Finance Your Budget What your travel insurance probably doesn’t cover

What your travel insurance probably doesn’t cover

One-third of us tend to pick whichever's cheapest without reading the fine print, studies show. Experts say that's not a good idea. Photo: Unsplash
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When I was bitten by a monkey in Bali as a 20-year-old, my first thought was: ‘F–k, my mum specifically told me to stay away from animals.

My second thought was: ‘Do I even have travel insurance to cover a visit to the doctor?’

Fortunately, after I’d tracked down an English-speaking hospital to administer some extremely large and painful anti-rabies injections, I discovered the answer to the latter question was yes. 

For many of us, buying travel insurance is a last-minute chore – and studies show one-third of us tend to pick whichever’s cheapest without reading the fine print. 

The problem is more than half of travellers aren’t properly insured. Often, part of the problem lies with undeclared medical issues or specific behaviour that may make travellers ineligible to claim on their insurance.

“People have this idea that they take out insurance and they’re covered for everything,” says Jen Lewis, senior solicitor at the Financial Rights Legal Centre, which runs an Insurance Law Service. 

“In fact, insurance policies only cover you for certain insured events.” 

So when buying travel insurance, what do you need to consider to make sure you’re getting a policy that works for you?

Read the fine print

A young family enjoying a holiday.
Getting the right travel cover will help you get the most from your holiday, including peace of mind. Photo: Unsplash

The experts I spoke to all started with the same advice: Always read details of the policy closely before you buy it.

Boring it may be, but reading the product disclosure statement (PDS) is your best bet of working out whether you’re buying the right insurance for you, says Abigail Koch, spokeswoman at a major insurance price comparison website. 

When you’re choosing a policy “price is obviously a consideration, but it should fall down the pecking order”, she says. 

“Think about where you’re going, what you’ll be doing there and what you’re likely to need coverage for. Think about your health, and think about what you want to take with you.” 

Then read the PDS closely – including a close reading of the word definition table – to make sure the policy actually fits all those needs.

Make sure you’re covered for everything you need

One of the main things you’ll need to check in your policy is ‘exclusions’ – more than half (58 per cent) of Australian adults don’t do this.

Some policies won’t cover you for certain medical conditions that pre-exist the purchase date of your policy, whether a mental illness or physical condition. 

Getting cover for a pre-existing condition isn’t always easy: Some insurers will only cover pre-existing conditions with an extra fee, and sometimes even a medical assessment, according to consumer advocacy group CHOICE. 

Ms Koch says if you’re not sure if your pre-existing condition is covered, “the best option is to call the insurer directly before you go away and check what they will cover you for”.

You might be surprised to learn that most basic policies also won’t cover you for: 

  • Risky adventure activities, such as skiing, water skiing or skydiving 
  • Riding a moped or motorcycle, if you aren’t properly licensed to drive it in the country you’re in 
  • Loss or theft of your baggage, if you’ve left it unattended
  • Loss or injury due to terrorism, civil unrest, or some natural disasters 
  • Travel to a country with a high-risk travel warning from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (keep an eye on the Smart Traveller website) 
  • A loved one’s pre-existing medical conditions (for example, if you need to fly home because the loved one becomes unwell or passes away).

If you need coverage for any of these, you may be able to pay extra to take out optional extra cover. This means you’ll pay a higher premium, and often a higher excess, to be able to claim for things like winter sports, pre-existing conditions or particular valuables.

Be mindful of travel insurance through credit cards

Some credit cards come with complimentary travel insurance. 

Ms Lewis says while this can be a convenient option, it can present “a few more hoops you have to jump through” to get covered by those policies. 

For example, you may have to call up to activate the insurance before your trip. Generally, Ms Lewis says you’ll also “have to have purchased the tickets to a particular value using that credit card to get covered”.

And often your free credit card insurance only activates if you book return travel.

Some of these policies won’t let you pay an extra premium to cover pre-existing conditions, as many standalone policies do, CHOICE notes.

A young woman standing in a field.
Complimentary travel insurance through your credit card might be convenient, but can present “a few more hoops you have to jump through”. Photo: Unsplash

Beware of boozy activities

An accident caused by overdoing it on the poolside cocktails won’t be covered by your insurance.

“No travel insurer is going to begrudge you having a cheeky glass of wine,” Ms Koch says. 

“However, if you have too many drinks and you fall and stumble down the stairs, and it’s deemed that the reason you tripped and fell is because you were under the influence of alcohol, most insurers would refuse to pay your claim.” 

The same applies to illegal drug use (although it shouldn’t be a problem if you were taking a drug prescribed to you by a medical adviser, and taken in accordance with their instructions, Ms Koch says). 

Don’t assume your insurer won’t find out you were on the wine: Insurers can look at police and medical records, hotel reports and airline reports while investigating your claim – and insurance investigators are also more frequently using social media sites to verify your claim, Ms Koch says.


Does travel insurance cover mental illness?

In the past, many insurers haven’t covered mental illness, even if it emerges for the first time on a trip.

However, insurers’ approach to mental illness is changing, following a successful legal challenge on the grounds of discrimination.

First-time mental illness is now covered under some policies, says Melanie Schleiger, manager of the Equality Law Program at Victorian Legal Aid, which won the ground-breaking discrimination case in 2015.

But beware: Some policies only cover first-time mental illness if you apply for it as an optional extra.

Your best bet, as always: Read the policy closely to see if it will cover first-time mental illness onset while you’re travelling.

Does travel insurance cover pregnancy-related treatment?

Heading off on a babymoon? It’s vital you read the product disclosure statement on your insurance to make you’re covered for pregnancy-related treatment or complications.

Some insurers exclude pregnancy cover altogether, but others will cover you for a single, uncomplicated pregnancy up to about 20 or 30 weeks (23 weeks or 28 weeks are common cut-off points). Travel insurance generally doesn’t cover labour while travelling.

Ms Koch says some insurers won’t cover your pregnancy if you’re expecting multiples or if you have gone through an assisted reproductive program. And if your baby is born prematurely while you’re travelling, that probably won’t be covered.

Some insurers require a note from your doctor before they sign you up for cover, Ms Koch adds.

Does travel insurance cover valuable jewellery?

Your home and contents insurance may cover that sparkly ring, but don’t rely on your travel insurance to cover it.

Some policies cap “valuables” claims for certain items at just a few hundred dollars. (Several of the policies reviewed by ABC Life capped those claims at $750 per item.)

“I haven’t seen a policy that would cover you for a $10,000 engagement ring, although I’m not saying it’s not out there,” Ms Koch says.

When should you buy your insurance?

The experts I spoke to said it’s best to book your travel insurance straight after booking your holiday.

“The advantage of buying your travel insurance early is some of those policies will cover you for an event before you leave,” says Ms Lewis.

“Typically the cost of buying your travel insurance on the day you book your holiday as opposed to the day you leave will be very similar … and you’ve got that extra certainty and surety if things go wrong,” says Ms Koch.

Keep in mind that only a few insurers let you purchase insurance after you’ve already left Australia.

This article contains general information only. It should not be relied on as advice in relation to your particular circumstances and issues, for which you should obtain specific, independent professional advice.