The real risk of travelling without insurance

The real risk of travelling without insurance
The real risk of travelling without insurance

There has been a lot of news recently about the soaring cost of car insurance. A few weeks ago Which? reported that premiums had gone up by more than 25 per cent in 2023 compared with the previous year. It’s a situation made more infuriating because we have no choice but to cough up. If you drive a car, you have to insure it.

But that is not the case with travel insurance. With a few exceptions (on many cruises and some package holidays) no one will check if you head off on holiday without it, let alone penalise you. You could simply decide to opt out, especially if it was looking expensive.

Of course, the received wisdom and the firm advice from the Government and the travel industry is that rising insurance prices are simply a pill that we have to swallow. Only the foolhardy risk travelling without insurance. What if you had a heart attack in, say, Florida, or were knocked unconscious in Vancouver? You could be in intensive care for weeks and facing a medical bill of hundreds of thousands of pounds. What if you were taken ill in a developing country and had to be flown back home in an air ambulance? The cost of that would run into the tens of thousands.

Even so, many are recklessly gung-ho – not least among them, those with pre-existing medical conditions who face sky-high premiums or even refusal of cover (an issue I discussed in this very publication not two months ago).

But it’s not just those with prohibitive health issues who are opting out. According to a recent survey by Staysure, in the last three years some 12 per cent of British travellers have headed overseas without insurance. And, overall, a quarter said they would consider doing so. Older travellers were more risk averse, but even so, 13 per cent of over-55s said they might travel uninsured.

So I was interested by a declaration from a reader who contacted me the other day – I shall call her May – that she was planning to give up buying travel insurance altogether. Her argument was that, as she got older, it was becoming more and more expensive, especially as she had a couple of medical conditions which she had to declare each time she bought it. The last quote she had was over £400, which would make a big dent in her holiday budget.

“My point is,” said May, “that when I do declare my conditions, the premium seems to go up and they are also excluded from the cover. So, in some ways, I am travelling uninsured already.

“Also,” she added, “I like to travel in Europe and I have my GHIC card, which means I have cover for emergency treatment anyway. And if I do have to pay extra to travel home afterwards, at least I won’t have to fly – I could always come by rail, or even by road.”

May’s arguments can’t be dismissed out of hand. Premiums for older travellers can be exceptionally high and hers will get more expensive still as she approaches her 80s. 

It is also true that a GHIC card, which replaced the EHIC card after Brexit, will guarantee emergency medical treatment in public hospitals and even “routine” treatment for long-term or pre-existing medical conditions – as long as local public healthcare providers have the capacity to provide it. It covers visits to EU countries, Montenegro and Australia. Treatment may not be entirely free, but you will get it on the same terms as citizens of the relevant country. 

So, in the EU, the perils of travelling without insurance are certainly reduced. But I’m not sure that May has fully computed the implications of the risk she has decided to take. For a start, though medical costs are potentially by far the most expensive element, travel policies cover much more than this. Key elements include cancellation and curtailment costs, theft and lost luggage and (with some of the best policies) the financial failure of your operator and airline.

But it’s not just about the money. Most important of all, I think, is the coordination which an insurer puts in place if you do need medical help. Treatment, hospital stays and repatriation will all be sorted by a specialist assistance company which will have all the necessary local contacts and experience. And in an emergency, when you or your travel companion may be suffering from shock or even trauma, that is deeply reassuring.


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