Don’t get caught short with travel insurance, here’s everything you need to know

When a 50-something South African contracted Legionnaires’ disease during a trip to the US, little did he know how fast the medical bills would stack up.

Legionnaires’ is a severe form of pneumonia caused by a bacterium known as Legionella. With the help of his travel insurance provider, he spent two months receiving treatment at St Patrick’s Hospital in Louisiana.

He then spent time at a long-term acute care unit and underwent a series of outpatient rehabilitation and physiotherapy sessions before returning home to South Africa. The total cost of his claim amounted to R7.3 million.

He is among thousands of travellers who encounter unforeseen medical or emergencies during their travels. Without comprehensive travel insurance, many spend decades paying off the expenses incurred.

Of course, choosing the right travel insurance and knowing the T&Cs before you embark on a trip is equally important.

Simmy Micheli, the manager of sales and marketing at Travel Insurance Consultants, said the heartbeat of travel insurance was emergency medical and related expenses cover.

She said a comprehensive policy included cover for losses incurred as a result of any of the listed perils for cancellation/curtailment of your trip, death and disability cover, personal liability cover, luggage cover and various other inconvenience benefits.

“A serious event can run into the millions, so having travel insurance is essential when embarking on a trip. Your premiums are paid in rand, but your claims are paid in foreign currency.

“Your policy will also include other benefits that you will need to discuss with your provider,” she said.

Know what you are covered for

Taking travel insurance isn’t as simple as booking a flight ticket or accommodation. It takes time to choose cover that will protect you should an emergency arise during your trip.

Micheli advised travellers to read their travel insurance documents and ask questions before signing.

“When you take out travel insurance, you will be alerted of your benefits, benefit limits, conditions of cover and exclusions.

“Always read the fine print. No insurance company is going to pay claims that you are not covered for,” she said.

According to law, travel insurance companies are liable to pay out valid claims.

“Insurance is strictly legislated in South Africa. Insurers must pay what they are liable for in terms of their cover. If the client disagrees with the insurer’s decision, they can contact the ombudsman. All insurers must include a complaints procedure and details of the ombudsman and recourse in the policy documents for easy access,” she said.

Cancellation benefit

Sometimes insurers do not pay out claims when a trip is cancelled. Micheli explained that the cancellation benefit of a travel insurance policy is frequently misunderstood.

“Cancellation cover can be regarded as an extension of your medical cover where your policy will cover you for losses if you are unable to travel due to an unexpected medical condition. The insurer will list the events you are insured for and any event not listed won’t be insured.”

She said the benefit covered between six and 10 events. These could include sudden illness or accident, unexpected death, the theft of your travel documents, an airline cancelling your tickets due to a strike, riot or civil commotion, retrenchment or a traumatic event before your departure.

Some insurers may offer cover for unlisted events or unspecified events. Travellers fork out more for this kind of cover. There are some conditions: travellers need to take out the policy when they pay for their trip or make the first payment towards the trip.

“If you are purchasing travel insurance 24 to 48 hours after you have paid for your trip, you will not qualify for this benefit. You cannot purchase this cover after you have suffered an event that requires that you cancel your trip, as this is not fair to the insurer. Therefore proof of intent is shown when you purchase your policy immediately after you book your trip.”

Local travel insurance

Most people associate travel insurance with international trips.

However, while most local insurers do not provide medical cover, local travel insurance offers an inconvenience benefit in the event of hospitalisation during a domestic trip.

Local travel insurance includes cancellation, which covers losses incurred if you cannot travel due to an unexpected medical emergency not related to a pre-existing illness.

Travellers also receive luggage cover and a car rental excess waiver that covers any shortfall on your excess in the event of an accidental loss on your car rental.

Factors to consider when applying for travel insurance

Micheli said pre-existing illnesses, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases were a standard exclusion for travellers aged 70 and above.

Medical costs incurred as a result of manual labour are generally excluded. However, there are select products that do cover this.

Insurance rates

Insurance rates will depend on your age, destination, period of cover and type of travel. Rates range from R250 to R12 000.

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