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Monday, 13 August, 2001, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
How watertight is your travel insurance?
An exotic sandy beach
Trouble in paradise: insurance may not protect you
BBC News Online's consumer affairs reporter Sarah Toyne looks at just how comprehensive your travel insurance is.

The recent troubles in Sri Lanka, along with terrorist attacks in Spain and the eruption of Mount Etna in Sicily, will have forced many people to change their holiday plans.

However, such holidaymakers may be wondering whether they will be covered by their travel insurance if they cancel their holidays.

Equally, what happens to your cover if your trip to an exotic destination happens to coincide with a period of civil unrest or a natural disaster?

Do I need travel insurance?

Fewer than 60 countries have reciprocal healthcare agreements with the UK.

If you are travelling to a country within the European Economic Area (EEA), you may be covered under the E111 scheme for emergency treatment.

However, cover varies from country to country.

In some countries you may be required to pay for the cost of medicines or to pick up the bill for your hospital bed.

You may also have problems if you need an ambulance.

Covering the cost of treatment abroad is very expensive, especially in the United States, and buying travel insurance with good quality cover should be a priority.

It will also help cover the cost of replacing your belongings if they are stolen, cancellations and delays.

Where should I buy insurance?

Resist the hard sell from your travel agent or tour operator - prices can be up to 75% more expensive.

Holiday operators sometimes insist that customers must take out its own insurance. You cannot refuse if it is a condition of taking the holiday.

However, the travel agent or operator cannot make every holiday offer conditional upon buying travel insurance and you cannot be charged extra if you want to buy it elsewhere.

Approach an insurer direct or try a broker, who will scour the market for you.

What if I have a medical condition?

Insurers say that they are becoming more sympathetic to people with medical conditions, but in practice it is not as simple.

Some companies will refuse cover for people who have had heart attacks, suffer from epilepsy, cancer or who are terminally ill.

If you have problems getting cover, you could try a support group which helps people with similar conditions.

They often keep lists of insurers who will cover your condition or will refer you to an insurer that is recommended.

There are also a number of specialist medical insurers, which will provide cover for pre-existing medical conditions.

If you require ongoing treatment for an existing condition within the EEA, you should obtain form E112 from the Department of Health.

The cover will require medical authorisation. Remember to check any exclusions in each country you are visiting.

You can obtain details about E111 and E112 forms from the Department of Health on 020 7210 4850 or see internet links (above right).

What if I am an older person?

Most travel insurers set an upper age limit of 70.

Prices vary widely in this sector and specialist insurers such as Age Concern and Saga may not always be the cheapest.

Remember to declare any existing medical conditions.

If you are likely to suffer related problems while you are away, you should go to an insurer who will cover that condition.

What if I am pregnant?

Both airlines and insurance companies impose restrictions on expectant mothers.

For example, British Airways allows women to travel up to 28 weeks into their pregnancy.

Between 28 and 36 weeks, pregnant women must produce a doctor's certificate saying that they are fit to fly. After 36 weeks, flying is not allowed.

Most insurers will cover a pregnant woman for up to 28 weeks into the pregnancy, but cover still varies.

Check with the insurer and airline before you book your ticket.

You must also inform your insurer if your condition changes at any point, even within the typical 28 week cut-off point.

If you are travelling within the EEA, you may qualify for maternity care.

Dangerous sports?

One of the easiest ways for holidaymakers to be caught out by their insurance policy is through participating in 'dangerous' sports.

Most policies exclude motor biking. Others, may not even cover horse riding.

When you buy your travel insurance you must make sure it will cover you for any dangerous activities you may wish to take part in during your holiday, such as scuba diving, off-piste skiing or white-water rafting.

What if I need to cancel my holiday?

Insurance should protect you if you are unable to go on holiday through illness, death or redundancy.

Some policies will cover not only your death or your spouse's, but other relations such as grandparents and stepchildren.

Most will pay the cost of the holiday if you cancel after being made redundant from a full-time job.

If you run a small business, some will provide cover in the event of a co-owner dying.

But insurers will normally pay out only if your illness is life-threatening or you are admitted to hospital.

You will not get your money back if you simply change your mind.

What if I am concerned about my safety?

If your exotic bolt-hole turns into the latest world trouble-spot, any refund will depend on whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) deems your holiday destination unsafe.

If the warning is strong enough, your insurance policy should pay out on a cancellation claim.

In practice, the tour operator may offer an alternative trip. If you do not like the choice, you should then be able to claim.

If you are travelling to a country against FCO advice, you should check with your insurance company to see if you will be covered.

If a war breaks out or terrorists strike, you may find that your policy is not quite as comprehensive as you had thought.

This is because most travel insurance policies have exclusion clauses, which mean that if you are affected by a "terrorist act" or "civil unrest" your insurance will be invalidated.

For example, if you were wounded and had your baggage destroyed in one of these two situations, your treatment and belongings are unlikely to be covered.

However, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) says that an insurer would probably cover you despite these clauses.

The country's government may also help out.

What about 'Acts of God'?

Whether "Acts of God", such as hurricanes and tornadoes, are covered will vary between providers.

Even if your policy does cover "natural events", you should take notice of the any FCO warnings once again and be aware of any recent environmental disasters.

"If there was an unexpected earthquake, you should be covered," says Suzanne Moore of the ABI.

"However, if you visited Mount Etna now, went walking in the local village and expected to be treated from lava burns you may have problems."

Where can I get further information?

The FCO offers travel advice over the internet (see links above right) or on the telephone (020 7008 0232).

See also:

29 Mar 01 | Business
20 Jul 01 | Business
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