Travel insurance post 9/11 – as mystifying as ever, or even more so?

You never know when disaster might strike. Did you hear about the 51-year-old who, while forking a fondue in Switzerland, had a heart attack and was dealt a R1,4-million medical bill before he was stable enough to travel home? That's why you need travel insurance. (Photograph: DVO.com.)

DID you hear about the 51-year-old who, while forking a fondue in Switzerland, had a heart attack and was dealt a R1,4-million medical bill before he was stable enough to travel home? Or about the Johannesburger who went under the knife for an emergency appendectomy while travelling, but whose insurance refused to cover the operation because he “did not get a pre-authorisation code”? (“Can I show you the scar instead?”) What about the student who took a terrible tumble on a snowboard in France and had to suddenly conjure R155 000 to settle costs? Then there is the one about the public relations poppet who, sobbing hysterically, called Daddy – reverse charges – to arrange emergency pounds to replace her clothing after her Gucci-full luggage “simply disappeared, doll”, on a trip to London.

It is quite possible, in fact, that you have your own terrible tale of woe to tell about cancelled and/or diverted flights, bomb scares, lost luggage, missed connections, bankrupt operators, bad weather and/or medical dramas.

Indeed, horror travel stories abound, more so than ever with amplified security, increased people and plane volumes at airports, a weaker Rand, rising fuel costs and, rampant rifling and pilferage of luggage. Notably though, many of these nightmarish travel tales could conclude with the same old adage, “Insurance is like a handkerchief. You only appreciate its true value when it is too late. And it is worse when you think you have it, but it turns out that you do not”. The question surely begs then: With the slew of dreadful (uninsured) travel stories about, are travellers learning from their or others’ errors?

The Ombudsman For Short-Term Insurance website declares that travel insurance is still an “area in which great unhappiness arises”. Grievances comprise largely of travellers’ gripes about limitations of cover that only become apparent when claims arise. On the other hand, there are also plenty of grumbles from insurers who mutter about travellers who do not bother to find out beforehand exactly what restrictions apply to cover.

The problem, says Sedick Isaacs, general manager for home owners cover, personal accident and travel insurance at Absa, is that travellers do not ask enough questions about insurance: “The more questions that are asked, the less confusion there is about the cover you have or are thinking of purchasing. Travellers go to great lengths to research tours, hotels and airlines, and should do the same when it comes to travel insurance.”

Some however, believe that, post 9/11, not only have insurers had to extensively review policies, but consumers too have awoken to the value of having comprehensive travel insurance. They no longer naively assume that the free automatic cover that comes with tickets purchased with most credit cards will suffice.

This, says underwriting manager for accident and health at AIG, Jason Luyt, is mainly because travellers are increasingly uneasy about the threat of terrorism attacks. They are also aware of the possible implications of increased security measures, which result in delays, wrongful detention and serious travel curtailment.

Managing director of Travel Insurance Consultants (TIC), George Novis concurs: “There is an ongoing increase in consumer awareness. And, as products and services increase in cost (due to additional necessary cover for things like war, terrorism and rising international medical costs), consumers demand more quality products and investigate options more carefully.”

So, what kinds of questions are or should travellers be asking about travel insurance in this era of delay, dismay and dread? This, say the experts, depends, at least in part, on where you are travelling to and what you plan to do while you are there.

While cover for things like emergency medical assistance, medical evacuation or repatriation, emergency travel and accommodation arrangements, legal assistance abroad, passport and travel document replacement, and personal accident cover are widely considered essential – and have been for many years – other options are increasingly falling into the “must have” category too.

The likelihood that you will need to check a bag when you fly has, due to the plethora of new security rules, increased substantially since 9/11. Furthermore, there is greater chance that your checked bag will be “mishandled”, which is airline speak for missing, damaged, delayed or pilfered. For sure, as more and more people travel, and airports battle to reunite bags and bodies, smarter travellers – particularly those passing through airports notorious for their bag bungling and/or burgling, like Heathrow and OR Tambo – are increasingly selecting insurance that includes lost or delayed luggage protection.

Theft and pilferage of luggage has, says Novis, resulted in a huge increase in the volume of claims in recent years. Policies have been revised and reviewed accordingly. Just as the combination of rising international medical costs and a weakened Rand has resulted in increases of up to 30% in average medical claims in just a year – which has necessitated increases in medical travel insurance limits – travellers need to up their baggage cover limits too.

Likewise, with more and more delays due to increased airport traffic and security checks, travellers are advised to check the boxes alongside comprehensive travel delay and trip cancellation or curtailment on travel insurance forms too.

While the airports around London and New York are infamous for their tardiness, FlightStats – a service that tracks historical and real-time flight information – says you can also expect increasingly prolonged delays at countless other airports around the world too. Brasilia International, Cairo International, La Guardia Airport and Charles de Gaulle Airport are cited among the worst offenders.

But what about if, having planned and paid for a trip, you decide or are obliged to cancel your travel plans? While most travel insurance policies include some form of cancellation cover, a few tour operators add to the appeal of their tours by offering their own cancellation protection.

Insight Vacations’ Gold Seal Additional Protection plan is, says the company’s national sales manager, Shelley Phillips, designed to “provide our clients with peace-of-mind cancellation protection”.

By selecting the R590 per person cancellation option, which is payable with their deposit, the full amount of clients’ deposits/and or payments made to Insight Vacations is refunded should travellers cancel their tours for any reason, prior to departure from South Africa. The cancellation option however, only covers land arrangements made by the tour operator and excludes airline offers.

“But, in addition to the cancellation cover,” adds Phillips, “should you or your travelling companion leave the tour at anytime for personal reasons or be required to return to South Africa due to injury, sickness or death, you will be refunded R90 per person per day for the unused portion of the tour. A doctor’s note is required in the case of ill-health.”

So cancellation is a risk you can cover yourself for, but what about the threat of terror attacks? Whereas in the 1900s most travel insurance policies had exclusion clauses – which meant that if you were affected by a terrorist act or civil unrest your insurance was invalidated, many policies now offer cover – albeit at a premium. While some insurance fundis say that the value of terrorism cover depends on where your travel will take you – if you are going to admire the cherry blossoms in Japan, terrorism might not be as important as it is if you are going to Bali – it has received increasing attention from underwriters.

“Terrorism cover has become an important benefit to consumers,” says Luyt. “AIG offers high medical limits on all our travel products. These not only include cover for terrorism but also cover the actual expense of any evacuation and repatriation required.”

TIC is on a similar wavelength: “The provision of insurance cover resulting from war and terrorism became a hot topic (after 9/11) and this is still the case,” explains Novis. “Some insurers do not provide cover for claims resulting from war and terrorism, while others provide limited cover. Some insurers though, have the capacity to provide full cover, as we do.”

Hijack, kidnap, wrongful detention and identity theft cover are among other relative horrible-Johnny-come-lately travel insurance options, reflecting some of the realities of the 21st century. In contrast to old style insurance, many travel insurance policies also offer natural disaster cover as a top-up option nowadays. You can even get cattery and kennel cover with some travel policies.

But, in light of the recent demise of airlines like Nationwide, Aloha, Skybus and ATA, what about cover protecting travellers from the financial collapse of an airline or other travel operator?

While some international policies cover travellers against bankruptcy or default of carriers or tour operator, this type of cover is still only under investigation in SA. Interestingly, where airline bankruptcy coverage is offered abroad, some airlines are excluded. So, if you are ever offered this kind of cover, be sure to check the list provided by the insurance company to determine which airlines are excluded.

The Tourism Act compels travel agents for offer their clients travel insurance. According to the Association of South African Travel Agents, affiliated agents are “well versed in insurance requirements and facilities”. This however, does not necessarily mean that they will give you all the answers, particularly if you do not ask the right questions.

Ideally, says general manager of product and contracting at Flight Centre, Matthew Fubbs, comprehensive travel insurance cover should start the minute you leave for your holiday (and not only when you have passed through passport control). It should also ensure that you do not have to pay any relevant bills upfront payment (with the exception of a small excess) and, most importantly, the policy should give you complete peace of mind.

“As we say at Flight Centre, if you cannot afford travel insurance, you cannot afford to travel,” he says.

Tips on travel insurance

1. Do not take any chances. Accept that whether you are out of the country for four hours or four months, accidents are never planned, ill health can come on suddenly and bad things happen – even to good people.

2. Do your research. Dedicate as much time and deliberation to selecting your policy as you do to planning the rest of the trip. Choosing the wrong insurance could be as bad as not being covered at all.

3. Know exactly and absolutely what you are getting. “Obtain a copy of the policy wording, which explains the scope of cover, conditions relating to cover, terms of cover and what is excluded from cover,” says Absa’s Sedick Isaacs. “It is important that the policy wording is read and understood. If anything is unclear you should contact the underwriter to provide clarity.”

4. Personalise your policy. Think carefully about the kind of coverage you need. What are the risks associated with wherever you are going and whatever you are going to do there? Is this a skiing holiday? Are you travelling with children? And do not make the mistake of not taking out the appropriate cover for the exact length of your trip.

5. Check the costs. You usually get what you pay for. Do not buy your policy based solely on the cost of the premium. And, with regard baggage cover, says Isaacs, it is important to take note of the maximum amount payable per item or specific items like laptop, cell phone, camera, sunglasses etc, as these are limited: “If the baggage cover is not adequate to cover all your valuables then other cover, such as all risks, should be purchased.”

6. Disclose all pre-existing medical conditions. “These are not generally covered automatically by travel insurance,” says AIG’s Luyt. Discussed conditions with the insurance company. Do not lie. Emergency health insurers have very stringent rules in regard to pre-existing medical conditions. If something goes wrong and you have not disclosed pre-existing medical conditions, you are likely to lose your coverage and no payments will be made.

7. Divulge planned activities. If you plan to engage or participate in any sporting activities or hazardous activities while on holiday, you need to check with the underwriter whether these activities are covered. Some underwriters do extend cover but at an additional premium and limited benefits. Ask questions and be prudent.

8. Get a copy of the insurer’s emergency procedures. Know what happens if you need assistance. Ensure that the emergency number provided operates from wherever you are – and in your language.

9. Check out the underwriter of the policy. “You should find out if the company has a good reputation and if it is financially sound,” recommends TIC’s George Novis.

10. Find out up front how to lodge a claim. This will help you follow all necessary steps. For example, says Isaacs, if your baggage is lost or delayed by the airline you must obtain a property irregularity report from the airline and also “establish what compensation you will receive from the airline because, sometimes travel insurance only covers a portion of a claim”.

11. Keep relevant documentation with you. Your insurer will provide you with an insurance policy identity card as proof of insurance. Do not leave this at the hotel. Keep it on your person. You never know when you might need it. It is also a good idea to make two copies of your policy. Keep one copy with you and leave a copy with someone at home.

12. Provide vital information. If you need emergency assistance while travelling, contact the emergency number and provide your travel insurance policy number, your current location, a contact number where you can be reached, the nature of your problem and what assistance is require.

And, if you still want to travel after you have been through all of that, bon voyage!

First published in The Weekender.

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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One Response to Travel insurance post 9/11 – as mystifying as ever, or even more so?

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