Some travel companies now advertise 'COVID cover' to entice you to book your trips. And with the prospect of international travel opening up, travel insurers are again selling international travel insurance to Australians, in addition to domestic travel insurance.
But will travel insurance cover COVID-19 or related government travel bans?
Some but not all travel insurance policies will provide limited cover if you or someone you're travelling with gets COVID-19, or if the accommodation or tour operator you've booked has to shut down because there's been a COVID-19 case there.
Travel insurance is unlikely to cover you for cancellation due to government travel bans.
Cover will likely be limited to medical, quarantine and sometimes cancellation costs if you contract COVID-19.
Many insurers have either suspended travel insurance policy sales or stopped selling it altogether. Below is a list of travel insurers now selling policies. These policies may exclude cover for COVID-19. Please read the product disclosure statement (PDS) to understand your cover.
If you notice a new insurer who's not on this list, or any on this list that have stopped selling, please let us know.
Where can you travel to?
Check the Smartraveller website for travel zones. If the Smartraveller advice level for your destination is 'Do not travel', you may still be able to travel if you have an international travel exemption.
Some Australian travel insurers may cover people with international travel exemptions, but cover might not be available for all destinations and might not include cover for COVID-19.
There are overseas insurers that provide cover which includes COVID-19, but you might only be able to buy it once you've left Australia.
'Complementary' COVID-19 insurance
Some tour operators or airlines are offering complementary 'COVID insurance' when you book a ticket or tour with them. Always read your travel insurance policy to understand what it offers you.
Complementary 'COVID insurance' might only cover COVID-19 and nothing else. And it might be issued by an overseas insurance company, which means it will be subject to the regulations of that country – in which case it probably isn't a good substitute for a comprehensive Australian travel insurance policy.
CHOICE tip: If you're unable to get cover for COVID-19 but you plan to travel, you should still get travel insurance to protect you from events not related to coronavirus.
Check the following cover details when considering travel insurance.
- Is your destination covered? Insurers might limit cover to countries that have a travel zone agreement with Australia, such as New Zealand, or countries that Medicare has a reciprocal agreement with, such as the UK.
- Are you covered for the full duration of your trip? For example, can you extend your cover should you end up stuck outside Australia for longer than originally planned because your flight gets cancelled or a travel ban is declared?
- Are stopovers on the way to your destination covered, and is there a restriction on the amount of time you can be at the stopover location? What happens if you remain stuck for an extended period of time?
- Are you covered if you can't travel, or your stay gets extended, because you or your travelling companion tests positive for COVID-19? What if you have to go into isolation because you became a close contact of someone who tested positive?
- Are you covered for cancellation costs if your business partner or a relative back home gets sick with COVID-19 and you need to return earlier than planned?
- What happens if you were going to stay with someone and they contract COVID-19, or your accommodation or tour company gets shut down because of COVID-19? Are your additional expenses covered?
- If you're planning to go on a cruise, be extra careful as some travel insurers currently do not offer COVID-19 cover for multi-night cruises.
- Are claims caused by government travel bans, 'Do not travel' warnings, border closures, or mandatory quarantine or self-isolation requirements at your destination covered?
- If you're an essential healthcare worker, including a pharmacist, nurse, doctor or paramedic, make sure you're covered if your leave gets cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
For more information, see the CHOICE travel insurance buying guide on Smartraveller and subscribe to Smartraveller alerts for the destination you're travelling to.
There are several insurers selling domestic travel insurance, but not all insurers will cover COVID-19. Read the travel insurance product disclosure statement (PDS) to check if you're covered for cancellation if you or someone you're travelling with catches COVID-19. Travel insurance is unlikely to cover you for government travel bans.
Travel insurance for an Aussie holiday may be worth considering if you're:
- spending a lot of money on your trip
- carrying expensive equipment, such as custom-made surfboards
- hiring a car, as some travel insurance can cover the damage excess.
All Australian domestic airlines currently offer flexible ticket booking, so check what your rebooking options are before you fork out for domestic travel insurance.
Some travel insurers cover pandemics or epidemics, as long as you buy the policy before the breakout becomes a 'known event'. Cover will vary between policies.
Travel insurers tend to exclude or cover both pandemics and epidemics. So if you're reading the terms and conditions, you can scan for either of these words to check if you're covered.
An epidemic is an outbreak of disease that happens in a wide geographic location and affects a lot of people.
A pandemic is an epidemic that has spread throughout a whole country or across continents.
If you bought your policy before COVID-19 was a known event, and your policy covers medical expenses as a result of a pandemic, you'll be covered for medical expenses if, for example, you contracted the coronavirus on your travels.
Many travel insurers cover medical expenses in a pandemic, but most people need cover for cancellation expenses – for example, when the government changed the travel advice for your destination to 'Do not travel'.
If your policy covers cancellation expenses, you'd be covered to cancel or possibly amend your travel arrangements to avoid the affected area. But check with your travel insurer specifically to find out what they'll cover, because it can be tricky.
Some insurers are very good at producing policy fine print to deny your claim. But in the context of COVID-19 travel insurance, the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) has stated it will also take into account the relevant legislation which states that an insurer can't deny your claim if you decided not to travel because of concerns for your safety.
When does an event become a 'known event'?
Insurance is intended to protect you against the unknown, so once an event becomes known, it's usually 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 check with your insurer on when they cut off cover for a specific event.
If your trip gets cancelled because of a government travel ban, several travel insurers are allowing people to reschedule their travel insurance or cancel and claim a credit towards a future premium. Ask your travel insurer what they can do for you.
Travel insurance policies have a 14-day cooling off period. If you change your mind in this period, you can cancel your policy and get your money back from the insurer.
Otherwise, some insurers may decline to refund, reschedule or provide a credit for unused travel insurance premiums.
However, AFCA considers a credit or refund of your premium a fair outcome where:
- you got a refund or credit from all of your travel providers, so there's nothing left to claim on your travel insurance
- your travel insurance policy has a COVID-19-related exclusion that prevents you from claiming on the policy.
Partial policy refunds
From the moment you buy a travel insurance policy, cover kicks in for cancellation due to unforeseen events. So if your insurer offers you a refund, they may calculate a partial refund to take into account the cover that you have already received with your policy.
AFCA considers proportionate refunds for the remaining unused period fair, but your insurer should outline how they calculate it.
Visit AFCA's website for more information on what they deem fair treatment from insurers when it comes to COVID-19 claims.
Escalating complaints about credits and refunds
If your travel insurer has knocked back your request for a credit or refund, you should try the below.
- Lodge an internal dispute with the insurer, noting AFCA's stated approach.
- If they still refuse, escalate a complaint to AFCA.
Getting your money back on flights in a pandemic
If the airline has cancelled or delayed flights due to a pandemic, it's considered an event that is out of their control and the airline will have a policy providing compensation for cancellation or delay.
Familiarise yourself with the policy in case you need to remind the airline of their terms and conditions because they won't necessarily volunteer the information to you.
For the policies of Australian domestic airlines, read our advice on coronavirus flight refunds.
Getting your money back on accommodation in a pandemic
Your rights for accommodation bookings are covered by Australian Consumer Law and you have access to consumer guarantees, the same as for any other goods or services.
- Booking sites generally have their own terms and conditions. If you used a booking site, you should deal with them, not the end-point service provider. The booking site should still be subject to Australian Consumer Law.
- If you booked accommodation through a third-party provider like Airbnb or Booking.com, persist with your cancellation via that third party, since it's unlikely you'll be able to enforce the Australian Consumer Law on the overseas accommodation provider.
- If you paid by a credit card or a Visa or Mastercard debit card, you also have a right to a credit card chargeback if the accommodation provider hasn't provided the service.
Booking sites usually have standard cancellation policies, but in the event of emergencies like pandemics, they might make an exception.
Airbnb, for example, may waive cancellation penalties for bookings made on or before 14 March 2020. So familiarise yourself with the booking site's policy and quote it to them if necessary.
COVID-19 threw many travel plans into disarray in 2020. If you were one of the many Australians with a trip booked, hopefully you had travel insurance, and have been able to claim on some or all of your losses. But it can depend on what your policy covers, and when you bought the policy.
- People who bought travel insurance before COVID-19 became a 'known event' may have been covered for medical expenses arising from contracting the disease overseas, and may even have been covered for cancellation expenses.
- People who bought travel insurance after the disease was a known event may not have been covered for medical or cancellation expenses relating to contracting the disease, or from changes to travel plans resulting from quarantine measures, for example.
On 18 March 2020, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade updated alert levels to 'Do not travel' for all destinations. On 25 March, it was escalated to a travel ban.
If your travel insurance policy excluded cover for pandemics or epidemics, or you bought the policy after COVID-19 became a known event, then your travel insurance wouldn't have covered losses incurred as a result of coronavirus or the travel bans.
But it pays to speak to your insurer before cancelling, because if they don't cover cancellation, rearranging your holiday dates to a later time may be a more cost-effective option.
If your travel insurance policy included cover for pandemics or epidemics, and you bought the policy before COVID-19 became a known event, then you should have been covered.
Read your travel insurance Product Disclosure Statement. In the first instance, it's up to you as the policyholder to establish that you have a valid claim under the policy terms and conditions. That generally means handing in lots of documentation.
Then it's up to the insurer to decide if your claim is valid and that there are no policy exclusions that should be applied.
If you disagree with the insurer's decision regarding your claim, raise a complaint via their internal dispute resolution service.
If you don't get a satisfactory result from the insurer's internal dispute resolution, escalate your complaint to AFCA.
Travel insurance should protect your safety
In an AFCA dispute, some travellers cancelled a trip to Great Britain and Ireland on 5 March 2020 amid increasing concerns about COVID-19.
Their Auto & General (provider of Budget Direct and other travel insurance products) policy covered epidemics, but the insurer denied their claim on the basis that there was no travel ban in place at that time – the Australian government travel ban didn't come into effect until 25 March.
AFCA ruled that the travellers' decision to cancel the trip was necessary for their safety
The travellers were aged in their 60s, making them potentially more vulnerable to serious ill health if they caught the virus that causes COVID-19. AFCA ruled that the policy covered epidemics and that the travellers' decision to cancel the trip was necessary for their safety. This means the Insurance Contracts Act 1984 doesn't allow the insurer to decline the claim.
If your travel insurance policy covers pandemics or epidemics but you've had a claim denied for similar reasons, raise a complaint with your insurer, citing section 54(5)(a) of the Insurance Contracts Act 1984.
To add a rather disheartening footnote, Auto & General travel insurance policies no longer cover pandemics or epidemics.
Is a pandemic a natural disaster?
If an insurer defines natural disaster as a list of events like earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods, wildfires and heat, then cover for pandemic will probably be excluded from the definition of natural disaster.
However, in an AFCA ruling, insurer Tokio Marine (provider of RACV and World2Cover travel insurance) did not define natural disaster in its policy and didn't specifically exclude pandemic or epidemic, so AFCA ruled that COVID-19 should be covered by the policy as a natural event.