Maggots in your leg? Sure, we cover that

Have you heard the one about the guy with the steak strapped to his leg?

This was in Africa, and it's a fairly hideous story of a holiday gone wrong. The guy, a traveller, had been bitten by an insect and developed a weird lump on his leg, and he was worried about it. It was like there was something moving under his skin.

So he went to a local doctor and it was decided that it must be maggots. In his leg. The doctor had a solution: buy a piece of steak, and tie it to his leg. That would draw out the maggots, then he could just take some antibiotics and everything would be fine.

And you know what? It was.

The strangest part of this story is not that the doctor's solution worked. It's not even that the story is true. The strangest thing is that it was covered by the guy's travel insurance.

"We paid for the doctor's visit and the antibiotics," confirms Phil Sylvester, the travel safety specialist at Travel Insurance Direct. "But he had to pay for the steak himself."

You have to have travel insurance. You're crazy if you don't. I've paid for insurance for about 15 years of travel and have only ever made one claim - for a stolen snowboard, that was paid out - but I don't regret the expense for a second. All you have to think about is the cost of being airlifted to hospital from some far-flung country and it begins to make sense.

The internet is littered with hard luck stories from travellers who either haven't bought insurance or, more commonly, those who have but didn't read the fine print on their policy, meaning they haven't been covered for what they thought they were covered for.

The obvious solution, of course, is to buy a policy, and read the fine print.


"People tend to think they're covered for everything," says Phil. "As much as we implore people to read the product disclosure statements and the policy wording ... we actually mean that when we say it. We want people to understand it. We state very prominently what we cover and what we don't cover, and we try to make that as plain as possible."

That should be the easy part. The more difficult thing for travellers is selecting the right policy for their style of travel. What do you want to have covered? What are you not so concerned about?

"You just want to make sure that you have unlimited medical – that's a definite," says Kelly Herbert, a travel insurance specialist at 1Cover. "Most policies do that. Some companies will only offer one type of insurance, which is comprehensive. We have three policy options, which are priced differently for each, so you just need to be sure of what you're purchasing."

(While medical care is important, remember that if you're travelling through a country that has a Reciprocal Health Agreement with Australia – so if you're visiting Italy, Malta, New Zealand, the UK, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Ireland – then you'll be covered for medical care under that country's public health system. Just remember to take your Medicare card.)

What sets some policies apart from others? Very little, it turns out. As the internet has widened people's choices from the old and massively overpriced policies that the travel agents used to offer, so the insurers have had to become more competitive.

"Traditionally it's been a question about price," says Phil Sylvester, "but everybody's kind of levelled the playing field on that one now. People will then look at the headline benefits, what's covered, and to a certain extent the playing field is levelled on that as well.

"[When choosing a policy], have a look at the type of trip you're doing, and what you're taking with you, and try to match the benefits to that trip. Sometimes the cheapest policy is a false economy, because the policy might have a very low coverage amount for, say, electronic gadgets. You might only be covered for $100 per gadget, when you don't get much change out of $700 for a smartphone. Make sure you get the appropriate level of cover for what you're doing."

There are loopholes, of course – although most can be found by actually reading your policy. Plenty of people make the mistake of buying insurance when they've already begun their trip, meaning they miss out on certain benefits.

"A lot of travellers will go overseas and then buy their policy, but that means they don't get the features of a comprehensive policy that they need to buy before they leave," says Kelly Herbert. "We do have coverage that they can obtain if they have forgotten to get a policy before they went overseas, but it's not an ideal scenario."

The other common misunderstanding is that you're covered for absolutely anything that goes wrong. That, says Phil Sylvester, is not exactly the case.

"The biggest misconception is that you can be insured for loss of enjoyment," he says. "It got a bit difficult recently in Egypt, where there wasn't a 'do not travel' warning in place for Australians, [and] hotels were still open, businesses were still operating. If you felt uncomfortable and wanted to cancel your trip there, you couldn't claim that. The country is still open. Not having the dream holiday that you thought you were going to have is not covered by insurance."

That, however, doesn't mean you shouldn't lodge a claim anyway. "If you're not sure whether you're going to be covered for something," Phil says, "make a claim, because absolutely every case is judged on its merits. There are almost no hard and fast rules. Whether you're covered depends on so many factors that we always encourage people to claim."

Even if you've had to strap a steak to your leg.

What has been your experience with travel insurance providers? Have you been caught out with loopholes? Or had even your most bizarre claims paid out?