A Quick Guide to Falling Ill Abroad for Travelers

Falling ill. It’s something we all dread. And for the past couple of years, our everyday worries about illness have been ramped up a notch or two. Every sniffle, every cough, every sore head has brought with it that ominous thought – is it COVID-19?

Aside from the fact that COVID has made a lot of people very poorly, it’s all the other things that come with it. A positive test means having to stay home in isolation for a week or more. It means missing work, missing school, cancelling everything you have planned.

Including a holiday, if you’ve struck unlucky with your timing.

Illness and holidays have never mixed. It’s not just COVID-19 that can ruin your plans. I’m sure most people have at least one tale of spending a holiday in a hotel bed fighting off some bug or fever.

Falling ill abroad can have some serious repercussions. If you need medical attention, you will probably have to pay for it, and that can be very expensive. Especially if you end up in hospital.

It pays to at least know what to expect if you fall ill abroad. This short guide aims to answer a few of the most common questions people have about illness and travel, and offers practical advice for looking after yourself should the worst happen.

Do foreign visitors have to pay for medical care?

In most cases, yes. However, the health system is funded in the country you visit, the rules that apply to its citizens are unlikely to extend to tourists. Wherever you go, you will have to pay for medical care – everything from doctor’s appointments to prescriptions to hospital admissions.

There are exceptions, such as the EU-wide European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which entitles every EU citizen to free care across the union. British holidaymakers can still take advantage despite Brexit by applying for a Global Health Insurance Card UK (GHIC).

But the level of free care differs from country to country, determined by whatever free healthcare is available domestically in each nation. It’s still possible to be caught out. Spain, for example, operates a complex system of criss-crossing public and private health services. Treatment can cost 30 times more in Spain than in other European countries.

Spain is by some distance the most popular destination for UK holidaymakers. Many no doubt travel there on holiday with no idea how expensive medical care could be if they fall ill.  If they don’t have holiday insurance, they could end up with a nasty surprise.

Does my health insurance cover me when I’m abroad?

This catches many travelers 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

Will holiday insurance help if I fall ill?

In short, yes. 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 covered 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.

A big question on many people’s minds now is whether travel insurance will cover them if they fall ill with COVID-19 while abroad. Most policies do now include COVID in their medical schedule, so you’re covered if you end up catching it and need to see a doctor (or worse). However, not all policies will cover things like having to pay for a new flight home because you’re forced to isolate with COVID. This is something to look out for in the terms and conditions.

It’s important to be aware that the medical cover included in holiday insurance doesn’t provide blanket protection for all situations where you might need medical care. If you break your leg skiing, for example, don’t expect a pay out if you only have a standard travel insurance policy. Standard policies exclude specific things that carry a heightened injury risk. You need to pay more for a special policy that does cover a high-risk activity.

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