Falling Ill Abroad: A Quick Traveller’s Guide

Even the best laid plans cannot rule out bad luck. Anyone can fall ill while travelling, whether it is caused by eating something that doesn’t agree with you, too much sun or catching an unpleasant virus.

Without being too doom and gloom, it pays to be prepared for the worst. Far from home, with different medical systems and languages to contend with on top of feeling unwell, it is sensible to at least be armed with some useful knowledge should you fall ill.

Most travellers have to pay for medical care

However the health system is funded in your home country, the same rules are unlikely to apply abroad. Wherever you go, you will have to pay for medical care – everything from doctor’s appointments to prescriptions to hospital admissions.

Because they are used to free public healthcare, UK travellers are often particularly shocked by how much medical treatments can actually cost. According to Thismoney.co.uk, a stay in a Spanish hospital can cost £3,000 just for one night.

There are exceptions, such as the EU-wide European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which entitles every EU citizen to free care across the union. But the level of free care differs from country to country, determined by whatever free healthcare is available domestically in each nation. So you still might end up having to pay for quite basic care, depending on where in Europe you are.

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Health insurance does not cover you abroad

This catches many travellers out – they assume that because they have health insurance, they will be covered if they fall ill abroad. Most health insurance policies are only valid domestically, and leave the job of offering cover for medical care abroad to travel insurance companies. Which leads us nicely on to…

Choose the right kind of travel insurance

As well as providing cover for things like flight cancellations, lost luggage and property damaged in transit, travel insurance is mainly designed to give you protection if you have to seek, and are charged for, medical assistance while abroad.

The exact details of what is included in the cover will vary from policy to policy, so it is important to read the small print. Most are designed to offer a standard level of cover that will pay out if you need to see a doctor, pay for a prescription, or go to A&E. They also provide emergency cover if you fall seriously ill and need to be repatriated for full treatment, with indemnities often running into the millions for this purpose.

However, most policies will also exclude certain things. If you break your leg skiing, don’t expect a payout if you only have a standard travel insurance policy – they will exclude specific things that carry a heightened risk, and you have to pay extra to include them.

The same applies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. If you fall ill abroad, a medical condition can invalidate your travel insurance if you haven’t declared it, even if the illness has nothing to do with your condition.

It is therefore very important to be upfront about existing conditions you have. Medical conditions travel insurance is offered by specialist providers, and will cover specific treatments you might need that are related to that condition.

It is better to be safe than sorry, after all.


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