extension (and you will usually be required to disclose anything you think might be relevant lest the policy be void). Some insurers treat all applications for an extension as an entirely new application and will re-evaluate your circumstances before insuring you. Medical problems that occur during your holiday may count as pre-existing conditions when applying for an extension, and certainly will if applying for a second policy.

What not to buy

Flight insurance, sold at some airports, is simply an very overpriced life-insurance policy valid only for the duration of your flight. Don't waste your money.

Making a claim

Most insurers expect you to pay smaller medical expenses and all other expenses you intend to claim for yourself and apply for reimbursement. They will usually pay large medical bills, such as those arising from hospitalisation or evacuation, directly. If you are hospitalised they should be informed as quickly as possible, since they need to agree that the treatment is necessary in order to pay your bills. There is usually a clause stating that they will refuse to pay for medical assistance that they deem unnecessary. If you are incapacitated, your travel companions or contacts at home will need to deal with the insurer, make sure they have contact details!

Do not arrange your own evacuations unless your life is in danger without it and you and your companions cannot talk to the insurer in time. Otherwise, consult your insurer as they probably have a contract with a company that saves them money. They won't pay if evacuation is self-arranged.

For anything else that is likely to result in a large claim, particularly a medical claim, inform the insurer as soon as possible, preferably while you are still travelling. Many have a 24 hour hotline that you can call. Often this service is an advice hotline and the insurer can involve on-the-ground staff in advising you about medical facilities.

All claims should be filed promptly. Most insurers have a limited period of time after a given event for which you can claim associated expenses. This period is usually a year.

Claims will need to be documented. Where you are claiming expenses, you will need receipts. If you're claiming for a theft, you will need a copy of the police report made when you reported the theft to the police and evidence of the value of the item and possibly proof that you owned it in the first place (proof of the original purchase will cover both requirements).

Stay safe

Many insurers specifically exclude travel to countries and areas known to be extremely dangerous. As a rough guide, if the US State Department or your own country's government recommends against any travel to a particular country or area, you will find it difficult to get insurance coverage. As always, check the terms carefully, and if travelling to an unstable region, keep an eye on the travel warnings for any updates that might invalidate your insurance.


Carry copies of your insurance policy and your insurer's contact details with you, and retain a second copy in your luggage. You might also want to leave policy details with travelling companions or relatives or friends at home, since if you are incapacitated someone else will need to deal with your insurance company and may not know who you are insured by, or whether you are insured at all.

See also

This is a usable article. It touches on all the major areas of the topic. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!