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What to do if you get ill abroad

Lesley Dobson / 14 July 2016 ( 19 August 2019 )

Going on holiday? Read our guide to what to do if you fall ill abroad.

Have you thought about what you'll do if you fall ill abroad?
Have you thought about what you'll do if you fall ill abroad?

You’ve sorted out your flights/ferry/hotel/hire car, packed your bags, sun cream, and a holiday novel. So far, pretty well organised. But have you thought about what you’ll do if you fall ill abroad?

The cost of medical treatment abroad if you’re not covered

Thinking of travelling abroad without taking out travel insurance, or getting a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC)?  Before you tick everything off on your to do list, think again. If you travel without an EHIC or any kind of insurance, and become ill, it could turn out to be a very expensive decision.

What will Brexit mean for holidaymakers?

According to the Money Advice Service (an independent advice service, set up by the government), the average cost of having medical treatment oversees is £2,040.

Information from the website, estimates a cost of £15,000 to pay for the cost of treatment in a Spanish hospital for a broken hip, and return flights to the UK.

And if you’re travelling in the US, for instance, and urgently need medical help for a stomach bug or infection, take a deep breath. For treatment in a hospital in California, and flights home, you could be looking at a bill for £100,000. And if you get a bill like that, your credit card may not cover it.

Travelling abroad without travel insurance is rather like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. There’s nothing there to soften the blow.

How do I get an EHIC?

You can apply for one online. Go to the official government website for EHIC.Every person travelling with you needs to have their own EHIC.

To find out more about the EHIC card, and how to apply for a card or renew an existing card, visit the NHS website. You can also call 0300 330 1350, the EHIC Line, to apply for your card. 

How much cover does the EHIC really provide?

Travelling with travel insurance and an EHIC

If you’re going on holiday abroad, taking out travel insurance and having an EHIC should give you the best possible cover if you become ill or have an accident.

Having travel insurance means that if you have a medical emergency and need help urgently, you can get in touch with your insurance company. The company should then arrange the medical help you need to deal with your health problems.

Health treatment abroad can be expensive, particularly if you need urgent and complicated treatment, and medication. Depending on where you’re on holiday, you may be charged quite a lot even with an EHIC. Having travel insurance will often help to pay for this.

Having an EHIC as well is helpful because it may mean that you don’t have to pay the excess charge if you claim for medical treatment through your travel insurance.

Top tips for travellers with travel insurance

  1. Take your travel insurance documents on holiday with you or make a note of your policy number and the emergency telephone numbers.

  2. Keep a note of any medication you are currently taking so that you can give this to a doctor if you fall ill.

  3. If you need non-emergency medical treatment always contact your travel insurer before you seek medical attention. 

Read Saga’s health insurance tips

Travelling with an EHIC, but without travel insurance

An EHIC or, to give its full name, European Health Insurance Card, is free, and once you have one, you can get free or reduced cost state funded medical care in EU countries, and Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. So if you have an EHIC and become ill while travelling to any of these countries you may be able to have free treatment, or a reduction in your cost of treatment.

The situation may change in future, following the vote for the UK to leave the EU. This isn’t likely to change for a while, so it’s OK to carry on using your EHIC, or apply for your first one or to renew and existing card. 

If the country you’re staying in provides free healthcare to its residents, you should have free health-care too. If the state provides health care at low cost, then that’s likely to be applied to you too.

However, this only applies if you are away on holiday, not moving to the country permanently. And if you’re travelling to a country in the EEA that doesn’t provide healthcare through the state, your EHIC may not be of any use. If you can, check before you agree to treatment.

If you have a smartphone, the European Commission website offers a useful free app to help you use your EHIC.

Your EHIC only applies when you’re having treatment in a state hospital. If you find yourself at a private hospital, or private doctor’s surgery, ask to go to a state hospital instead. If you can’t do this because you are too ill, or are having trouble communicating, try to make sure you read any paperwork before you have to sign it.

Make sure that you ask for copies of any relevant paperwork, and bills. This information may be helpful if you end up with an expensive medical bill that you want to dispute.

Even with an EHIC, you may find that you may have to pay for your treatment straight away, and claim the money back. You may not get a full refund, but should get some of it back.

If you have had to pay your medical bill, try to make a claim before you come back to the UK. Keep all your documents and receipts for bills paid in a safe place. If you have to claim once you’re back in the UK you should be able to get a form from the Department of Work and Pensions.

An EHIC alone will not cover the cost of repatriation or any other travel hassles such as lost luggage or cancellations. It also does not cover all medical conditions.

Read more about what an EHIC can and cannot provide

What to do if you don’t have travel insurance or an EHIC to fall back on

If you do decide to go abroad – for a weekend in Paris for instance – and find you need medical help, there are few options open to you.

If you have a medical emergency in any of the EU/EEA member countries, you can call the European emergency number, which is 112, free of charge. However, if you don’t have an EHIC or travel insurance, you will probably have to pay for any health care. Find out more on the NHS website.

If your trip is a package holiday (which may not be the case if you are on a weekend break), you may be protected by regulations covering the travel industry.

If this is the case, the holiday company should help you. You should contact their local representative, an emergency number if they have one, or their main office.

If you don’t have an EHIC or travel insurance, you can still have medical help from a doctor or at a hospital, but you will have to pay for it. If this happens, make sure that you go to a state hospital, not a private hospital, where the fee should be lower. Find out more on the EC website.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.