Is cheap travel insurance really worth it?

Annie Shaw / 14 March 2014

Thousands of older travellers are venturing abroad without adequate insurance, writes Annie Shaw.

It’s not surprising, given the hefty charges many travel insurers impose, leading many to try to cut costs.

It is, however, a false economy. It could lead not only to a ruinous bill if an uninsured traveller needs medical treatment, but even tragedy if a hospital refuses to treat someone who can’t provide evidence that they can pay.

According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year, one in ten over 55-year-olds admitted that they did not always take out travel insurance before going on holiday.

This was even though more than half said they suffered from a condition of some sort which could put them at risk of a medical emergency.

Just over a third said they don’t need insurance because they are only going on a short break; just over a quarter said insurance is too expensive, and nearly one in five (18%) believed they didn’t need insurance because they were visiting family and friends.

Many also said they didn’t need a policy as they were covered by their bank. This is an unwise assumption, as many policies provided as a “perk” by banks have age limits, exclusions and high excess charges (the amount you have to pay yourself before the insurance company starts to pay out).

The reasoning behind these excuses is hard to fathom. A medical crisis is just as likely to happen on a short break as a long one, and while family members may be able to get you to a hospital they are unlikely to be willing to pay bills.

Even travellers to Europe, who are covered by the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), if they remember to take one with them, may find that the services they get for free are severely limited, and many countries impose a minimum charge even for a consultation that does not result in medical intervention.

According to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), the cost of medical treatment is often significantly underestimated by people travelling abroad.

Association figures show that a claim in the United States for blood pressure and cholesterol-related medical emergencies – not uncommon among the over 55s – could cost up to £100,000.

Perhaps more concerning is the fact that one in five travellers – 21% – who go as far as investing in an insurance policy were willing to risk invalidating it by not declaring an existing condition, because they are on medication which allows them to manage it.

By doing this, they fail to realise that not declaring any condition can invalidate the whole policy.

A further 15 per cent of unwise travellers admitted they wouldn’t update their policy at all if they developed a medical condition or were prescribed new drugs for an existing condition.

This is a particularly dangerous practice, and catches out many people with annual policies, where the cover automatically updates each year by direct debit, but the terms and conditions specify that you must notify the insurer if you develop an ailment between renewals in order for the policy to continue to provide cover.

Saga specialises in travel insurance for older travellers. Learn more here...

The Foreign Office says that every year its staff provide assistance to thousands of British nationals, including over-55-year-old travellers, who have invalidated their policy or taken out the wrong cover.

Mark Simmonds, Minister for Consular Policy at the FCO, said: "'It won’t happen to me' or 'I'll be fine' are risky assumptions to make when deciding whether or not to take out comprehensive travel insurance.

"Our consular staff around the world deal with thousands of cases each year that prove that things can and do go wrong.

"Being prepared can mean the difference between the holiday of a lifetime and a holiday from hell.

"Being unwell abroad is stressful enough without the added pressure of having to find thousands of pounds to pay for treatment.

"We will do everything we can to support people who find themselves needing medical assistance or treatment abroad, but the FCO cannot pay medical bills or fund medical repatriation back to the UK.

"Taking out a comprehensive policy and declaring any medical condition may be an added expense at the time but it’s a worthwhile investment compared to what you could end up paying if something goes wrong when you are on holiday."

A spokesperson for the ABI said: "Travel insurance is a must for all holidaymakers. Policies are widely available for people of all ages, but the insurance industry recognises that some older people need help finding cover.

"Under the Age Agreement which we developed with Government and the British Insurance Brokers’ Association, older people who are unable to find cover at the first firm they approach should be directed to an alternative provider who will be able to offer insurance or to a signposting service."

Full details of how the Foreign Office can provide support to British nationals when things go wrong abroad are outlined in the publication 'Support for British nationals abroad'. Here is the guide:

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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