Travel insurance companies are scrambling to provide policies that offer coverage against COVID-19 for both domestic travel and overseas trips within the authorised trans-Tasman bubble.
They've been hit with a deluge of inquiries from Australians eager to hit the road or skies again but with the assurance of some kind of financial back-up for medical, quarantine and cancellation expenses.
"Now our COVID cover extends worldwide but with the caveat that the Australian Government must allow you to travel there," said Mike Stein, executive general manager of Cover-More, which is believed to be the first company in Australia to introduce pandemic insurance.
"So it will cover New Zealand, for example, but it won't yet cover the US. But you could buy a policy today for a trip to the US in 2023 and if, by then, the Government allows you to go there, you'll be covered. We've seen a significant kick-up in the last couple of weeks with the half-price airfares for domestic travel and then the news about the New Zealand bubble."
Most providers refused to cover medical expenses or cancellations due to the virus since it became a "known event" in late January 2020, but now there are a few policies on the market – and many more on the way.
None, however, protect travellers against sudden state border closures or overseas travel bans. Insurers say they're impossible risks to price, especially domestically with so little certainty and consistency between state governments.
Internationally, COVID insurance is also being demanded as a condition of entry by an increasing number of countries, including Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Polynesia, South Africa and Egypt.
David Le, a travel general manager at NIB, another company providing COVID coverage, says that as a result, there's now a much more heightened awareness among Australians of the need for travel insurance. "There's so much uncertainty surrounding COVID and people want the extra peace of mind and comfort," he said.
"So many of us have been cooped up at home for the last 12 months and want to travel and it's important for both our mental health and to stimulate the economy. The COVID cover does provide an additional cost but it's only a marginal increase."
Regular NIB insurance cover for a three-day trip to New Zealand in April, for example, would cost $37, and with a policy that includes COVID, $76.
Some of the airlines are also jumping into the fray in advance of hopes for an expanding bubble. Qantas has widened its international comprehensive travel insurance to provide unlimited COVID medical cover, and up to $2500 a person for quarantine and other related expenses.
Emirates is flying a different course, building COVID coverage into its fare, with up to $US500,000 ($A652,000) paid for overseas medical expenses and emergency evacuation. "We know people are yearning to fly as borders around the world gradually re-open, but are seeking flexibility and assurances should something unforeseen happen during their travel," said a spokesperson.
At the same time, more and more airlines and hotels are offering date changes or cancellations with refunds or credits. "Suppliers are being more flexible and, in some cases, you can now cancel up to within the last day or two of travel," said a spokesperson from the Insurance Council of Australia.
The coverage offered by competing policies does vary, however. Cover-More's point of difference, says a Flight Centre spokesperson is that it has a 24/7 command centre in Australia and a medical team of doctors and nurses. NIB, meanwhile, provides cover for extra childcare support and prolonged pet boarding.,
But travellers should carefully read the product disclosure statements of each one, or ask a trusted travel agent for advice, counsels Michelle Ashcroft, general manager of Phil Hoffman Travel.
"It's important to know what's covered by each one, and what's not," she said. "It's a mix out there, and while we've never been busier with advance cruise bookings, not all of the policies cover cruises. We believe insurance is very important for health and safety and financial peace of mind."