Travel insurance – necessary evil or best friend?

Picture of map, notebook, pencil, camera, spyglass, and postcards

Do your eyes glaze over when faced with a travel insurance policy document?

With pages of legalese and lists of exclusions, choosing the right cover for your trip can be anything but straightforward. And if the insurer is offering you basic, superior or premium options, how on earth do you know which one you should choose? Do you even need this at all? What about Covid19 – can people still get insurance?

We offer some tips, in plain English. Please note, this article is for guidance only and does not constitute advice. Make sure you consult a qualified professional for advice on your travel insurance.

Thinking about risk

What’s more, if you watch consumer affairs programmes on TV, insurance companies seem to figure highly in the rogues’ gallery of traders. They often appear to do their best to avoid paying out to customers by arguing over policy wording and technicalities.

Two friends sitting on a roof overlooking a city

Thinking about travel insurance isn’t exactly the most exciting part of planning a trip. It often feels like something I wish I didn’t have to do, like going to the gym or the dentist. I do wonder sometimes whether all the money I spend on travel insurance is really necessary. Insurance is all about risk, and often our perceived risk is much greater than the actual risk. If it wasn’t, insurance companies would not be profitable and would not exist at all!

Do we really need travel insurance?

Unfortunately things can – and do – go wrong when you’re travelling, and this can be VERY costly. Even being treated for a stomach bug in a foreign hospital can be eye-wateringly expensive. A TV series called ‘Sun, sea and A&E’, broadcast in the UK, probably does more to convince people of the need for travel insurance than hundreds of thousands of pounds of advertising could ever do.

Lone Star travel insurance building with Ford Mustang parked outside

Broken bones are the least of the disasters shown on the programme. And that’s just health. What about delays, cancellations, lost luggage and passports, theft, hurricanes and earthquakes?

The important thing to remember, which many rookie travellers don’t realise, is that your government will not pay to get you home or cover your costs if anything goes wrong. Their local consular service can offer practical help and moral support, or replace a lost passport, but it’s not free. So the key thing is to insure your trip without buying more cover than you need.

Assessing your needs

Given the number of companies offering travel insurance, how on earth do you choose the one that is right for you? After all, policies are so long and tedious that it’s easy not to bother and simply choose the cheapest one for the length of your trip and the destinations you’re visiting. Or, if you’re booking a package organised by a travel agent or tour company, just to tick the box that asks you if you would like to include travel insurance.

Injured skier being placed on stretcher to be taken off mountain

However tempting this might be, remember that there might be better alternatives. Selecting the right insurance needs to be part of your overall research for your trip – and it’s worth doing properly. There’s no ‘one size fits all’, so here are some considerations to help with your research.

Where are you going?

You’ll need to state which countries you’re visiting. This might have to include transit stops, especially if they’re more than a couple of hours.

Has your government advised against travel to any of your intended destinations?

Your first point of research should be your government’s travel advice pages on their web site. Typically these pages are maintained by your ministry of foreign affairs, and will be headed ‘travel advice’. This information is VERY IMPORTANT as it has legal implications and is relied upon by service providers as well as travellers. Look up the advice for every country you’re visiting, and take note.

Canadian embassy building with flags hanging outside
Photo by Sasan Hezarkhani on Unsplash

If your government is advising against all travel to any of your destinations, then it’s highly likely that your insurance will not be valid for that country, and airlines will stop flying there for the duration of whatever problem has led to the advice.

Government travel advice usually has useful links to other relevant and trustworthy sources of information on, for example, health and vaccination requirements for your destination along with visa and entry clearance requirements.


Some countries still have travel restrictions, following the outbreak of new strains of the virus. Will insurers still cover travellers in these circumstances? The answer is yes, up to a point, although of course there are many variations.

Generally speaking, insurance will cover you within your own country for circumstances such as:

  • testing positive before you travel;
  • being required by your country’s government health service to isolate;
  • lockdown restrictions being enforced within your country before travel.

You may also be covered for your expenses if you catch Covid19 while abroad. Check for terms and conditions of this coverage; for example you will almost certainly be required to be fully vaccinated in order to be covered. Your insurance is unlikely to cover you for:

  • being unable to travel because of overseas lockdowns;
  • changing your mind because of needing to quarantine when you return;
  • changing your mind because you no longer feel safe to travel.

Some insurers refuse claims on the basis of a pandemic or epidemic exclusion clause in the policy.

In most cases, the key trigger is your government’s travel advice. If your government advised against travel to a particular area before your departure, then you would not be covered if things were to go wrong during your trip. This is true for both Covid19 and other travel problems.


When are you going, and for how long?

It’s important to buy your travel insurance as soon as you’ve booked your trip – don’t leave it until the last minute. This ensures that you’re covered if you have to cancel later on, e.g. due to illness. If you’re planning a number of trips during a year, then an annual policy is usually cheaper. 90 days is often the maximum period of time covered for any one trip, so if you’re travelling for a longer time, you might need a specialist policy.

Who are you going with?

If you’re travelling as a  couple or a family, it’s often cheaper to buy a combined policy.

Are you booking through a travel agent or tour company?

If so, check what cover is available to you if they go out of business.

Are you booking directly with an airline, hotel or other provider?

Aside from your purchased travel insurance, International law and/or travel industry agreements can provide travellers with statutory compensation in the case of delays, cancellations and insolvency. So it’s worth checking the terms and conditions of your booking to find out what you’re entitled to and what your airline will cover.

But let’s say your scheduled airline experiences delays and you then miss a subsequent departure or booking. Not all travel insurance policies cover this kind of consequential loss as standard. So make sure your policy includes ‘indirect loss’ and ‘scheduled airline failure’ in the small print. ‘Travel disruption cover’ is also good to have.

Woman sitting at a terrace cafe outside the Residencia hotel in Deia, Mallorca, Spain
Marooned in Soller, courtesy of French air traffic controllers! Thank goodness we had travel insurance.

My husband and I once found ourselves marooned in Mallorca due to a strike by French air traffic controllers. Not a bad problem, you might think! Our airline, EasyJet, were unable to offer us an alternative flight home as they were fully-booked, but covered the cost of a flight with another airline a couple of days later.

They also covered the cost of the 2 extra nights in a hotel. But they wouldn’t cover our bar bill (even though it was for coffee and a sandwich, not alcohol) nor the cost of currency conversion, as our one-way flight had to be purchased from Spain in euros and not in our home currency. But at least most of our extra costs were covered and we didn’t have to claim on our travel insurance.

What will you be doing on holiday?

If you’re planning to enjoy winter sports or any other adventurous activities that might be regarded as having more than the usual level of risk, such as certain watersports, sky diving or bungee jumping, you might need to take out additional cover. Cruise holidays always require extra cover. And by the way, if you’re planning to party hard, bear in mind that injuries or events that happen as a result of drugs or too much alcohol are unlikely to be covered by your insurer!

Are you taking any valuables with you?

It’s best to leave your valuables at home, but if you have – for instance – an expensive mobile phone or camera, you’ll probably need extra cover.

Do you have any pre-existing medical conditions?

If so, you MUST declare them on your insurance application. Don’t lie to save money. Honestly – it’s not worth it.

Are you taking any medication?

Bear in mind that different countries have different rules, so it’s important to check that your medication can be legally taken into the countries you are visiting.

Are you a European citizen travelling in the European Economic Area?

If so, you might be eligible to apply for a European Health Insurance card (EHIC), which entitles you to government-provided health care in the European countries you’re visiting. Check your government health ministry’s web site, as you may be able to apply through them. The EHIC will only provide basic cover, however, and will not pay for private care or repatriation. You still need insurance to cover other travel-associated risks.

Train line covered in snow in Surrey, England
No trains today sorry

Are you an expatriate visiting friends and family back home?

If so, don’t assume that you are still entitled to health care in your own country! Most government health care systems are residency-based rather than citizenship-based. If you’ve been away for more than 6 months or so, you might be regarded as non-resident in your home country, and no longer entitled to government-provided health care. So you will need insurance to cover you.

I know this from experience; I grew up in the UK but now live in New Zealand. If I need to see a doctor when visiting my family in the UK, I have to pay. And yes, this includes the NHS, not just private practice.

What cover do you already have?

Some bank accounts and credit cards offer insurance as part of their package, so it’s worth checking the level of cover included.

Do you need legal liability cover?

Legal liability is not always included in core cover, but you might want to consider it as an extra. What if you have an accident involving someone else who sues you, or you end up being arrested and having to defend yourself? Legal costs can be huge.

Choosing an insurer and a policy

Comparison sites, which allow you to key in your requirements and be presented with a list of insurers and prices, can be a useful starting place for getting to know who the main insurers are. But don’t limit your search to one comparison site. Insurers usually pay to be included in results, so you won’t see prices for those insurers who aren’t members.

If more than one comparison site is available in your country, try them all. Some insurers purposefully don’t join comparison sites and prefer to remain independent. Check customer reviews to get an idea of whether an insurer is prompt and reliable when it comes to paying out.

Final tips for a safe trip

  • Check out any vaccination or other health requirements for your destinations as far ahead as possible, as some preventative measures – eg a course of malaria pills – need to be started weeks or months in advance.
  • Make sure your Covid19 vaccinations are fully up-to-date if required by any country you are visiting. If you don’t want to get vaccinated and/or require exemption, check carefully to find out what the alternative requirements are for all the countries you are passing through or visiting. This is a new area of bureaucracy and sometimes mistakes can be made including by official bodies themselves, so do all you can to make sure you haven’t made any on your side.
  • If you need any medical or dental treatments, even routine ones, get them done well in advance of your trip. A travel companion of mine once got into trouble when a root canal, carried out the week before our holiday, became infected after we arrived in the US. He ended up needing emergency treatment in a Boston clinic. Now if you’re going to get sick, Boston is probably one of the top cities of the world in which to do it, with world-class medical institutions on hand to treat you – but at a premium price! Luckily I’d managed to persuade my friend to get insurance before our trip. (I’m planning a separate post on travel health soon!)
Boston's historic waterfront. The city is a great place to get sick due to all the top quality hospitals there - as long as you have travel insurance.
Boston – a good place to get sick as long as you’re insured
  • Make a note of emergency telephone numbers for insurance claim helplines, and also your credit/debit card helpline numbers for lost or stolen cards.
  • Take a copy of each card in your wallet or purse (leave as many at home as you can).
  • Take photos of any valuables you’re carrying with you, and store them in a ‘cloud’ location rather than on your device.
  • Write your name, address and telephone number on a card and place it inside your suitcase.
  • Take a copy of your passport and carry it with you, but not in the same place as you’re keeping your actual passport.
  • Keep a few overnight essentials in your cabin baggage, just in case your luggage doesn’t arrive at your destination at the same time as you do. I once travelled to Panama for work and only just made my connection in Miami after a delayed flight from London. Unfortunately my luggage didn’t make the connection. I was faced with the possibility of having to present my conference paper in jeans!
  • If you use a backpack or shoulder bag, be mindful of what could be slipped out of it by a pickpocket, if you’re standing in a crowded place such as a packed train or railway station. It might sound like stating the obvious, but at least one travel companion of mine has had a wallet stolen that way (on a Madrid underground train) and was furious with herself for being so careless.
Thief pickpocketing woman's handbag

NOTE: this article is offered for general guidance only. Please don’t rely on it for financial or insurance advice – always consult a professional.

For more tips on saving money and avoiding some unwelcome extra costs, see my post on the hidden cost of international hotel stays. For more on Boston, see Boston – a city for independent spirits.

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