I wasn’t ever going to write this post. Not because I didn’t think it’d be useful because yeah, it’s more useful than a pair of swimming trunks in Fiji, but because I didn’t want it to ever get back to any of my ex-colleagues and them sit there all red in the face thinking something along the lines of “who the hell does she think she is?! She’s no expert on the matter!”
And they’d be right. I’m not an expert on the matter, and for the sake of my own sanity, please do bear that in mind when you’re reading this as I will under no circumstances be held accountable for any broken limbs, infected mosquito bites or other nasties that may occur.
With that being said, although I don’t have anywhere near as much knowledge as somebody who’s Mastermind topic would be “the world of travel insurance“, I do have a considerable amount more knowledge than your typical traveller, somebody who hasn’t ever worked ‘in the industry‘. Good God, I hate that phrase.
So how exactly can I claim to be an “INSIDER” anyway?
Well, I’ll be honest…I’m not an insider. Not anymore anyway. And if we’re going to be totally transparent, I wasn’t ever in the “inner circle” of the travel insurance world. In fact, I was only just barely in the circle itself, sort of hovering near the edge just minding my own business, answering phones and filing away emails while humming a merry tune to myself.
Or, in simple terms, I worked for a medical assistance company.
I wasn’t there for a massive amount of time – almost eleven months in total – but let me tell you, I learnt a lot. Like how you should never fall ill in the United States because you’ll have to sell both your kidneys, your liver and your first born child to be able to afford just 10% of the costs; how the outline of Europe is kind of sketchy; how Australia and the UK have a reciprocal health agreement in place, and how you should never ever trust a Mexican ambulance.
As a result of this I find myself in a unique position as a travel blogger where I know how it works. I know the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to insurance. I know why a lot of people end up not covered when they think they are. I know the rules, how to play by them, and which ones can be bent slightly.
I want to use what I know and hopefully guide my fellow travellers into making educated, well thought out decisions when it comes to their trip insurance. You should never ever just go for a company recommended by a friend or a social influencer without doing your own bit of research into it first.
Because this post is crazy big, I’ve included one of these nifty table of contents. Feel free to skip and come back and skip and come back as much as you like!
- What is a medical assistance company?
- What to Consider When Purchasing Travel Insurance
- I. Location, location, location.
- II. Do you have kidney disease?
- III. Does someone you love have kidney disease?
- IV. Will you be jumping off waterfalls?
- V. Do you have all the add-ons?
- VI. Are you ever going home?
- More Things to Consider
- The Bottom Line
What is a medical assistance company?
Have you ever read your insurance policy booklet? I’m not talking about the certificate (the part which gives you all the basics: dates, deductible, coverage areas etc.), but the actual policy booklet. That annoying attachment which consists of at least 13 pages of unbearably tiny writing in boring font.
One might say ‘the small print‘.
If you’ve never read it I promise that you, my friend, are not alone. Anybody who actually reads the small print and/or terms and conditions is either a biological anomaly, has been burnt once before or has worked in insurance.
Anyway, in the small print, and even on the insurance certificate itself, there’s a 24-hour medical emergency telephone number listed. And it’s not 999.
When you pick up the phone and dial that number, the medical assistance company is on the other side of that line. They work 24/7 every day of the year including Christmas answering calls, liaising with overseas hospitals and basically assisting with every aspect of whatever medical emergency you may be having.
These medical assistance companies are not the insurance and in most cases they are not owned by the insurance company, but they work on behalf of the insurance company.
So please, if you ever find yourself in a position of needing their assistance, remember that fact before you start playing holy hell about being mis-sold a policy. I promise you they had no say in the matter.
Before I delve any further into what will inevitably become the longest post I’ve ever written, let me give a little background as to how, and why, I decided to actually write this after promising myself for so long that I wouldn’t.
So, I’m a member of quite a few Facebook blogging groups. In fact, if you’re reading this you may have been referred here from one of the aforementioned groups. Hey you guys!
Anyway, posts crop up on these groups quite regularly from people asking for advice on travel insurance (or trip insurance, depending on where you are and what lingo you speak) and my fellow bloggers are more than happy to offer up their advice based on personal experiences and recommendations.
Buying travel insurance unfortunately isn’t as simple as going on a cost comparison website and choosing the cheapest option. At least, it shouldn’t be that simple. I know a lot of people are happy enough making decisions this way, but choosing the right kind of travel insurance – especially when travelling to more remote parts of the world – is something that really shouldn’t be taken lightly.
You could end up in a position where your life is quite literally in their hands. In that case, would you still be happy with your £5 ‘cheap as chips’ bargain insurance policy? Would you trust them to make sure your gangrenous leg doesn’t fall off?!
I’m not knocking cheap policies. Heck, I often go for them myself! But they’re not for everyone, and a lot of people don’t realise that they may actually be ineligible to purchase these policies, simply because they don’t know what they’re looking for.
They don’t know what they need.
Just before my graduation ceremony I went into Boots to treat myself to some fancy make-up as opposed to the drugstore-type stuff I’ve always used (it was a special occasion after all). On rocking up to the Bare Minerals counter I told the lady I’d come there on the recommendation of a friend and I wanted the same foundation that she had.
She told me no. She said that everyone’s skin is different and what may be suitable for one could be totally wrong for someone else. She said she’d go through my options with me and together we’d decide what I should go for.
Travel insurance is the same.
Heck, all kinds of insurance are the same!!
Because people aren’t the same. Circumstances aren’t the same. And that should always be taken into account when it comes to choosing insurance providers.
So I’m going to give a bit of a rundown of the important things to consider when purchasing travel insurance, based on the most common mistakes I’ve seen people make. I do want to stress – again – that I’m not an expert. I do not have experience with insurance sales, only the assistance side of things. But, in combining my experience as a traveller and working on the other side of the proverbial curtain, I reckon I can give this a pretty good go.
What to Consider When Purchasing Travel Insurance
I. Location, location, location.
Call me Little Miss Obvious but where you’re going is one of the first things you need to verify coverage for. Purchasing an insurance policy for Europe isn’t going to cover your medical bill when you break your arm falling off an elephant in Thailand. Not to mention the fact that you shouldn’t be climbing on elephants in Thailand (seriously – please don’t do that, it’s not nice).
Now you’re probably sat there wondering if there are really people out there silly enough to buy insurance covering the wrong continent. Well, I’m here to tell you that yes, yes there are.
And it’s surprisingly easy to do!
You see, many insurance companies don’t abide by the same geographical rules as the rest of us. Europe is often split into two sections (Europe 1 and 2), Australia & New Zealand are coupled together but Fiji isn’t allowed to join the party, and don’t even get me started on Mexico.
Typically there’ll be 5 (sometimes less if you’re lucky!) options of coverage: Europe Zone 1, Europe Zone 2, Australia & NZ, Worldwide excluding USA & Canada, Worldwide including USA & Canada.
If you’re only going for a week in Marbella then you’re good to go really, it’s simple! But for those planning a slightly more complicated trip throughout several continents with no fixed itinerary, what do you do?
As a general rule of thumb I’d say when in doubt go for the one with the most coverage – especially because I cannot stress enough how much you do not want to fall ill in the States without insurance. I mean HELLO, have you been watching Corrie lately?!
So now that you’ve decided which you’re going to get you’re good to go, right?
There are more clauses. Yay clauses!
Firstly, almost every single non-specialist insurance will have small print that says something along the lines of:
Please note this policy excludes all cover in respect of travel to Afghanistan, Liberia & Sudan
Syria and Cuba crop up pretty regularly too. Syria for obvious reason; Cuba because I don’t know.
Secondly, in the “Conditions & Exclusions” section of your policy wording there’ll almost always be the following little titbit:
“You are not covered under any section, unless specified, for any of the following circumstances: …travelling against the advice or recommendations published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office applicable at the time of your departure”
So in my case that would be the FCO Gov UK website. If the FCO says no, then your insurance backs it up.
Typically when the FCO warns against travel, it uses one of two phrases, and I’m going to use my old friend Burkina Faso to illustrate this.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to the following parts of Burkina Faso: all areas of the country north of the town of Boulsa; areas within 40km of the western border with Mali; the W National Park in the south-east bordering Niger and Benin.
The FCO advise against all but essential travel to the rest of Burkina Faso, including the capital Ouagadougou.
So, if you fancy taking a little trip further north than Boulsa for any reason whatsoever, end up getting hit by a train and suffer two broken legs then financially you’re on your own sunshine! Insurance won’t cover it.
However, if you go to Ouagadougou and the same thing happens, then provided your reason for travel is essential (i.e. a dying relative, funeral, court case etc. and not just a little weekend getaway) then congratulations, if everything else is fine and dandy you won’t have to sell a kidney. Hooray!
The bottom line is: location is important, and it’s a lot easier than you think to get this apparently obvious piece of information wrong!
II. Do you have kidney disease?
It seems that kidneys have become a recurring theme in this post!
In this case, kidney disease is just an example. You don’t have to have kidney disease. Heck, I really hope you don’t! It doesn’t sound all that pleasant to be honest, and if I had to choose a major organ to be diseased, my kidney wouldn’t be first on the list. I’d probably go for my appendix. Or pancreas. You can live without both, right?
No, I’m talking about illnesses and ailments and diseases and medical history in general.
Your personal medical history actually plays a pretty important role in whether or not you are covered under your chosen insurance.
We all have a medical history, some more than others. And if you’re sat there all smug thinking to yourself “I’ve never visited a doctor, I don’t have one“, can I just take this opportunity to remind you of the fact that once upon a time you were born? Pretty significant mark on your medical records there!
Jokes aside, almost every single one of us will have seen a doctor at least once in our adult lives. It may have just been for something simple, like a tickly cough that won’t go away, or perhaps something more serious – you’re asthmatic or have an allergy to peanuts or maybe you do have kidney disease.
If you buy your insurance online, one of the last things it asks you to verify (before you hand over your card details and sell your soul to the insurance devils) is whether you have any medical conditions they should know about, and whether you’re currently undergoing any treatment or have recently received treatment for any illness or injury.
For most of us in peak physical and medical condition, this is something we scoff at. P-lease! We’re as fit as a whole orchestra of fiddles, fiddling together on that roof with the cat. We don’t have cancer. We don’t have kidney disease. We didn’t just wake up from a four month coma after being shot at our wedding (Devious Maids anyone?!). We’re perfectly healthy, thank you very much!
The word healthy is kind of subjective, though.
There are some conditions that seem so insignificant these days that we kind of forget they’re there, and almost dismiss them as being not even medical. They’re things that we were once afflicted with years ago, but which haven’t bothered us since we were knee high to a grasshopper.
Eczema. Mild asthma. Migraines. Urinary tract infections.
All of the above are conditions which can and will have an effect on your travel insurance. If you fall ill overseas, and it can in some way be attributed to a pre-existing condition which you did not declare when purchasing the insurance, then the chances are you will not be covered.
Likewise, if you have a totally unrelated illness or injury but, on checking, they find out you do have a pre-existing condition you did not declare to them, which you wouldn’t have been provided cover for, you will not be covered.
Imagine finding yourself in thousands of pounds worth of debt to a Spanish hospital because once upon a time you had too much sex as a university fresher, and now that innocent little UTI has come back around to bite you in the bank account.
It’s not a nice thought, am I right?
Another condition that can have an effect on your insurance is anything mental health related. Depression in particular is something that a lot of cheap-ass insurances don’t offer coverage for, point blank.
Which is to say, if you have depression on your medical history and you do not declare this, then something happens and they find out, you probably won’t be covered regardless of whether or not your incident has anything to do with it.
It sucks, but you’ve got to play by the rules.
If you’re unsure of whether or not you have a condition that needs declaring, your best bet is to give the insurance a call and speak to a person, not a machine. Better safe than sorry.
III. Does someone you love have kidney disease?
Again, kidney disease is a metaphor. Or at least I think it is. I’m not entirely sure what a metaphor is to be honest.
Sometimes when you’re travelling, something can happen back home that requires you to immediately pack up and head back. Perhaps a relative or close friend has passed away, or has only a short while left to live. In these cases a lot of people turn to the insurance either for assistance in returning home, or remuneration of costs incurred as a result of curtailing (i.e. finishing up their trip early) of their own accord.
I think the best way to illustrate this point is by using an excerpt from one of my own insurances:
This policy will NOT cover any claims under Section 5 (Cancellation or Curtailment) arising directly or indirectly from any pre-existing medical condition known to you prior to the commencement of the period of insurance affecting any close relative or travelling companion who is not insured under this policy, or person with whom you intend to stay whilst on your trip if: • a terminal diagnosis had been received prior to the commencement of the period of insurance; or • if they were on a waiting-list for, or had knowledge of the need for, surgery, inpatient treatment or investigation at any hospital or clinic at the commencement of the period of insurance; or if during the 90 days immediately prior to the commencement of the period of insurance they had: • required surgery, inpatient treatment or hospital consultations; or • required any form of treatment or prescribed medication.
In layman’s terms: if you knew there was a chance they could pass away before you headed off then LOL sorry but you’re on your own!
Seems unfair, right?
However, there are two sides to every coin.
Let’s say that your Great Aunt Mary receives a terminal diagnosis and is advised she has only six months to live, then you go and book yourself a two week Caribbean cruise for five months down the line. Mary dies on the second day of your holiday and you want to fly home. You can see why the insurance would send you packing right?
On the other hand, there are situations like mine.
My mother had Multiple Sclerosis and had been in and out of hospital for years and years and years before she passed away this year. In the past six years I’ve been on countless trips – some lasting up to eight months – knowing that there was a chance. She hadn’t ever received a terminal diagnosis – MS doesn’t work like that – but doctors and medical professionals frequently expressed how surprised they were that she just kept on keeping on.
Had something happened while I was overseas, I just know that the insurance would have probably tried to worm their way out of it. But then, was I supposed to have permanently stayed in the UK for the last ten years just in case the worst happened?
It’s silly. It’s a stupid clause. However, cases are assessed on an individual basis, so if you ever find yourself in a similar situation then by all means put in a claim! But if you were I’d be prepared. I always had a secret stash hidden away in the deep, dark depths of my bank account – a tidy sum just enough to fly me home at short notice from anywhere in the world.
IV. Will you be jumping off waterfalls?
Moving on from the cheery subject of death and disease, what are your plans for your trip?
First thing’s first – don’t jump off waterfalls. You might break your back and it’s a stupid thing to do. The insurance will probably end up not paying and you’ll be left having to stump up £6000 for an emergency helicopter from the middle of nowhere to the nearest hospital.
Is that really how you want to remember your honeymoon?
When purchasing insurance you should always check about what is included under the activities section – never assume that you have comprehensive cover even if on paper it seems that way. Obviously if you plan on doing nothing more than lounging around on a beach for a week then you can probably skip this section, but I’m just going to give a quick rundown of some basic activities that you may be surprised to find might not be covered under your insurance.
From first-hand experience I can tell you that not all insurances automatically provide cover for sky-diving. Mine didn’t when I jumped out of a plane in Iguazu, so I had to purchase a different policy just for the one day. Evidently I didn’t have to use it because I’m still alive.
Skiing and snowboarding
You almost always need to purchase a winter sports add-on to participate in winter sports. Unless you have an insurance specialising in winter sports obviously.
Walking up Sydney Harbour Bridge
I have no explanation for this. I just checked the wording of my own policy and I need to purchase extra coverage to walk up Sydney Harbour Bridge. Is it particularly life-threatening?? I don’t know.
Not just Everest but many, many big mountains! My insurance automatically provides cover for trekking below 4000m. Anything above this means I need to pay an additional premium. Altitude sickness is real, and emergency evacuation helicopters are super duper expensive! Everest is a cool 8848m high so yeah, additional premium for that!
Elephant riding and elephant trekking
Because elephants might trample you?? I don’t know. Again, my own insurance doesn’t provide full cover for this, but for an additional premium it can do. On that note, please think twice before getting involved with any elephant-related activities.
Jump off of a bridge attached to a piece of string, GO AHEAD! Swim with sharks, why not?! But play a game of beach rugby? No way José! You better double up your premium and pay extra for that!
Riding a motorbike
So this is a biggie. First off, you need a license. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a country where preschoolers ride mopeds to school and you can pay off police officers with 50p. You need a valid license. Secondly, you need to wear a helmet. Again, forget what the locals are doing. If it’s the law, you abide by it. Thirdly, it probably has to be less than 150cc or 125cc. Most insurance policies have a limit of 125cc. If you have an accident riding anything higher then you might want to set up a GoFundMe page to pay for your meds.
Not to be Debbie Downer, but I always encourage people to check their insurance policies before partaking in anything which could be considered a risky activity. If you’re unsure what counts as a risky activity, think of the worst case scenario of what you’re about to do. If that scenario is death or permanent disablement then yep, risky!
V. Do you have all the add-ons?
In relation to the above, there are a lot of add-ons when it comes to travel insurance these days. Gadget cover, electronics cover, cruise cover, golf cover (bizarre!). Some insurance companies even offer wedding cover.
Basically, if you’re taking a crap load of photography equipment or your brand new Macbook Pro away with you, do us all a favour and make sure you have adequate cover in place.
Always lock up your items and, should a robbery or theft occur, first thing to do is make police report. Insurance can’t do a thing without one of those babies I’m afraid!
VI. Are you ever going home?
The fun stuff is over I’m afraid! No more jumping off waterfalls and discussing kidney disease here. It’s back to the boring basics.
There are three main types of travel insurance when you look to buy: single trip, annual multi-trip and long-stay (also known as backpackers, extended trip etc.).
So, what’s the difference?
Single trip is exactly what it says on the tin – one single trip. Normally it has to be less than 31, 45 or 60 days, depending on how much premium you paid.
Annual multi-trip is sometimes simply referred to as “annual”. This is not what it says on the tin. It doesn’t provide cover for the whole year, but provides cover for several trips throughout the year. Each trip has to be less than 31, 45 or 60 days (again, depending on the premium) and you must return home in between trips. It’s not one long 365 days policy.
Long-stay is for long stays. It’s the perfect choice for backpackers and anyone else on an extended trip spanning beyond the limits of 3 months. A lot of these policies offer cover of up to 18 months, or 3 years in some cases.
In almost every case, unless purchasing a policy specific for those already travelling overseas, you must be in your home country at the start of your policy. It’s worthless buying a policy to start on July 18th if your flight leaves Heathrow on July 9th. You won’t be covered for those dates, and your whole policy may become invalidated as a result.
Single trip and annual multi-trip ordinarily require you to have a set return date. That’s to say, you must have a return journey booked. This is because there are limits to the number of days you’re covered, and the insurance needs evidence that you fully intend to stay within these limits.
Most long-stay policies, on the other hand, don’t require a return ticket to be booked. You just need to have an estimate of when your trip will end, and make sure you don’t overstay!
If you aren’t sure of how long your trip is, be sure to purchase one that allows you to extend cover while still overseas. Not all insurance companies offer this option, so ideally you should check before purchasing!
My trip last year was originally supposed to be 6 months long. While overseas I decided to extend it to 8 months. Luckily my insurance offered this option, or else I would have been left to pay for my rabies treatment out of pocket. That’s a joke, I did pay for my treatment out of pocket because India is cheap.
More Things to Consider
Aside from the thousands and thousands of words listed above (sorry about that and congratulations if you’ve made it this far, I salute you!) there are a small handful of things I feel I should mention.
Drugs and alcohol
If you ever find yourself in hospital, arrested or on the receiving end of a crime while knowingly under the influence of drugs or alcohol (beyond the legal limit) then the insurance categorically will not assist you. Soz but you brought it on yourself.
If you need medical assistance of a sexual health nature as a result of a position you put yourself in (i.e. you weren’t assaulted) then you are on your own. Emergency contraception, HIV prevention – it doesn’t matter. If you were not attacked, but had a slip up with consensual intercourse then you’re paying out of pocket whether you like it or not.
Those crazy fire slides in Thailand
Don’t go on them. Insurance won’t pay.
Direct quote from my insurance: You are not covered for claims arising out of; your suicide or attempted suicide or your deliberate exposure to unnecessary danger (except in an attempt to save human life).
So yeah, don’t get in fights unless it’s in self defence or in defence of another human being. Don’t jump in a pool full of alligators unless you’re saving a baby human. Saving baby animals doesn’t count.
The Bottom Line
Come summer time you’ll be hard-pressed to find a tabloid newspaper that doesn’t have at least one story about how “Insurance X Left My Husband to Die in Russia” or “I’m £70,000 in Debt Because Insurance Y Refuses to Pay“.
But the thing is, in almost all of these well-publicised situations it was the insured that slipped up somewhere along the way.
They didn’t declare they had of a heart condition when they purchased the policy, or they were 3 times over the legal alcohol limit when they fell out of a tree, or they were doing something they shouldn’t have been
Insurance companies are always made out to be the bad guys.
And I won’t defend them – a lot of the time they are pretty shitty. Some underwriters seem to forget that they’re playing with human lives, and the value of a dollar is worth more to them than the value of a life.
However, rules are there for a reason. If you play nicely, they will too. If you declare any conditions, make sure you have the right cover and, most importantly, do your research before trusting a talking meerkat to decide for you, then if you ever find yourself in need of assistance or making a claim, you’ll be in a bloody good position to win!
There are many, many examples where good, honest people have made a genuine mistake when it comes to insurance and ended up out of pocket as a result. It used to make me really sad when that happened in my old job, but hopefully this absolute monster of a blog post has provided enough insight into the world of insurance to help more people make an informed choice.
If you’ve ever used a cost comparison site to “just go for the cheapest one” before then I beg you, please don’t do that again. Your life is definitely worth more than a fiver and a stuffed meerkat dressed like Elsa.