A week ago, two South African holidaymakers were shot at by men in southern Mozambique. One was seriously injured and was saved by emergency rescue.

Anything can happen at any time, anywhere, so for your own safety and that of your family, take heed of the following advice:

If you're planning a holiday or business trip, you must have a travel insurance policy. It can save you hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of rands in the event of an unforeseen catastrophe.

There are a number of ways to obtain travel insurance. If you pay for your air ticket with a credit card, free travel insurance might be automatically included, but depending which credit card you use for payment, this cover may be limited.

If your credit card covers you for medical-related expenses and accidents only, you'll require cover for other things. For flight cancellation and lost luggage, for instance, you will have to buy a top-up policy which includes these benefits. It's imperative to read the policy wording of the insurance product to determine whether you may need additional cover.

If you organise your trip via a travel agency, the agent can give you information on various travel insurance policies.

George Novis, managing director of Travel Insurance Consultants (TIC), says: "We recently paid a R3,8-million claim to one of our policyholders. An elderly woman was admitted to a UK hospital with a bowel obstruction. She suffered multiple organ failure, and was in hospital for months. The National Health Service wouldn't cover the costs of her treatment, and we covered all her medical expenses, and monitored her progress."

So how exactly does travel insurance work?

Says Novis: "We contract the services of the world's leading emergency assistance service providers to take care of our clients. Emergency assistance companies such as Europ Assistance, International SOS and Netcare take care of the payment of medical bills abroad, emergency evacuation and repatriation, in-hospital monitoring, emergency information and assistance, the return of mortal remains, and legal assistance."

We asked Dr Fraser Lamond, International SOS's medical director: A TIC policyholder is on holiday in London, when the train he's travelling on is bombed by terrorists. He's badly injured. How would International SOS respond to the emergency?

"We would activate our London Alarm centre once we were contacted and had located the patient. We would arrange for him to be sent to an appropriate medical facility, and would then ensure that he is monitored medically and that the necessary guarantee of payment is made to the hospital. TIC covers acts of terrorism in certain policies, and we'd validate the policy, before arranging repatriation once the patient was fit to travel. If necessary, he would have a medical escort, or be transported on a stretcher on the aircraft."

lDiana Sharp, Europ Assistance's operations manager, was asked: A TIC policyholder falls down some stairs in a shopping centre in the US and breaks a leg. How would Europ Assistance respond?

"We are normally contacted once the client reaches the hospital. We will contact our EA Washington office to arrange assistance as soon as possible.

Our EA Washington office will provide a guarantee of payment to the hospital. We will monitor the medical condition of the client, and, when agreed by the treating doctors and our medical team, we will repatriate the client.

Depending on his age and his recovery progress, we will also send a medical escort to assist. Normally the client's original tickets will not be valid at that point and we would have to purchase new business class tickets - a person with this type of injury would have to have extra leg room and be able to move around easily."

Shane Marais, Netcare's flight operations manager, spoke about how Netcare would respond if a TIC policyholder contracted malaria in Zambia: "The International Assistance Service would confirm the hospital and evaluate the current treatment with the doctor on call. They would then guarantee payment, either through local partners or directly.

"If the medical facility was unable to manage the patient, the Flight Service would be requested to move the patient to Johannesburg. If the patient was in a remote location, our local partner would arrange for an air ambulance to a city or town with an international airport, where we would meet them with our air ambulance.

"If the patient was in a city or town with an international airport, our local partners would transfer the patient in a ground ambulance to meet our aircraft. A direct flight to Joburg would be arranged and the patient would be admitted to a specialist at a requested hospital.

"The International Assistance Service would continue the management of the case by guaranteeing payment and medically monitoring the patient until he is well enough to be discharged."

  • Alissa Baxter is the communications officer at Travel Insurance Consultants. For further information, phone TIC at their call centre on 0860-100-484.