Which travel insurance is best for you? Our guide on how to choose

There’s something deliciously illicit about disappearing for a well-timed break just as everyone else is contemplating the nightmare logistics of Christmas.

And yet, if something goes wrong while we’re enjoying a well-earned escape more than one in five of us won’t be covered for the cost of a personal, medical, criminal or other emergency – from cancelled flights to the trip over a curb that lands us in hospital. Those of us who embrace the staycation are even less likely to take out cover.

But why spend money on something you hope never happens? Here’s why.

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Why do I need travel insurance?

A travel insurance policy usually provides cover for cancellations and delays, medical expenses if you have to visit a doctor or hospital overseas, personal liability if you cause damage to people or things. It will also afford you protection if your bags or possessions are stolen, lost or damaged and the really expensive one – emergency assistance or repatriation if you have to be brought back to the UK after an injury.

And they’re worth having in your pocket.

The average medical claim on a travel policy comes in at just under £1,000. Worse – die abroad and the repatriation process could come in at as much as £17,000.

And yet policies covering a single trip in Europe can start at less than £5 for an individual and £17 for a family – sometimes from providers you haven’t heard of like Leisure Guard. (Always make sure your travel insurance provider is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) here in the UK and that the travel businesses you use are Atol-protected.)

Not only that but buying your policy in plenty of time (most of us don’t) will cover you if the trip is cancelled by the companies involved or by you in certain cases, such as traveller illness or even the sudden death of a close relative.

Cheap travel insurance

Don’t just go for the cheapest possible cover, the experts warn.

“Although going for the cheapest policy may be appealing, it might not necessarily be the best option and can often result in you paying double or even triple in excess costs,” says Anna Sant, travel insurance specialist at MoneySuperMarket.

“When looking at excess, it’s worth checking whether this is per claim or per person. Some insurance companies will charge an excess per person, or even per section of the policy, so it can pay to factor this into the cost. Other companies can also charge a different excess amount depending on the type of claim – from cancellation fees to baggage loss. If you’re ever unsure about the excess, you can always call the provider to find out further information.

“It could be more cost efficient to opt for a slightly higher premium with a lower excess. The most important thing is to make sure you search and compare travel insurance policies, to make sure you’re getting the best deal and the correct level of cover for your needs.”

European travel

What many people don’t realise is that if you’re in the EU, the basics are covered in an emergency for free with the Ehic, or European Health Insurance Card, scheme. The idea is that all EU citizens, regardless of whether they are a national of that country or not, are afforded the same fundamental medical support.

As the NHS puts it: “A valid European Health Insurance Card gives you the right to access state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in another European Economic Area (EEA) country or Switzerland.

“The Ehic covers treatment that is medically necessary until your planned return home. Treatment should be provided on the same basis as it would to a resident of that country, either at a reduced cost or, in many cases, for free.”

The Ehic also covers the treatment of pre-existing medical conditions and routine maternity care, as long as you’re not travelling to seek treatment or give birth.

Which is great. Or at least it was. Assuming we do leave the EU, what medical aid Brits can expect after that remains unclear. For now the scheme for UK residents remains unchanged. Best get a wriggle on if, for some reason you don’t currently have a card.

It is completely free to register and receive your card through the NHS site. (If you’re trying to sign up and are charged for anything, including any admin, review or fast-track fees, you’ve stumbled onto a scammer’s page trying to get money out of you for something you categorically do not have to pay for. Don’t do it.)

Crucially though, Ehic is in no way a travel insurance alternative. It certainly won’t help if there’s a sudden empty space where a wallet should be in a crowded square, for example. Nor will it help if you don’t even get off the ground after your flight is cancelled. Be warned that different insurers include different countries in their definition of ‘Europe’ so make sure the policy you pick covers your destination too.

Holiday insurance

Your first choice is about duration – whether you want an annual policy or one off cover for a specific period. It goes without saying that if you’re planning to be away more than twice, an annual or multi-trip policy usually works out cheaper overall. If you only expect to venture away once a year, a single trip policy should do it. And that could be achieved for as little as £5.

The cheapest cover, of course, is those who are going to a very easy destination with top notch infrastructure, are in excellent health, and have no plans to do anything rash.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us need to fork out a fortune for a policy that suits our circumstances.

Family travel insurance

Aimed at families travelling together, this kind of cover is typically suitable for two adults and up to four children aged to 18, and will usually come in cheaper than insuring each member individually. You may also get higher levels of cover on a family policy, including more baggage cover, alternative accommodation and cancellation cover.

Some policies include children free of charge and may also allow adults to travel independently without the kids on other trips.

Watch out for small print that varies from insurer to insurer though, especially when it comes to restrictions on age, whether you all live together at the same address and, believe it or not, if you’re a single parent family.

Absolute rock bottom prices come in at between £31 and £35 for families aged between 18 and 35 travelling in Europe but these will be stripped down policies. They may not cover the items and scenarios you expect like cover for gadgets or flight problems that weren’t your fault. As the saying goes, always read the small print.

Travel insurance for the over-65s

The insurance world has been slow to acknowledge that older age isn’t about sitting in front of the fire with a pipe and slippers. Many retirees want to travel the world with their new-found freedom. The good news is that the prohibitive cost of cover for older travellers is changing though there are some seriously frustrating restrictions out there.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the older you get the more likely you are to make a claim, whether it’s for medical treatment overseas or cancellations because you’re unwell. And that means you will pay more. But you do get extra cover for things like medical emergencies.

Right now, the cheapest, no-frills deals are from companies like Leisure Guard if you’re under 75. For those over 75, Insure and Go may be your best bet on price alone. Again though, cost isn’t everything, especially if you’re in this age bracket so take the time to ensure it gives you cover for everything you need.

If you find yourself refused by a general insurer because of your age, or the quote is sky-high, don’t give up. A specialist travel insurance provider will base their quote on your individual health and claims history and could prove cheaper. And you still have choice among the specialists. Long gone are the days when your only obvious choice was Saga. And remember age charity Age Co. also provides very reasonable insurance for older travellers.

Travel insurance for medical conditions

Top of the list of things standard insurance policies don’t cover, alongside terrorism and natural disasters, are pre-existing medical conditions.

If you have a medical condition or illness that you have had treatment for or even simply sought medical advice about, you will have to give the details to your insurer. That can include anything from cancer and heart problems to asthma, whether it is a current problem or something that happened decades ago.

The reality is that, because of the sheer cost to insurers of medical treatment overseas if something happens to you while you’re away, those with pre-existing conditions will pay more for their policy. But failing to disclose information can invalidate your cover and if disaster strikes, your claim will be rejected and it won’t pay out.

Once you’ve answered all the rather personal, in-depth questions you may be offered a standard policy after all. However, you may be refused a policy altogether, or something in between, such as imposing certain exclusions, terms or higher excess payments.

Your destination, because of the eye-watering cost of medical treatment in, for example, Canada, the US, Spain and the Caribbean, may also be a factor.

Backpackers travel insurance

Backpacking isn’t like a ‘normal’ holiday and the insurance needs to cover you over an extended period across a multitude of countries. It should also include cover for working abroad and the kind of high octane sports that the young, free and adventurous go for.

Beware though, you’ll need to double check what extreme sports each policy will cover and the type of work – paid or voluntary if you plan to do any. Because of the market it is aimed at, you may struggle for a tailored backpackers’ policy if you’re above a certain age or have a pre-existing medical condition.

Travel in more risky areas and countries, such as war-zones or unstable regions, won’t be covered so you need to be sure of the geographical boundaries for your policy too.

Right now, you might find the best deals around from providers like Travel Insurance Direct and Allianz.

Travel insurance for winter sports

If you’re off to the slopes any time soon, you’ll need a comprehensive winter sports policy to cover you in case of injury or the loss or theft of your equipment as well as all the other benefits of a travel policy, including that all-important medical and repatriation cover.

For this (including ice-skating, tobogganing, off-piste skiing and heli-skiing) you will need a specifically designed policy as standard, single-trip insurance won’t usually cover you.

The small print for winter sports cover can be nasty, so read it thoroughly. Most won’t cover you for off-piste activity unless you have an instructor with you for example, and you may struggle for a policy if you also have a pre-existing medical condition.

And if you plan to indulge in a little apres-ski, bear in mind that travel insurance policies don’t cover you for injuries sustained under the influence of alcohol, at altitude or otherwise.

Happy holidays!

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