Travel insurance and illness: Beware the fine print and age limits

A few weeks ago, visiting Ireland, I received the kind of text message every traveller dreads.

My lovely father, ill with cancer, had suddenly deteriorated and was not expected to live more than a couple of days.    

The mad scramble began to try to get my husband and I back in time to say our goodbyes. Unfortunately for us, it wasn't a matter of moving our tickets forward. It was school holidays – all the flights to Australia from Dubai were totally booked out. Even first and business class.  

I sat on the phone with a wonderful Qantas representative for 90 minutes as she tried to work out every possible way to get us back. In the end, the only solution seemed to buy a mixture of first and business class seats via London and LA that would cost an extra $7000 each.    

So I called my travel insurance company. They were sympathetic. But when I told them my father's age was 87 they were regretfully unable to help. The fine print says that there's a cut-off point of 85 years for an immediate relative.     

Ultimately we found another route that got me to Hobart in time to hold my father's hand when he died. The travel insurer followed up with a kind letter apologising for not being able to help but pointing out the relevant clause in the policy.    

It didn't even occur to me when we set out on the trip that there was an age limit for such things, but I suppose it makes sense. "All policies are risk-based," said Natalie Ball of website, when I consulted her afterwards. "There's a much higher risk base in that age bracket that someone will fall ill."     

The number of travellers annually who may be affected by an elderly relative's illness would be in the multi-millions.     

 Natalie says the cut-off age is sometimes as young as 75 and most often 80, although some policies are more generous than others. "Cut-off varies quite a bit for annual multi-trip policies," she says. "In terms of returning home due to an elderly relative taking a turn for the worse, provided it is not the result of a known risk [ie pre-existing condition] there is no age restriction with Insure and Go, Budget Direct or Covermore. However, policies underwritten by Allianz exclude family emergency if the relative is 85 years or older."    


In my father's case, cancer would have been a pre-existing condition. If you are the traveller and you have cancer, for instance, it's very difficult to find cover. "Pre-existing" refers to any illness you've sought medical advice or treatment for in the last two years (or as long ago as 10 years for some policies). So, if you've recently recovered from, say, breast cancer, you need to look at the policy carefully. Any complications at all while travelling, even if unexpected or vaguely related, may end up costing you a fortune.    

Natalie tells me that if my father had been 70, with no pre-existing medical conditions and died suddenly of something unrelated to age, such as a car accident, my insurance would have reimbursed me for the first class tickets if I had a letter from the airline stating it was the only possible way I could get back in the circumstances.     

 This led me to ask about age limitations on policies. If I wanted to take my robustly healthy 85-year-old mother (who has barely had a tooth cavity) on a cruise, for instance, would she be able to get travel cover?  "Age loadings for policies kick in at about 65," Natalie tells me.    

Isn't that a bit 1950s? I ask. After all, it's after 60 that many older Australians, cashed up after years of hard work, take to the road. They're fit, healthy and adventurous. "Once only a handful of policies covered you over 65," she says. "Now there are new products such as Boomer that cater to ageing people." Still, if you're 85 the risk is all yours.    

It seems crazy that more policies aren't rethinking age limitations. The older travellers, presumably having wisdom on their side, take insurance seriously. A whopping 28 per cent of Australians travel internationally without any cover at all. And who might they be? "The youth market that feels invincible," Natalie says.    

I still wouldn't go anywhere without insurance, but I remind myself not to be lazy about checking the fine print. 

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