COVID-19 and international travel from Australia: Will travel insurance cover you?

With higher vaccination rates and a vaccine passport for international travel on the horizon, along with less restrictive quarantine for travellers returning to Australia, the prospect of overseas travel grows ever brighter, but there are changes to travel insurance that require attention.

Since the coronavirus became a "known" event late in January 2020, a travel insurance policy purchased after that date might not cover you for events related to the pandemic. If your trip is cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions, or if a government lockdown caused by a fresh outbreak forces a change of travel plans and extra costs, in general you won't be covered, although some insurers offer COVID cancellation at extra cost.

If you are travelling in a country with a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade "Do not travel" warning, in general your insurance will not cover your overseas medical costs if you fall sick or are hospitalised with COVID-19. Nor will you be entitled to medical repatriation if you contract the virus. Some travel insurers, for example Cover-More, Medibank and NRMA, make an exception in the case of New Zealand, since this is the only country that does not currently have a DFAT "Do not travel" warning.

Apart from those conditions, travel insurance is essentially the same as in pre-pandemic days. Your cover depends on what plan you've signed up for but typically, if you slip over on wet tiles in your hotel bathroom in Croatia and break an arm, if you have an accident in your hire car and get charged the excess, if your camera falls prey to a grab-and-run thief, you're entitled to make a claim.

Even though you're probably left without insurance cover if you do fall sick with COVID-19, in some countries, particularly in Europe, you might be entitled to treatment at reduced cost thanks to Australia's reciprocal health care agreements. These agreements exist between Australia and Belgium, Finland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Republic of Ireland, Slovenia, Sweden and the UK. They cover you for essential medical care in those countries' public health systems, but that may not include daily hospital fees. Some of those agreements also cover the cost of prescribed medicines, in others the cost is only partially covered. To take advantage of a reciprocal health care agreement you need to prove you're a permanent Australian resident who is eligible for Medicare. A passport and current Medicare card will do the job.

Emirates is offering a generous medical insurance policy that covers you for medical expenses and emergency evacuation, trip cancellation due to you or a relative falling sick with COVID-19 and $US150 per day for up to 14 consecutive days if you test positive for COVID-19 and undergo mandatory quarantine overseas. Cover is included when you buy your flights either on, through Emirates' contact centres, retail offices or via your travel agent. Cover is valid for the duration of your return trip or up to 365 days after departure. Rival Etihad has a similar policy, offering cover for medical expenses and quarantine costs if you're diagnosed with COVID-19 while away from your home country.

For many travellers, the best reason to stump up for travel insurance is medical cover. Even though you probably won't be covered if you contract COVID-19 overseas, travel insurance is essential. Medical costs for the uninsured can be life-changing, and you don't want to rely on crowdfunding to repay your hospital debt. In the US a single day in hospital costs an average $US3000 ($A4075). Since you're probably not going to be passing through the door unless it's an emergency, you'll need to add to that figure the cost of lab tests, X-rays, surgical procedures, operating room and post-surgical costs, medications and doctors' and specialists' fees. Some European countries are not much cheaper.

Lock in travel insurance as soon as you make your booking. We live in uncertain times, and if your travel plans change for non-pandemic related reasons, or if unforeseen personal circumstances force a cancellation, you should be covered.

Every travel insurance policy is different. Before you commit, read the insurer's product disclosure statement, freely available online. If you have doubts, call the insurer and ask any questions you need answered. For added certainty, get a response in writing.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Medicare as a travel insurer. This should have said Medibank.