Why it pays to buy holiday insurance

One in five of us now travels abroad without insurance. However, as the healthcare professionals reveal, failing to pack the right policy can come at a hefty price. Interviews by Rosalind Ryan.

We’ve all left something behind when we go on holiday, from sunscreen to prescription drugs. But increasing numbers of us are actually choosing to go away without travel insurance – and the consequences can be serious. Research by the Association of British Insurers reveals holiday cover helps nearly 4,500 people a week who need medical treatment abroad, while travel association ABTA says 22 per cent of us are heading off without any insurance, up from 19 per cent in 2013. Without the right kind of policy, you could end up paying thousands – if not more – in hospital, transport and repatriation costs. So what’s the worst that can happen when things go wrong on holiday?

Kate Kenny, a senior nurse adviser for MAPFRE Assistance, helps organise the right level of care and support for travellers taken ill abroad.

“Budget holidays might feel like you’re getting a great deal, but without travel insurance they can end up being very expensive! Many people think an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) will cover them, but it only entitles you to basic public health care. However, your insurer can organise everything from getting a local doctor to come and visit you, to arranging
a taxi to the airport.

“A lot of our cases involve gastroenteritis, but even something innocent like an ear infection can ruin a holiday; until the ear is clear, you’re not fit to fly so you may have to extend your stay. And if your child picks up chickenpox, they’re not considered fit to fly until 72 hours after the last crop [i.e. cluster of spots] appears. Both situations mean you may need to stay longer in your hotel, but this can be tricky to organise in the peak of summer. A good travel insurance provider will not only arrange extra rooms, they’ll sort out new flights home for you, too.

“We also get a lot of ankle injuries; you might be looking up at some beautiful architecture but then trip and fall over. Ankle fractures often need surgery, but then you cannot take a conventional flight home with a fracture. You need two extra seats to keep the leg elevated but many airlines won’t allow you to book empty seats. Having the right holiday cover means your provider should co-ordinate with the airline to organise those seats, or decide if you need to be brought home by air ambulance instead.

“Repatriation costs can be pretty steep – an air ambulance back from the Canary Islands can cost £20,000 to £25,000. Although the United States is the most expensive place for medical care, a recent case involved a patient who fell ill in Mexico and their final hospital bill was £1,000,000! Without insurance, they would’ve been liable for that entire amount. So spending as little as £20 on the right holiday policy really is worth it.”

Dr Gill Jenkins is a GP and helps bring ill and injured holidaymakers back to the UK in her other role as a flight medical officer.

“I’m involved in several stages of repatriation, from setting up case files when an insurer first contacts us, to going and getting the patients. I’ve been in some weird and wonderful places; in China, I had to arrange for someone to be brought down a mountain by donkey!

“Most cases involving young people are trauma, such as accidents and injuries, but for older people it’s often cardiac related – heart attacks or unstable angina. That’s why it’s so important to declare any pre-existing conditions when you take out insurance. If you don’t, your insurer may decide they won’t cover your medical costs and you may have to pay yourself.

“As soon as we receive a new case, we need to establish how long they’re going to be ill or in hospital, and how we’re going to get them home. Are they fit to fly, or do they need an air ambulance? Do we leave them for longer in a local hospital to get better, or should we ‘scoop and run’ to get them home straight away? The more information you give when you contact your insurer the better, as it helps us make these decisions faster and more accurately.

“A lot of our cases are in Europe, such as Benidorm or Cyprus, but I have been to Nepal to bring home a heart attack and stroke patient. She was stable in a local hospital, but we still needed to repatriate her. Before we set off, I asked if there was anything in particular she needed, and that’s how I ended up going to Kathmandu with several cans of Heinz baked beans!

“If you take medication, make sure you pack enough to cover your holiday and any emergencies – it’s not that easy to send cardiac medicine to somewhere like Timbuktu. Also, really consider where you’re going. If you’re pregnant, or suffer from chronic conditions like angina or diabetes, will a deserted island have the right medical care in an emergency? Being realistic about what you can do makes for a much better holiday than coming home to medical bills and months of after-care.”

Holiday claims: counting the cost

Figures provided by MAPFRE, the main partner for Benenden travel insurance, show that:

This article first appeared in Benhealth magazine, summer 2015 (issue 31).

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