Who is CHOICE?
Set up by consumers for consumers, CHOICE is the independent consumer advocate that provides Australians with information and advice, free from commercial bias. Visit choice.com.au.
Read on to learn about:
- Travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Does international travel insurance cover COVID-19
- What to look for when buying travel insurance during COVID-19 (checklist)
- Travel insurance and Smartraveller advice
- Medical costs in countries with a reciprocal healthcare agreement
- Accidents and natural disasters
- How to make your travel plans COVID-safe
Travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic
As of 1 November 2021, fully vaccinated Australians can depart Australia without seeking an exemption.
This is not a return to the pre-COVID international travel environment. Border settings and quarantine requirements in other countries continue to change, often at short notice.
If you’re planning to travel overseas, you will need to consider the requirements of airlines, transit and destination countries, as well as arrangements for returning to Australia.
It has never been more important to secure travel insurance than in this current environment. You should always check details of your insurance coverage, particularly how it applies to COVID-19 and travel disruptions. You should also check if your destination requires compulsory insurance cover. For information about your destination, read our travel advice.
Does international travel insurance cover COVID-19?
Some travel insurers now offer limited cover for COVID-19. It will likely only cover medical, quarantine and cancellation costs if you or someone you’re travelling with tests positive to COVID-19. But travel insurance is unlikely to cover cancellation if you’re not able to travel due to lockdowns at home or your planned destination.
If you’re fully vaccinated, from 1 November you’ll be able to travel overseas without an exemption. However, transit and destination countries may still apply restrictions on your entry, such as requiring you to quarantine. Before you leave, check that you can get travel insurance for the destination you want to travel to.
Some tour operators or airlines are offering complimentary ‘COVID insurance’ when you book a ticket or tour with them. Always read your travel insurance policy to understand what it offers you. Complimentary ‘COVID insurance’ might only cover COVID-19, and nothing else. And it might be issued by an overseas insurance company, which means it’ll be subject to the regulations of that country. If that’s the case, it probably isn’t a good substitute for a comprehensive Australian travel insurance policy.
Even if you can’t get cover for COVID-19, taking out travel insurance is still essential. Travel sometimes doesn’t go as planned. If you get sick overseas, have to cancel your travel plans, or your luggage and essential documents get lost or stolen, and you don’t have travel insurance, you’ll be reaching into your own pocket to cover the costs. If you’re not convinced, see CHOICE advice on why you should get travel insurance.
Consider the following details before buying travel insurance.
- Does your policy cover you for the Smartraveller advice level for the countries you’re traveling to? Many destinations are currently under advice level three – ‘Reconsider your need to travel’ – and not all travel insurers cover it.
- Does your destination require proof that you’re insured for COVID-19 related medical expenses? For example, Singapore requires minimum coverage of SGD $30,000.
- Are you covered for the full duration of your trip? For example, can you extend your cover should you be overseas for longer than planned because your flight gets cancelled?
- Are stopovers on the way to your destination covered? Is there a restriction on the amount of time you can be at the stopover location? What happens if you remain stuck for an extended period?
- Are you covered if you can’t travel, or your stay gets extended, because you or your travelling companion tests positive to COVID-19? What if you have to go into isolation because you’re a close contact of someone who tested positive?
The Weaver* family were relieved they had travel insurance when they needed to cancel their holiday. They wanted to go skiing in New Zealand. But a few days before they were due to depart, their 12-year-old daughter Ruby got cold symptoms. A COVID-19 test showed she was positive. Ruby and her whole family had to isolate and their travel insurance paid their cancellation costs.
*This is a fictitious but realistic example
- Are you covered for cancellation costs if your business partner or a relative back home gets sick with COVID-19 and you need to return earlier than planned?
- What happens if you were going to stay with someone but they’ve contracted COVID-19? Or your accommodation or tour company gets closed down because of COVID-19? Are your additional expenses covered?
- If you’re planning to go on a cruise, be extra careful. Some travel insurers may not offer COVID-19 cover for multi-night cruises.
- Are you covered for claims caused by government travel bans, border closures, or mandatory quarantine/self-isolation requirements at your destination?
The Bradstone* family from Melbourne wanted to meet up with relatives in Queenstown, New Zealand. But because of a lockdown of their hometown, Melbourne, they needed to cancel their travel. Their travel insurer denied their claim for cancellation costs.
*This is a fictitious but realistic example
- If you’re an essential healthcare worker, including a pharmacist, nurse, doctor or paramedic, make sure you’re covered if your leave gets cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
To get answers to these questions, ask your travel insurer and read the product disclosure statement (PDS). For more information, read our advice on how to read the PDS.
Travel insurance and Smartraveller advice
Smartraveller, managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), assigns an overall advice level to 177 countries. This advice level can affect your travel insurance cover. The advice levels are:
- Level 1 – Exercise normal safety precautions. COVERED.
- Level 2 – Exercise a high degree of caution. COVERED.
- Level 3 – Reconsider your need to travel. CHECK.
- Level 4 – Do not travel. USUALLY NOT COVERED.
Destinations with advice levels 1 and 2 are usually covered by travel insurance. Destinations with advice level 4 usually are not. It varies with level 3. It’s important to check the reason that the country is under advice level 3, as you may not be covered for it. International travel has become more complex and uncertain. If the levels increase or decrease, this could affect travel insurance and what’s covered. Always check details of your insurance coverage.
Case study: Ignorance is no defence
A week after a volcanic eruption made world news, Sameer* booked a trip to Bali. He assumed the emergency would be over by the time he was due to fly a month later. Unfortunately, the volcano continued to erupt and Sameer’s flight was cancelled. His insurer declined his claim because he’d bought the flight and insurance after DFAT issued a travel alert about the volcanic eruption, and after it had been in the news.
*Name has been changed
Medical costs in countries with a reciprocal healthcare agreement
Australia has a reciprocal healthcare agreement with 11 countries. They are:
- the Netherlands
- New Zealand
- the Republic of Ireland
- the United Kingdom
In these countries, Australian travellers can access medically necessary health services in an emergency and for illnesses and injuries that can’t wait until you get home. Travellers from those countries also get help with their medical services when they visit Australia. For more information, visit servicesaustralia.gov.au.
You still may have to pay some fees for treatment and medication. And it’s important to remember the agreement isn’t a replacement for travel insurance.
For example, in New Zealand reciprocal health care doesn’t cover you for free or subsidised care by a general practitioner or ambulance. Also, if you get seriously ill while overseas, medical repatriation is very expensive and only covered by travel insurance.
Remember to take your Medicare card with you. You’ll need it, along with your passport, to prove that you’re eligible.
Accidents and natural disasters
Next to medical care and repatriation, travel insurance also covers you for cancellation costs in case of a disruption to your travel plans because of an accident or natural disaster.
In case you’re at fault in an accident, travel insurance can cover your legal costs and compensation for the other party. But even if you’re not at fault, it’s essential you have travel insurance for repatriation, loss of income and disruptions to travel plans.
In New Zealand, accident victims can’t sue a third party for compensation even if the other person is 100% at fault. Instead, the Accident Compensation Commission (ACC) covers the cost of medical care within New Zealand.
Most travel insurers cover natural disasters as long as you bought the policy before it became a ‘known event’. ‘Known event’ usually means an event that is publicised in the media or on official government websites. Insurers’ cover and definitions can vary so it’s best to check with your insurer on when they cut off cover for a specific event.
Travel insurance usually covers medical expenses in case of a natural disaster but you’re more likely to need cover for cancellation expenses, like if you’re unable to get to the airport due to bushfire, your flight is cancelled or delayed, or you’re stuck in transit. Not all travel insurers cover these scenarios so make sure you check.
Case study: Cancellation after earthquake covered
Ava O’Brien* was due to travel to Christchurch at the end of September 2010. In early September there was an earthquake in Christchurch. Aftershocks were ongoing, and the Mayor of Christchurch issued a warning to limit travel to the area. Ava cancelled her trip and made a travel insurance claim. But, as her flight wasn’t cancelled and her hotel stayed open, her insurer denied the claim, saying that ‘Change of mind’ was not covered. Ava went to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, which ruled in her favour, saying her decision to cancel her trip was reasonable under the circumstances.
*To protect privacy we have changed names and some details
How to make your travel plans COVID-safe
Travelling during a pandemic means you need to be prepared for your travel plans to be interrupted at short notice. As travel insurance may not protect you from government border closures, general lockdowns or quarantine requirements in your destination country, the key is to book only with providers that allow you flexibility should things change.
As travel insurance may not protect you from government border closures, general lockdowns or quarantine requirements in your destination country, the key is to book only with providers that allow you flexibility should things change or borders open later than anticipated.
- Check the rules for travelling to your destination. For example, are there any entry requirements? What are the vaccination requirements? And what type of travel insurance do you need?
- Consider going to just one or a few places in one country at a time rather than travelling to several countries.
- Read the terms and conditions before you book. Make sure you’re allowed a refund.
- Book flexible tickets for flights. Some airlines currently allow you to rebook cancelled flights – make sure you’re aware of the expiry date for those, and check the CHOICE article on flight refunds for more information.
- Make sure your hotel booking can be cancelled or at least changed.
- If you book through a travel agent or booking site, make sure they don’t charge an extra cancellation fee.
- Pay by credit card, as this allows you to pursue a credit card chargeback if something goes wrong.
- Keep on top of the latest travel advice and requirements at smartraveller.gov.au. Travel restrictions can change at short notice.
- If you have to cancel, check the CHOICE article on COVID-19 travel cancellations for advice on getting your money back.
- Take out travel insurance but make sure you can cancel it and at least get a partial refund for it if you have to cancel your travel or it’s cut short because of COVID-19 border closures.
Case study: Travel insurance covers cancellation due to COVID-19
Angela and Thomas Maier* booked one of the first flights out of Sydney to London to see their family and introduce their baby daughter to them. But a few days before their flight, Thomas was identified as a close contact of a COVID-19 case as he had visited a Sydney city gym that had an outbreak. Luckily the pair had travel insurance, which paid for the cancellation and rebooking costs for their flights and accommodation.
* To protect privacy we have changed names and some details.
Updated 12 November 2021