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Travel bug bit? What to know before you go and how to avoid being out of pocket when things go wrong

File Image: IOL

File Image: IOL

Published Sep 8, 2021


For many South Africans, travelling internationally has either been a distant memory, or nothing but a fantasy given the Covid-19 pandemic. But there is hope amidst the vaccine euphoria, ongoing easing of travel restrictions by countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, Germany, and others, and soon SAA will take to the skies again. A recent announcement by the airline noted that ticket sales will go live from September 2021 for flights in South Africa and to key destinations across the continent.

Are we likely to see SA travellers catching the travel bug once again?

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“Travelling is still very difficult during this time. Even with the easing of travel restrictions there are ongoing risks to manage,” explains Christelle Colman, spokesperson for Old Mutual Insure.

Risks include airlines changing or cancelling flights at the drop of a hat, being trapped in an unexpected lockdown in the country you are travelling to, or even being diagnosed with Covid-19 in a foreign country without familial support.

“Travel insurance does not cover all of the risks. Typically, for example, travel insurance policies don’t pay for medical expenses for Covid-19 related medical conditions,” says Colman.

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There are some fundamental things about cover that travellers need to know before going on their trip, given that not all travel insurance is equal. Below are Colman’s top tips if you are planning to travel internationally.

1. Stay up to date with the latest news

Staying informed is key for not only a safe trip, but also an enjoyable one.

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“Pay attention to the mood in the country where you are travelling to by keeping an eye on what is happening in the media, especially because things can change quickly,” says Colman. “Don’t assume that things take place in a bubble and that the conditions in the area where you are travelling to are unrelated to the rest of that country. When a lockdown is instated unexpectedly, it applies to the entire country, not just to a city or a province. The risk is that you could be stuck.”

She says it is not just about staying up to date on Covid-19 happenings, but also about the country’s political, geographical and economic situation (see point 2).

2. Familiarise yourself with your policy details

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Colman urges travellers to read through their travel insurance policy documentation, understand the benefits, and make sure it is fit for purpose.

If you are in a situation where you need to get out or evacuate from the country as quickly as possible, you need to know what your policy covers, and what it does not.

The most recent high risk and dangerous situation happened in Kabul, Afghanistan, when the Taliban took over the country’s capital in the last month.

“In most instances if you are travelling to a war-torn country or one where there is political risk, travel insurance won’t cover you. However, if you need to get out quickly, your policy may provide you with access to security awareness and information, but not necessarily security services to get you out of that country.”

She says that Old Mutual Insure has partnered with World Aware to provide services in the likelihood that clients are faced with such situations abroad.

But what happens if you need to evacuate because of a natural disaster, like a fire or flood?

Recently Europe experienced deadly floods as water swept through Germany, Belgium and even Italy. Similarly, Turkey and Greece experienced devastating and intense wildfires, with more than 100 places on fire in Southern Turkey.

“If the insured person has a medical condition, an injury or an illness that requires emergency treatment, this may trigger a medical evacuation.”

Colman says that the insured person would need to contact the emergency assistance listed on their policy for help.

“But be warned, if you are caught in an extreme condition, the emergency service may request you to leave wherever you are and get to a place where you are out of imminent danger so that they can safely evacuate you. For example, if you are stuck on the side of a mountain you would have to leave the area so that the helicopter personnel can collect you.”

3. Repatriation a possible reality: Budget for unforeseen expenses

Whether a living person or mortal remains need to be brought back, in both instances Covid-19 has severely impacted the speed at which this takes place, especially if the individual being repatriated has tested positive for Covid-19.

“There are more protocols to follow and hoops to jump through. The return of mortal remains especially in light of the pandemic has become challenging,” says Colman. “If anything, make sure to check with your travel insurance policy before you go whether they have a specialised partner who has the skills and technical expertise to deal with this aspect should this happen.”

Old Mutual Insure for example has partnered with Europ Assistance to step in, in such a circumstance.

If you need to be repatriated for a non Covid-19 related reason, say, because you had a heart attack, then it is likely that your policy will cover you. However, if you contract Covid-19 and need to be repatriated, it is unlikely that your policy will cover you.

“In this instance the policyholder would need to foot the bill for repatriation. This is not a cheap exercise and can cost anything up to R500 000.”

4. Accept that you are taking on extra risk

Colman explains that travellers who book flights during Covid-19 times must accept that they are doing so in a time of “heightened risk” where “anything can happen”.

Not taking note can lead to pitfalls.

“Policyholders are often irate when their claims are rejected if airlines issue vouchers for cancelled flights in these times. Airlines would rather issue vouchers than promise refunds. So what policyholders often don’t understand is that a voucher that has been issued means that the traveller can fly again if the airline resume flights in the future; in other words there has not been a financial loss to the policyholder. The cancellation benefit on a travel insurance policy only protects against a financial loss having taken place.”

Another risk that travellers need to be aware of is travel operators not being able to sustain their businesses, at the traveller’s expense.

“Companies that are involved in the travel industry, hotel groups, resorts and etc, pay for their expenses with the money that comes in now, for trips much further down the line. They typically don’t bank the money you pay today for your trip in say, nine months’ time, but rather use it to fund their day to day expenses and salaries. In other words, when you do go on holiday after having paid for it, your trip today is funded by individuals who are going on holiday in the future. The same is said for flights. If the airline or the business goes under, it becomes very complicated for travellers to get their money back.”

5. Use only reputable providers for travel insurance

Colman says that all these risks mean travellers should be wary of buying travel insurance from unreputable providers.

“The pandemic means we are in unchartered territory with new situations happening every day. Yet, there are some companies offering products that make promises, such as full and comprehensive cover against every risk in today’s climate. It is very important to be extra cautious of providers that offer special cover at an increased cost, because what is on the label may not be the same thing in the box.”

She says the golden rule is that if it is too good to be true, it usually is.

A good place to start is for travellers to understand what travel insurance does cover.

Typical cover includes baggage if it is lost, stolen or damaged, or delayed due to missed connections. Travel insurance also covers your cancellation and curtailment benefits, or if your flight has been delayed due to a problem with the aircraft. Emergency medical expenses (non Covid-19 related) will also be covered.

“The risks if you are travelling for business is usually lower, because people take fewer risks when travelling for business as opposed to leisure.”

However, if a person is insured for business travel, the benefit limits may be much more favourable given that companies want to make sure their employees are adequately covered for anything that may happen, and they don’t want the added risk if something happens to an employee who is overseas whilst on their watch.

“Remember, travel is still a luxury item and we don’t know what the world will look like in 12 months’ time. If you are travelling, make sure you err on the side of caution,” concludes Colman.