Author Mark Richards

Young British holidaymakers are increasingly going overseas without travel insurance – risking hefty bills for treatment and the even more expensive cost of getting home.

According to a survey for the Association of British Travel Agents around 40% of young people travel abroad without travel insurance – potentially risking medical bills of thousands of pounds if they are ill or injured.

ABTA surveyed 2,043 British people and found those aged 18-24 were most likely to go abroad without insurance. Overall, it is estimated that perhaps 25% of holidaymakers travel without insurance, with the proportion gradually increasing.

Clearly, it would be easy to quote individual horror stories as the BBC did in their recent article – in some cases, families have had to resort to internet appeals to pay medical bills.

Commenting on the survey, ABTA’s Mark Tanzer said,

“Rather than have to resort to the kindness of strangers, holidaymakers should make sure they have the right insurance in place. Often families have to raise thousands for repatriation – that is why it is so worrying to see an increase in young people travelling without insurance.”

What about coming home for treatment?

Supposing you are ill or injured on holiday and need to come home for treatment. Do not look to the Government to fly you home: without travel insurance, you could be faced with a bill for an air ambulance – which could be well into five figures.

Foreign and Colonial Office spokeswoman Susan Crown said,

“The FCO cannot pay medical bills if you are hospitalised abroad, nor can we fly you home. Take out an appropriate insurance policy and make sure you know what it covers you for. It can seem like an additional expense, but compare it to what you could pay if something goes wrong.”

But I have an EHIC card…

Many people mistakenly think they do not need travel insurance if they are travelling in Europe as they have an EHIC card. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

EHIC stands for European Health Insurance Card. Some people refer to it as an E111 but technically, that is just the card which applies to tourists: road hauliers, for example, should have an E110 card.

How does an EHIC card work?

The card is issued free of charge and allows anyone insured by – or covered by – a statutory social security scheme of the European Economic Area countries and Switzerland to receive medical treatment in another member state. The treatment will be available free or at a reduced cost, should it become necessary during their visit.

An EHIC card covers accident and illness and also covers chronic pre-existing conditions (so it would, for example, cover something like necessary kidney dialysis).

There are, however, some important points to note: it entitles you to receive treatment free, or at a reduced cost, and it only covers treatment which would normally be covered by the statutory healthcare cover in the country you are visiting.

If you are visiting France, for example, a doctor or dentist would normally expect you to be directly for treatment. However, they will give you a treatment form which will allow you to claim back up to 70% of the cost of treatment. (Remember to keep your receipts though.)

In Spain and Switzerland dental treatment is not usually available under the state system, while in Cyprus a doctor can issue you with a free prescription but – unless you go to a state pharmacy – you could be charged to collect the prescription.

To use a colloquial phrase, taking an EHIC card with you when you visit a European country is a ‘no-brainer.’ It can save you a significant amount of money, with recent figures from the Foreign Office suggesting that surgery for a broken leg can be around £6,000. But – and this is a big and potentially costly but – an EHIC card is not a substitute for travel insurance. The rules of each country you visit are slightly different and even if you are able to claim back a proportion of your bill, you could still be left seriously out of pocket.

What will happen to EHIC cards after Brexit?

What will happen to EHIC cards after brexit?

A good question: we have now given notice of our intention to leave the EU, and with negotiations due to start 11 days after the General Election, the UK is currently on course to leave by 29th March 2019.

For now, nothing changes – triggering Article 50 merely starts the process of leaving the EU, so for summer 2017 and 2018, the EHIC card is unaffected. But where does that leave your Spanish summer holiday in 2019?

A major determining factor will be whether the UK’s negotiations ultimately trigger us leaving the European Economic Area as well as the EU. The EHIC card is not an EU initiative and countries such as Norway and Iceland are not in the EU – but are members of the EEA and do accept the EHIC card. And yes, the UK could well adopt this model.

But – I apologise, all articles including references to UK/EU negotiation seem to include a lot of ‘buts’ – the European Economic Area allows for freedom of movement. With a large section of the Conservative parliamentary party against freedom of movement, the UK could well find itself outside the EEA by April 2019.

Could we copy Switzerland?

Could we then follow the Swiss model? Switzerland is not in the EU or the EEA but still accepts the EHIC card. Clearly, we could – but whether it would happen the moment the UK left the EU is open to doubt. It would simply be one of many, many negotiations to be concluded. As ‘a Government spokesman’ helpfully said, “At every step of the negotiations we will work to ensure the best possible outcome for the people of the UK, including those travelling to and living in the European Union.” So ‘no comment’ basically…

“At every step of the negotiations, we will work to ensure the best possible outcome for the people of the UK, including those travelling to and living in the European Union.”

So ‘no comment’ basically…

What if there is no agreement with the EU?

If there is no agreement, travel insurance premiums for Europe will increase significantly. At the moment they are relatively low as insurers only foot the bill for a proportion of the vast majority of treatments, but without an agreement similar to Norway’s or Switzerland’s in place premiums would be certain to rise.

How much does travel insurance cost?

Let me now declare a personal interest. Having finished university my eldest son is now travelling in South America for four months, visiting Chile, Peru, Ecuador and – adding to the grey hair of his parents – Colombia.

We told him he must have insurance and he duly found some for £50. Sadly a quick internet search revealed that the company in question had an almost 100% record of refusing to pay claims – so doing some anecdotal research if you are travelling outside Europe is essential. Ultimately, we paid £145 for his policy, which covers virtually everything.

Most people, however, are more likely to go to Benidorm for two weeks. Checking online yesterday afternoon, a 21-year-old male travelling to Spain for two weeks and including gadget cover had premiums starting at £11.48 – which included medical cover of up to £10m. That should not be taken as a quotation specific to you if you are 21, but merely as an indication of current premiums: the key point is that premiums are not excessive, especially when you compare them to the potential expenses you could face.