Travel insurance: You really, really don’t want to leave without it

Pricewatch: Mere sight of medical bills due to overseas illness might give you a heart attack

“All those who don’t bother packing their travel insurance are making a mistake. The mere sight of the medical bills that can be incurred as a result of an overseas illness would be enough to give you a heart attack.” File photograph: iStockPhoto

“All those who don’t bother packing their travel insurance are making a mistake. The mere sight of the medical bills that can be incurred as a result of an overseas illness would be enough to give you a heart attack.” File photograph: iStockPhoto

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More than half of the Irish people who leave this country every year don’t bother with travel insurance.

This is despite the fact that it is one of the very few insurance products that has not spiralled in price in recent years, while not having it could easily cost you an arm and a leg and make a difficult situation immeasurably worse.

Many of those with private health insurance policies which routinely cover overseas emergency healthcare figure they don’t need it, while those travelling within the EU where public health systems can be readily availed of at no cost are similarly disinclined.

But all those who don’t bother packing their travel insurance are making a mistake. The mere sight of the medical bills that can be incurred as a result of an overseas illness would be enough to give you a heart attack, particularly if you are travelling to the US.

If you have your appendix removed there, you will be out of pocket by more than €30,000. A minor cardiac event will cost at least €40,000 and a bad heart attack could cost you about €200,000. An angiogram will cost €25,000, and if you have to stay in an intensive care unit you can expect to wake up to a heart-stopping bill of €5,500 per night. An air ambulance to repatriate you could top €100,000.

While private health insurance and the benefits of being an EU citizen will take some of the sting out of falling ill, neither will help you if you have to cancel your holiday or curtail it because someone close to you has fallen ill or, heaven forbid, died. Neither will be of much use if you are the victim of a crime while abroad. You will also have to stump up if you or someone you are travelling with needs to be repatriated in a non-conventional way.

Dos and don’ts

With all that in mind – and ahead of the start of the summer holidays – we thought we’d draw up a list of dos and don’ts when it comes to sorting out your travel insurance.

1. Do take out your out travel insurance as soon as you book your trip, or take on an annual multi-trip policy if you are planning to take more than two trips overseas in any given year. A significant number of claims are down to changing family circumstances or a bereavement, and you have no idea when such things will happen.

In an analysis of its own claims data since 2012, AA Travel Insurance found that on average, 30 per cent of claims made each year are lodged as a result of the holiday-goer needing to cancel or curtail their holiday pre-departure.

“It’s very easy to fall into the trap of assuming you only need travel insurance while you’re actually abroad and leaving it until the very last minute before your departure to purchase cover,” says the AA’s Conor Faughnan. “Unfortunately, taking that approach can prove exceptionally risky as you could be left with a significant hole in your wallet if you’re forced to cancel your holiday at short notice for any reason.”

2. Don’t take out a policy sold by tour operators, as they tend to be a lot more expensive than those sourced elsewhere. If you are booking a holiday with a tour operator you might be told that you will get additional peace of mind if you book the insurance with the tour operator also, as their reps overseas will have all the details of your policy should things go wrong. But in an era of digital communications, you should be able to access all the documentation you need handily enough on your smartphone.

3. Do declare any pre-existing conditions that you have when taking out a policy, as you do not want to give the insurer any excuse not to pay out in the event that you fall ill as a result of that condition. And remember that if you have the results of serious tests or investigations hanging over you, it might be advisable to let the insurer know there is an issue. If you don’t, a subsequent claim could be rejected. If you have health insurance that includes medical cover when overseas, you will most likely not have to pay any additional premium for many pre-existing conditions.

4. Don’t ignore the small print. Look at the size of the excesses and the exclusions. Insurance companies don’t get rich by giving money away and they sometimes do their best to make claims as hard as they possibly can. They also make the benefits of their policies crystal clear and hide the exclusions in very small print. For instance, phones are not covered in many cases, while other valuables can lose their cover if they are not with you at all times. And, if you hadn’t been storing your passport in a hotel safe when it is stolen, you can almost certainly forget about making a claim for its theft from your hotel room.

5. Do use this handy trick. The documentation attached to a normal travel insurance policy is more than 15,000 words. The dense, dull prose makes it almost impossible to read. Rather than reading it in full, download a PDF version or copy the text into Microsoft Word and search for “not covered”, “excluded” and “exclusions”. At least that will give you a sense of what not covered by your policy.

6. Don’t forget your European Health Insurance Card (Ehic). If you are travelling in Europe, it gives you access to public health services at no cost and, as most of the countries in the EU have a better public health system than we do, you should never worry about using it. If you have a smartphone, download the Ehic app to help you navigate overseas health systems. Remember, your card needs to be renewed every five years. And don’t ever pay for the card. Some sites will try charging for the service, but it is free through the official site, ehic.ie

7. Do remember that some companies will reject any claim for a cancellation or curtailment if it is down to a pre-existing condition, even if the condition endures for years. So if you have an elderly close relative who was diagnosed with a serious illness several years previously and they pass away or become gravely ill while you are overseas, the cost of returning home may not be covered.

8. Don’t forget to tell the police if you are the victim of a crime overseas. If you do not have a police report, you will not be entertained by an insurer. You will also need to make the official complaint quickly. If you leave a police report for longer than 24 hours, an insurance company might view your claim with scepticism.

9. Do take a photograph of your passport and email it to yourself before you leave home. If it is stolen, having all the details on your phone makes it easier to get an emergency replacement. The reason you need to email it is to cover yourself in case the phone is stolen too.

“Not having travel insurance could easily cost you an arm and a leg and make a difficult situation immeasurably worse.” File photograph: iStockPhoto
“Not having travel insurance could easily cost you an arm and a leg and make a difficult situation immeasurably worse.” File photograph: iStockPhoto

10. Don’t expect your insurance to cover natural disasters and the like. Some of the cheaper policies do not cover travel rearrangement expenses, accommodation and cancellations relating to “natural disasters” outside of weather disruption. If you want travel disruption cover, you will have to pay more for it, although not a whole lot – and such an add-on might only cost €15.

Reader queries

“No doubt you know that Intana in Kilkenny run VHI Travel Claims,” started a mail from a reader called Mary. We’re not going to lie, we did not know that. But that is neither here nor there. Mary phoned them “a few days after my consultation with my GP and asked for a claim form, which arrived the next day. When I was speaking with the Intana staff member they asked me a few questions, nothing intrusive – their main concern (and I fully appreciate this) is that I was “well and stable” when I made my bookings – and they sincerely wished me well in my recovery.”

Throughout February and March she phoned VHI MultiTrip multiple times with various queries about their form. “Each staff member I spoke to was professional, helpful and kind – which is so so important to me, as I am unwell. At one stage I phoned and asked to speak to their centre manager, and congratulated him on the service from his staff. I nominate each and every one of the staff I have spoken to for customer service people of the year. My premium with VHI MultiTrip is €58 .... I would pay 10 times that for the kindness I’ve received from the Intana staff.”

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What we give with one hand, we take away with the other. Catherine O’Flynn and husband both have VHI health cover. Their son has an international policy as he lives in the UK, and all three are long-standing VHI members.

“I have had multi-travel insurance over many years with different companies – Woodchester, ” she says. Not long ago she set up a multi-trip policy with the VHI’s travel insurance department. “I assumed I was getting travel insurance, such as I had held over many years. Thats not how it has worked out.”

She and her husband travelled to Rome on February 22nd and were due to return to Dublin on March 1st. Their flight home with Aer Lingus was cancelled as a result of the great snow – and rescheduled for four days later.

“We are organised people, and decided to phone the VHI travel insurance department, expecting routine advice on how to claim for the four extra nights in the hotel and expenses for the extra unwanted period of time. We were quite simply stunned to be told that essentially, this is a health multi-trip policy with a payment of €40 for first number of hours and then €15 per day after that, a pittance.”

She rang the VHI a second time to complain about what she believes is the mis-selling of a product. “We happened to come across several Irish people ‘stranded’ in Rome who were quite confident their lovely VHI multi-trip policy would cover their hotel and expenses arising from the extra stay.

Ageism is rife in the travel insurance sector. Someone who tries to get travel insurance at 66 can often pay twice as much as someone aged 65

“A barrister friend has just told me he rang VHI MultiTrip, as he is travelling shortly and he, like us, had laboured under the impression he actually had travel insurance. He is making alternative arrangements for a trip coming up shortly. He rang because we told him of our dreadful experience with VHI MultiTrip travel insurance.”

When we contacted the VHI, a spokeswoman said that as with many travel insurance policies, weather events that are sometimes referred to as an act of God are typically not covered by policies. She said cancellation and curtailment, crime and other elements of cover found in other policies were also contained within the VHI travel insurance policy.

Senior Times expo

A couple of weeks ago, Pricewatch attended a Senior Times expo in Cork. The event was dedicated to things of interest to an older audience. One of the things that came up more than once was the difficulty many older people have in getting travel insurance. The refrain we heard repeatedly was that people are living longer and staying healthy for longer, and just because they hit a certain arbitrary age they don’t feel like their horizons should be shortened by outside forces.

But too often they are.

Ageism is rife in the travel insurance sector. Someone who tries to get travel insurance at 66 can often pay twice as much as someone aged 65, even though there is no difference in the level of risk the two people pose to companies. Someone who hits 70 or 75 will be told they can’t get any insurance at all with many companies.

The European Court of Justice ruled that it was discriminatory and illegal to price car insurance based on gender a few years back, but no such restrictions apply when it comes to a person’s age.

Companies can just refuse to offer a quote for someone once they hit a certain age, and there is no comeback.

Meanwhile, there are companies that make it their business to offer travel insurance to older people. There is oktotravelinsurance.ie and goodtogoinsurance.eu, which you most likely will never have heard of, and the AA, which you most certainly will have heard of, while the VHI covers most of the travelling public in Ireland aged between 70 and 80.

There can be restrictions on pre-existing conditions, and many insurers will insist policy-holders have private medical insurance. Age Action Ireland has a comprehensive list of the companies that insure older people - although it does make it clear that it is endorsing none of the companies and as with most things it is very important that you do your homework and are sure you are getting what you are paying for before you agree to anything.

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