Travel insurance & health cover: What you need to know

Buying travel insurance? Don’t forget about your pre-existing medical conditions.

Plane flying

Travel insurance policies are packed with ifs and buts. By default, insurers won’t cover you for problems relating to most health conditions you developed before you bought the policy – which can leave you on the hook for massive overseas medical bills. We tell you what you need to do before you depart.

Two weeks before a trip to South Africa, a Consumer member was diagnosed with a blood clot in the leg and was scheduled for emergency surgery. The couple cancelled their holiday plans but non-refundable expenses left them nearly $9000 out of pocket.

The couple submitted a travel insurance claim, which their insurer declined as it believed the blood clot was related to the member’s pre-existing vascular disease.

When the couple took out the travel policy, they were offered coverage for pre-existing conditions for $300 extra, but decided against it. This choice, their insurer said, cost them $8700.

Pre-existing conditions

Whether illness or injury strikes pre- or post-departure, the last thing you want to hear is that you’re on your own because you lack cover for pre-existing conditions.

The definition of a pre-existing medical condition is very broad: it includes every diagnosed disease and injury you’ve suffered, whether you’re familiar with the proper medical terms or not (see “Medical jargon”). It can also include related conditions and undiagnosed illnesses.

Even if you think your doctor’s given you the all clear, insurers can decline your claim if they can link the cause of your condition to a sign or symptom experienced before you purchased your policy.

When buying a policy, you’ll need to tell your insurer:

  • all health conditions you’ve been diagnosed with
  • all injuries
  • any changes to the medication you take (typically in the past year)
  • any symptoms for which you’ve sought medical attention (typically in the past 3 years)
  • any tests you’ve undergone or any ongoing investigations
  • any health conditions of immediate family members, including those not travelling.

You’ll also need to get in touch if anything changes after you buy the policy. Failing to do so may allow an insurer to refuse a claim.

Price variation

After you give a medical history, insurers will either exclude cover for anything relating to the conditions you’ve listed or offer you cover for a specified additional cost.

The same medical history can prompt very different responses from insurers. In our sample of 10 travel insurers, some companies charged hundreds of dollars more than others for cover (see our Table).

Can you tell an infarction from an infection? If not, you may need to brush up to get sufficient cover from your travel insurer.

For example, Webjet didn’t require any extra payment for our 34-year-old’s six health conditions. At the other end of the scale, Air New Zealand (underwritten by Cover-More) asked for $133 extra and excluded any cover for insomnia.

Two companies, Expedia and Travel Insurance Direct, have a list of covered pre-existing conditions in their policies. However, their lists weren’t sufficient for either of the two travellers in our case studies. For example, neither would cover our young traveller’s decade-old foot injury.

Southern Cross advertised the cheapest base policy for both travellers. The insurer, along with Webjet, also offered a discount if our pair bought their policies together. However, once we factored in the extra payments for our travellers’ pre-existing conditions, Southern Cross came in second cheapest.

With the variation our price survey found, we recommend getting quotes with cover for pre-existing conditions when you’re shopping around for travel insurance.

Medical jargon

Can you tell an infarction from an infection? If not, you may need to brush up to get sufficient cover from your travel insurer. The health assessment tools on insurers’ websites allow you to search for a condition or symptom, but rarely use everyday language.

We gave our 60-year-old traveller a recent bout of stomach flu, requiring a visit to the GP two months earlier. The search tools didn’t recognise “stomach flu”, “tummy bug” or “upset stomach”. In the end, we had to turn to Google to find the medical term, gastroenteritis.

If there’s a legitimate reason for an insurer to limit cover, it should be specific about what’s excluded and why.
If there’s a legitimate reason for an insurer to limit cover, it should be specific about what’s excluded and why.

If you’re worried or have a complicated medical history, New Zealand Medical Association chair and GP Dr Kate Baddock recommends enlisting the help of your doctor, who can translate the often-complex terms used by insurers.

“Your GP can provide a list of any significant illnesses and medication for you to discuss with your insurance company. If you have any questions about what you should or shouldn’t declare, it’s best to talk with your insurance company.”

If your insurer refuses to cover certain conditions, get your GP’s advice on the risks of travelling overseas without insurance. “You can also shop around as not all insurance companies are the same,” Dr Baddock said.

Undiagnosed diseases

Some insurers exclude all undiagnosed conditions, even if you’ve been upfront about your medical history. We think this type of broad exclusion is unfair: it makes travel insurance contracts too one-sided and disadvantages consumers for something that’s out of their control.

If there’s a legitimate reason for an insurer to limit cover, it should be specific about what’s excluded and why.

The Fair Trading Act bans unfair terms in consumer contracts, but the insurance industry is largely exempt from these rules. We want the ban extended so consumers can fight unreasonable terms in their insurance contracts.

Our trial

Our trial compared comprehensive travel insurance products, but there was notable variation between policies. For example, Air New Zealand’s insurance will pay up to $25,000 if your bags are lost, damaged or stolen while 1Cover limits this to $15,000, and Webjet just $5000.

These differences may make a cheaper policy unsuitable for you or your trip.

Customer service is another important consideration. It’s worth the extra cost to stick with a travel insurer that pays claims promptly and supports you in an emergency. Our recent insurance survey found only half of all members who’d made a travel-related claim in the past three years were very satisfied with this process.

Travel insurance with pre-existing conditions cover

We sought quotes from 10 travel insurers’ websites for two fictional consumers, a 60-year-old man and his 34-year-old daughter. Each had six pre-existing illnesses or injuries, ranging from mild to serious (but well controlled). Both had been diagnosed with a medical issue in the 12 months prior.

Our 34-year-old’s conditions are:

  • Back pain
  • Headaches
  • Hay fever
  • Foot injury (treated 10 years prior)
  • Insomnia (reported six months prior, related to stress)
  • Low blood pressure

Our 60-year-old’s conditions are:

  • Eczema
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Mild asthma
  • Stomach flu (treated two months prior)
  • Type 2 diabetes

Policies compared

Company Policy name Pre-existing conditions cover Excess Base policy Total
34-YEAR-OLD
1Cover Comprehensive $7.50 $200 $111.00 $118.50
AA Insurance Comprehensive $45.64 $200 $213.00 $258.64
Air New ZealandA Single Trip International $133.00 $100 $241.00

$374.00

Cover-MoreA EssentialsB $0.00 $100 $215.00 $215.00
Mix and Match Comprehensive $50.71 $150C $209.00 $259.71
Southern Cross TravelCare $10.00 $100 $108.26 $118.26
Webjet Comprehensive $0.00 $100 $115.60

$115.60

Worldcare GOComprehensive $46.57 $100 $167.00 $213.57
MEDIAN $27.82 $188.00 $214.28
60-YEAR OLD
1Cover Comprehensive $44.15 $200 $130.98

$175.13

AA Insurance Comprehensive $131.98 $200 $229.00 $360.98
Air New Zealand Single Trip International $133.00 $100 $318.00

$451.00

Cover-More EssentialsB $62.00 $100 $236.00 $298.00
Mix and Match Comprehensive $146.64 $150C $209.00 $355.64
Southern Cross TravelCare $85.94 $100 $108.26 $194.20
Webjet Comprehensive $215.47 $100 $143.45 $358.92
Worldcare GOComprehensive $134.67 $100 $167.00 $301.67
MEDIAN $132.49 $188.00 $328.65

GUIDE TO THE TABLE EXCESS and PRICE collected in August 2018 from the insurers’ websites for a 23-day holiday to France and the UK departing in October 2018. AAir New Zealand and Cover-More declined cover for insomnia. Bchosen policy limits cancellation cover to $5000. Cexcess for claims relating to pre-existing medical conditions set at $200. Least expensive total policy costs shown in green and most expensive shown in red. Premiums include any online discounts offered. Websites may use different health assessment tools, which may affect pricing. Severity of medical conditions may affect premiums. Expedia and Travel Insurance Direct were included in our sample but they excluded most health conditions of our travellers and therefore aren’t shown in the table.

Credit card travel insurance

If you’re planning to rely on credit card travel insurance for your next overseas jaunt, you’ll also need to fill in a health assessment, either online or over the phone. Complimentary credit card policies exclude all pre-existing medical conditions by default. However, you can pay an additional premium to purchase cover for approved conditions.

We sought quotes from four insurers that underwrite travel policies for bank-issued credit cards – AIG (Westpac), Allianz (ANZ), Cigna (ASB, BNZ) and Tower (Kiwibank) – for the costs our father and daughter would each need to pay to cover their six pre-existing medical conditions.

Prices for our 34-year-old varied by as much as $60. If she held an ASB Visa Platinum Rewards credit card, she’d pay $40 to get cover for her six health issues. As an ANZ Airpoints Platinum Visa cardholder, she’d be looking at an estimated bill of $100.

For our 60-year-old, AIG’s quote for cover with a Westpac Hotpoints Platinum Mastercard was the priciest at $167. Allianz and Cigna both quoted $100. Tower did not provide the information by our deadline.

You can find more information on credit card travel insurance here.

Bank Credit card Underwriter Excess Annual fee Pre-existing conditions cover
34-YEAR-OLD
ANZ Airpoints Visa Platinum Allianz $200 $150.00 $100.00
ASB Visa Platinum Rewards Cigna $200 $80.00 $40.56
Westpac Hotpoints Platinum Mastercard AIG $200 $125.00 $66.00
60-YEAR-OLD
ANZ Airpoints Visa Platinum Allianz $200 $150 $100.00
ASB Visa Platinum Rewards Cigna $200 $80.00 $100.87
Westpac Hotpoints Platinum Mastercard AIG $200 $125.00 $167.40

GUIDE TO THE TABLE EXCESS and PRICE collected in August 2018 from the insurers’ websites and through enquiries for a 23-day holiday to France and the UK departing in October 2018. Insurers may use different health assessment tools, which may affect pricing. Severity of medical conditions may affect cover offered or premiums.

Travel insurance guide

Travel insurance guide

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Travel insurance guide

You can find our free downloadable guide (7.9 MB) to travel insurance here. The guide was produced in collaboration with The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Consular Division).

Get the guide

Travel tips

Successful claims often rely on the steps you’ve taken before leaving the country. As well as declaring and paying for cover for your pre-existing medical conditions:

  • Buy travel insurance the same day you make your first booking.
  • Read the policy document, paying particular attention to the conditions and exclusions.
  • Photograph your valuables as you pack them (as you may need to prove ownership). Keep them in your hand luggage.
  • Be careful! Insurers don’t cover incidents resulting from reckless or dangerous acts – from leaving a wallet unattended on the beach while swimming to getting drunk or taking drugs.

If something goes wrong:

  • Contact the insurer immediately, or within 24 hours. Some insurers insist you get prior approval for major expenses. In an emergency, always run your intentions by your insurer before you make arrangements to confirm exactly what you can and can’t claim for.
  • Report losses to police with 24 hours. Always ask for a written statement from the station for any thefts or vehicle accidents.
  • Keep agreements, doctor’s reports, invoices, and itemised receipts. If you plan on claiming for it, keep all the related paperwork. Many insurers require you to have a letter from the airline or travel provider if your transport is delayed, rescheduled or cancelled – it may be easier to get this at the airport or station.
  • Seek a review. If you’re not satisfied with the way your travel insurer handled your claim, you can complain. Initially you’ll have to raise the issue with your insurance company, but if that goes nowhere, you can take the case to a disputes resolution scheme. Every insurer must belong to one.

Member comments

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Michael A.
14 Oct 2018
Follow-up on credit card travel insurers

Thanks for the advice and I have just read through the additional information - good coverage and fills the gaps. Many thanks and well done.

Michael A.
01 Oct 2018
Include credit card travel insurers

To be truly comparative I feel you should include travel insurance provided as part of a credit card package - I think most Banks offer this. In my own case I have found it provides more than adequate cover at no additional cost - in fact as we travel reasonably frequently (and often to the US) it is worth paying the higher premiums for a "Platinum" card to get this cover and not have to take out separate policies.

Consumer staff
02 Oct 2018
Re: Include credit card travel insurers

Hi Michael,

You’ve beaten us to the punch! We did look at what it would cost our two travellers to get coverage for their pre-existing conditions if they held a premium credit card, which we’ve now added to the online version of the article. Hope this information is of use.

Kind regards,

Frank - Consumer NZ staff

Robert W.
21 Sep 2018
Name names

People need to know which companies are exempting undiagnosed conditions.

Consumer staff
21 Sep 2018
Re: Name names

Hi Robert, thanks for your comment.

Some travel insurers explicitly state in their policy documents that they exclude cover for all undiagnosed diseases. Others are less clear about how they’d treat a claim relating to an undiagnosed disease, though the T&Cs give them the leeway to refuse any claim relating to a symptom you experienced before you purchased the policy. This could effectively allow them to exclude all undiagnosed medical conditions.

In my research for this article, I did not find any travel insurance that stated it would cover undiagnosed pre-existing medical conditions. Therefore, it’s not possible to make any recommendations, except that travellers should: A) read the terms and conditions of their intended travel insurer before they buy a policy; B) contact their insurer with questions; C) declare all diagnosed conditions, recent health concerns and tests to their insurer and pay the extra charge and D) discuss any health-related travel concerns with their doctor.

Kind regards,
Olivia - Consumer NZ investigative writer