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Holiday plans disrupted by natural disaster?

Can you get a refund for flights and accommodation if your holiday plans are disrupted by natural disasters such as bushfires? Will travel insurance cover you?

bushfire near tuncurry australia
Last updated: 28 January 2020

Need to know

  • Most domestic and international travel insurers cover natural disaster
  • If domestic bushfires prevent you from getting to the airport, your international travel insurance should cover you
  • If you don't have travel insurance, you may still be able to re-schedule your flight or get a refund on accommodation

Does travel insurance cover natural disaster?

Most travel insurers cover natural disaster as long as you bought the policy before it became a 'known event'. Cover will vary between policies. 

All the policies in our international travel insurance reviews cover medical expenses in a natural disaster. But whether you're travelling internationally or domestically, you're more likely to need cover for cancellation expenses, for example if you're unable to get to the airport due to bushfire, your flight is cancelled or delayed, or you're stuck in transit.

In our reviews there are several insurers that may not cover these scenarios so make sure you check.

Known events

Insurance is intended to protect you against the unknown, so once an event becomes known, it's generally too late to buy insurance to cover you for that specific event. When an event becomes 'known' is a grey area, but generally it's when it's publicised in the media or on official government websites. Insurers' definitions can vary so it's best to check with your insurer on when they cut off cover for a specific event.

Will travel insurance cover bushfire?

A good travel insurance policy will cover you if you purchased the policy before the bushfire became a 'known event'. For the summer 2019-20 bushfires, the date when insurers cut off cover varies per state.

For example Insure and Go cut off cover on:

  • 11 November for NSW and Queensland
  • 20 December for SA
  • 30 December for Victoria

Policies bought after those dates won't cover that specific event,so check with your travel insurer.

Richard Warburton, 1Cover's Chief Operating Officer advises, "Once the bushfires, or any disaster, are in swing, you can't go and buy an insurance policy to assist you.

"Whether you have insurance or not, check if suppliers will help you out. If there's no help to be found from suppliers, then that's when your travel insurer can step in."

What will travel insurance cover?

Regarding the 2019-20 bushfires, Tokio Marine, which administers travel insurance policies World2Cover and RACV, advises there would be general cover for: 

  • Cancellation if the area where you are travelling is affected and your accommodation is closed, the area is unsafe, the government has closed roads or asked people not to travel or to leave.
  • If your home or your business is severely damaged by the fire and you need to cancel your trip or cut it short.
  • Travel delay if you can't get to your flight/transport, both internationally or domestically.
  • Emergency expenses if your trip is disrupted by the fires, power failure etc.
  • Accidental death while on your holiday.
  • Accidental disability if injured while on your holiday.
  • For international policies, if the local fires damage your home or business or impact your ability to embark on pre-booked transport such as flights or cruises then the policy may respond.

What if you don't have travel insurance?

Getting your money back on flights in a natural disaster

If the airline has cancelled or delayed flights due to a natural disaster, it's considered an event that is out of their control and the airline will have a policy providing compensation for cancellation or delay in this scenario. Familiarise yourself with the policy in case you need to remind the airline of their terms and conditions, because they won't necessarily volunteer it to you.

If you're unable to get to the airport due to a natural disaster then let your airline know. If you can get a real person on the phone that you can explain your situation to that will help, otherwise try their social media accounts. That will often get a response where other avenues don't.

Getting your money back on accommodation in a natural disaster

Contact your accommodation provider and ask if you can reschedule or get a refund. Natural disaster situations often have a big economic impact on small communities so flexibility on both sides of the equation can help the community, as well as ensuring you still get a holiday.

Your rights for accommodation bookings are covered by Australian Consumer Law and you have access to consumer guarantees, the same as for any other good or service.

In particular, in the event of a natural disaster, if authorities advise that the area you're planning to visit isn't safe to enter, both you and the accommodation provider may be released from the contract. 

This makes cancellations without a fee possible through what's called a 'frustrated contract' under general law. A frustrated contract happens when it becomes impossible to carry out a contract due to events beyond the control of all parties involved.

If you paid by credit or Visa/Mastercard debit card, you also have a right to credit card chargeback if the accommodation provider hasn't provided the service.

Getting your money back from third-party booking sites

Booking sites generally have their own terms and conditions and if you booked through them, you should deal with the booking site, not the end point service provider. The booking site should still be subject to Australian Consumer Law.

The sites usually have standard cancellation policies but in the event of natural disasters, they may make an exception. Airbnb, for example, may waive cancellation penalties in the event of a natural disaster. So familiarise yourself with the booking site's policy and quote it to them if necessary.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.