Travel Insurance and Medical Treatment

Author: Andy W+ 21 March 2011 (price comparison updated 31 March 2012)

Information on this page is applicable to UK residents only.
For residents of the US & Canada we recommend Squaremouth for price comparison. See why.

European Health Insurance Card - don't go without it

The EHIC is valid 5 for years and provides access to free or reduced cost medical treatment within the European Economic Area(EEA) plus Switzerland. The EEA comprises the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. For further information and online application read this NHS EHIC information page. You can also obtain an application form at many Post Offices.

The EHIC is not a replacement for travel insurance, state healthcare provision elsewhere in Europe probably won't provide the same level of free cover as the NHS. The EHIC will NOT cover all your expenses or medical repatriation home.

Scam Alert: NEVER PAY FOR YOUR EHIC. Some companies advertise an online service to get your EHIC in 7 days, all they do is forward your information to the Government site and charge you a fee. They do not provide a faster service than ordering online for free through the above link.

Edit 29 May 2013: Some state run Hospitals in Spain are refusing to meet their obligations to treat all visitors with EHIC cards; and instead refer some patients to expensive private facilities. If a state run hospital refuses to meet its obligation to treat you, contact your insurer immediately.

Reciprocal arrangements that the British Government has with non-EEA countries:

The UK also has arrangements for your urgent medical treatment with 28 other countries and territories at reduced cost or occasionally free. At the time of writing these include New Zealand and Russia. Most are small/poor countries and the type and quality of medical help available may be much less than in the UK. The NHS provides details of countries with reciprocal arrangements and identifies what documents you are required to present, what is free, and what you pay for.

The above arrangements are limited and not a replacement for travel insurance.

Travel Insurance (mandatory to visit some countries)

The Foreign Office provide advice on health insurance including the minimum medical expense cover you should require. Some countries e.g. Cuba will not let you in without approved travel health insurance, you will be required to buy an expensive policy on the spot, or refused entry.


Check the policy small print before you buy, otherwise you could find yourself un-insured. Below, I've identified policy stipulations and exclusions that made many policies unsuitable for my needs, some may be relevant to you.

Grand Canyon Hike Bobsled pic

The policy may exclude certain activities. So you may not be covered for that half day family pony trek; and even if the local excursion operator provides insurance its unlikely to include repatriating you to the UK.

Even "standard" backpacker policies can have surprising exclusions, such as hiking above 2000m. You could find yourself unwittingly without insurance e.g. the Grand Canyon tourist centre (4 million visitors p.a) is above this height; and if you take one of the popular walks like the Bright Angel trail, you could be technically un-insured.

  • You may not be covered if you take part in an activity not specifically mentioned in your policy.

  • The insurance may only include, or exclude, certain countries. You will need a specialist policy to cover travel to a country or region against the latest Foreign Office advice (check via the drop down menu at top of this page).

  • Annual multi trip policies vary in period of cover offered. Typically you can travel as many times as you want as long as each holiday does not exceed 31 days, you can pay more to increase maximum stay lengths to 45 or 90 days. However, I've seen policies that have a maximum trip length of 10 days (so your fortnight summer holiday wouldn't be covered) or limit the total number of days you can be abroad over the year.

  • Many backpacker policies deem return to the UK to be the end of your trip and insurance. If your plans involve one or more returns to the UK check that the policy allows this.

  • The policy may exclude you from some or all types of work - so you may be uninsured whilst building a school as a volunteer, or funding your travels by teaching in the local language school.

  • About 40% of travel policies do not cover you for incidents of terrorism.

  • Nearly all insurers have exclusions for drink or drug-related incidents; or if you have not had appropriate vaccinations or medication for the area you are visiting e.g. you may have to pay for your own treatment for malaria if you haven't bothered to take anti-malarials.

  • Check the policy to see how you are covered , and in what circumstances you can claim for events like cancelations, delay, travel company bankruptcy, possessions. If you're backpacking with few valuables you can sometimes save money by excluding possessions from your policy.

Examine the policy carefully!!!

Where to get your insurance:

Single and Multi-trip

(6 July 2012)

Our review of travel insurance comparison sites found they can save you time and money.

Many of the big brand comparison sites display exactly the same results; because they don't have their own travel insurance search, but use the same company to provide it for them.

Best in the review:

  • USwitch (or others that use the same search): i) if you want annual multi-trip or backpacker insurance that covers you outside Europe; or;
    ii) if your trip involves a cruise.
  • MoneySupermarket.Com: which searches the most insurance providers.

Note: these sites do not offer advice. The cheapest may not be suitable; it is up to you to read the policy and ensure it meets your needs.

Gap-year, Backpacker, Extended Stay travel insurance

Check the policy before you buy; see the section on pitfalls above. Ensure it covers any work or activities you may do on your travels.

1. The sites above will enable you to compare backpacker/extended stay policies from many insurers. Note: the prices shown will be for the "standard" policies, you may need to add on cover which will increase the premium.

2. WorldNomads is known internationally for backpacker insurance, and recommended by both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides.

  • You can take out a policy for up to 18 months, or you can extend your policy whilst abroad;
  • you can claim online whilst on your travels
  • good options available for those wishing to undertake a variety of work during their travels
  • various options for those wanting to do some adventurous activities
  • very high age bar (insurance available to those under age 60)

3. STAtravel On our last check they offered policies from one week to 24 months.

Some backpacker/world travel policies have an upper age limit of low thirties and many are not available to the over 40s or 50s. WorldNomads offers policies to under 60's; World First (below) should also be able to find policies for older career break travellers.

Medical Conditions and Older Travellers

Single and multi-trip holiday insurance can be expensive and difficult to obtain after age 60 or if you have a medical condition. You can try:

World First Specialist, offering travel insurance up to age 100, those with medical conditions, and not so young gap year travellers,
Saga Single and multi trip for the over 50s.
Free Spirit No upper age. Single and multi-trip policies for those with medical conditions.
Age UK The charity formed by the merger of Age Concern and Help the Aged.
Columbus Direct Single Trip (no upper age 85); Annual (up to age 74).