The Association of British Travel Agents (1) says that 9.9 million holidaymakers travelled abroad in 2018 either without the right travel insurance cover or with no travel insurance at all. Which is a worryingly huge number by any standards.
There are a number of reasons for this trend but the underlying factor seems to be that people consistently undervalue the medical cover in a travel insurance policy. It's a dangerous assumption that standards of medical provision around the world are the same as in the UK. In fact, because medical care in the UK is overwhelmingly free there is likely a conscious disconnect between the provision of health services and the cost of it. Despite the endless news coverage about the NHS, people don't actually give the cost a thought at all. And this really is a big mistake because in most of the world medical care is most certainly not free.
The Foreign and Commonwealth office have endless amounts of good advice and a quick check on their website before you travel is always a good idea.
It's fairly obvious that if you're travelling to countries with exceptionally low average incomes or remote parts of the world it is going to be a challenge to get adequate medical care. But even across western Europe the quality and nature of medical care can vary quite considerably. For example, if you become sick in Spain without travel insurance the likelihood is that you will be placed in a public hospital rather than a shiny private hospital (which is where almost everyone with travel insurance is sent). And the standards are generally pretty high because an insurance company is paying the bill.
Of course, as a European citizen you are entitled to medical care on the same basis as the Spanish. But don't just assume that medical care in Europe works the same way as in the UK. It doesn't. In Spain, while the clinical care in a public hospital itself is generally free, your stay in the hospital is not. The patients family are usually expected to help with the non-medical care which often means bringing in meals and can even go so far as to change the sheets.
In France (although the medical care is free) French citizens are expected to pay up front for the cost and then reclaim this from the authorities, and unless you have already experienced French bureaucracy you're in for a bit of a shock.
Another common misconception is that the EHIC will cover you for any medical costs. Not true. The EHIC simply means you will get the same deal as the local residents. If it's free for them, it's free for you. If they have to pay, so do you. If you do have travel insurance then having an EHIC does often mean that you won't have to pay the policy excess if you need to make a claim - so that's good.
Are you willing to bet on that? Why not take a nice little holiday to Colombia, Panama, Cuba or Venezuela. Explain that you have no travel medical insurance and no means of paying either. Then see what happens. Who knows: you may be lucky. If you don't have travel insurance and something goes wrong, you will most likely have to cover the cost yourself unless the country you are in offers free medical care.
You'll need to check the specific terms and conditions of the policy you're planning on buying as the maximum value and also circumstances under which your personal possessions will be covered by your travel insurance will differ from one insurer to the other.
Again, you really need to double check what you are buying in terms of cover. A lot of travel insurance policies have adds-on. These are the options you can tick or untick to tailor your policy to your trip and your needs. for example if you are skiing you need to look for the option for winter sports insurance. Take a minute to read what it covers you for, as well as what you must make sure you do for your insurance policy to be valid should you need to claim (for example, you'll need to ski with a ski helmet. Drinking and skiing can also invalidate your policy...)
OK so let's see if we can find a situation where travel insurance would be an unnecessary expense. Firstly, I'm not going to be recommending anything here and I am certainly not giving advice. I'm simply going to see if I could plan a trip where my particular circumstances and personal attitude to risk mean I would consider not buy a travel insurance policy.
Right, I'm going to need go somewhere nice and safe with great medical care and a benevolent and caring state medical system. Paris then.
I'm young, fit and healthy with no medical conditions and I haven't been to the doctors in a long time. I've got my EHIC card and I'm travelling alone on Easyjet this afternoon and I don't need to be anywhere in a hurry. I live 10 minutes from the airport so it's very unlikely I'm not going to get there on time. If I miss one bus I just get on the next and if the road is blocked because of an accident I could probably walk it at a push. Plus I'm going to make sure I arrive three hours before my flight because err... I like airports. So I don't want Missed Departure cover.
If the flight is delayed then I should get looked after by the airline under the EU Passenger Rights Regulations so claiming under the Delayed Departure cover is probably not worth the effort.
I have no family or close relatives that might force me to cancel if they unexpectedly fall ill so I've decided I don't want Cancellation Cover either. I also don't want Airline Failure cover because Easyjet looks like a pretty solid, well run profitable company to me.
I'm travelling light (hand luggage only) so nothing to get lost or delayed by the airline. It's summer and I'm wearing just a cheap T-shirt, some jeans with a bag full of M&S Spencer underwear (nice and clean of course). I don't have a fancy smartphone, just a £25 doro on pay-as-you-go with £10 in credit. The total value of everything I'm taking is less than £150 which is a common travel insurance excess. So if I made a personal possessions claim I wouldn't get anything back anyway. So that's Personal Possessions cover I don't want either then.
I'm staying with a friend for a week so I haven't booked any accommodation but obviously I've brought my credit card with me. If I need to curtail (cut my trip short) and return home at short notice I've checked the Easyjet website and the prices are currently about £25 for a return flight and there is plenty of space. So I don't want Curtailment or Trip Abandonment cover.
Well there can't be a lot left on a travel insurance policy by now. Let's see.
That probably covers most of the main benefits of a standard travel insurance policy except for Emergency Medical Cover and Legal Protection Cover, oh and errr, Hijack.
So what does this benefit cover and do I need it. Obviously the cost of ambulances, medicines, hospital treatment and care, surgery, investigations, consultants, blood tests and so on. But often it also includes the costs of a relative to stay with you while you are ill and repatriation costs to get you back home or to a UK hospital - or should the worst happen, to get your body home. In addition, this section of cover usually includes Personal Accident which means if you lose a limb you get a lump sum payment. Usually in the tens of thousands of pounds. Yes, we'd all rather keep the limb but at least its something.
This section of cover also usually includes Personal Legal Liability which covers you up to a certain amount (usually in the millions) against someone else that you may have injured suing you. It's in the millions because the potential liabilities can be substantial especially if someone becomes permanently disabled because of something you did.
In 2012 a jetski user accidentally ploughed into a father of two teenage girls while he was swimming.
So that leaves Legal protection cover. This is sort of the other side of Personal Legal Liability but it covers my costs if I want to sue someone else for injuring me. So do I want this then. Hmm.
Let's evaluate so far. Most of the benefits such as Cancellation or Personal Possessions cover I probably wouldn't use anyway but there are a couple that it would make me feel a bit happier to have. There are benefits within the Emergency Medical cover I'd rather like and I'd feel more comfortable if I also had the Legal protection. Plus what about my lovely teeth. If one of these beauties gets knocked out and doesn't go back in real quick I may lose it forever.
Sorry, I can't go without mentioning this one. My favourite travel insurance benefit of all is Hijack cover. What a brilliant and totally indispensable feature of many travel insurance policies. Whenever I buy travel insurance I always make sure Hijack cover is included as standard. What comfort. There you are sitting on the plane with the hijackers prowling up and down the isle brandishing their weapons. But hey, no worries. I can bask in the reassuring confidence that for every 12 hours as a hostage my insurance policy will pay out £50. Be sure to look out for this one.
So is it worth it then? There are a couple of elements of a travel insurance policy that sort of appeal to me but how would I feel about travelling without them. Well let's think about that in the context of the price. How much is a 7 day policy to Paris going to cost me. £20?
Let's take a quick look on one of the comparison sites and see what prices we get. Let's try the meerkat one. Right, so that's a ... 23 year old off to ... Paris ... tomorrow for a ....week, ...no medical issues. I don't want ...baggage or ...cancellation or the other benefits I mentioned above. Let's see what we have.
Woah.... let me get this straight. I can buy a policy that includes a load of benefits that I don't want but also includes cover that I actually wouldn't mind having, for only £4.29. Well there you go. Despite paying for bits that I'm not going to use, on balance isn't this what they call a 'no brainer'.
The thing is that the set of circumstances I needed to create in order to even consider not buying a travel insurance policy is so narrow that I'll never ever find myself in that situation. Firstly I lied about having a doro phone. Nothing against doro because they are actually great phones, but really! Actually I have a rather snazzy iPhone...rose gold ...mmm :) and I wouldn't be seen dead in a cheap T-shirt.
But look, it's up to you. Perhaps you take plenty of trips where you think that you wouldn't need a travel insurance policy. All I can say is think very carefully. And if you're only saving a few quid perhaps it's better to just get one anyway. You never know.