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Will your travel insurance cover you for Covid-19?

Quite possibly not, as one SA couple currently in self-isolation discovered.
Travel cover generally only applies to unforeseen situations – and this pandemic is no longer ‘unforeseen’. Image: Emanuele Cremaschi, Getty Images

When Sandra Sowray and her husband Ryan booked a dream holiday last November, they never imagined it would turn into a logistical nightmare on the back of a global pandemic. Unfortunately, a fine print condition means they cannot claim on their travel insurance policy.

The Sowrays left South Africa for Spain on March 8, flying on Alitalia. “It was the beginning of the EU coronavirus growth, so none of the airlines had provisions to move, change or cancel your flights without fees and we would have forfeited our costs if we cancelled,” Sowray says.

Ryan purchased a comprehensive travel insurance policy at a cost of R2 145 in February through Santam’s Travel Insurance Consultants (TIC). After travelling to Italy, the couple was en route to Spain when Italy went into lockdown. “This was a close call for us. We were literally in the air when Italy went into lockdown,” Sowray recalls. But then they received notice that their return Alitalia flight for March 19 would be postponed by two days, followed by a further communication that the flight was cancelled.

Stranded in a foreign country

“After more than three hours trying to get hold of Alitalia on the phone, with no answer from the South African embassy, we realised we were utterly alone. A state of emergency was declared. Overnight panic set in and people started looking at each other differently.

“There was a general air of mistrust,” Sowray says.

By this point, the couple just wanted to get back home. They booked themselves tickets, at significant cost, to fly back on Qatar Airways on March 16, departing from Valencia for Barcelona, and then on to Doha and finally Johannesburg. “Then we received an email from Qatar Airways – in German – and after copy-pasting it into Google translate, we learned the flight from Valencia to Barcelona had been cancelled! As a last resort, we hired a car and drove to Barcelona airport, and managed to convince a Qatar airline staffer to let us fly home,” Sowray says.

South Africa best at screening

She notes that despite entering and exiting several foreign jurisdictions, they were only tested for Covid-19 when they returned to South Africa. “First, when we landed, everyone had to wait on the plane while four medical professionals boarded and did temperature checks. Then we had to go through a thermal scanner before we went through passport control.

“South Africa was absolutely the most professional and the most prepared.

“There was information everywhere you turned, from electronic billboards to massive signs accompanied with notes about what to watch out for and precautions you should take. I was massively impressed and so relieved to be back on South African ground,” she says.

The disturbing part of her tale is that in the middle of the chaos in Spain, Sowray was told that she could not claim on the TIC policy because the travel insurance was not purchased within 48 hours of buying the airplane tickets.

“At no point when we were buying the policy online was there any prompt or question of when the flights had been purchased,” she points out. Sowray also noted that travel insurance covers you for Covid-19 testing while you are still abroad but not for testing once you return home. So the couple had to fork out another R1 400 each for tests at Lancet Laboratories. They are currently in self-isolation at home.

What you need to know about travel insurance and Covid-19

Christelle Colman, insurance expert at Old Mutual Insure, says, unfortunately, the days of buying travel insurance and hopping on a plane are over. “Since travel cover generally only applies to unforeseen situations and given the global media hype and numerous official statements concerning the virus, most travel policies will no longer cover cancellation or curtailment resulting from Covid-19,” she warns.

Colman provides the following advice:

  • Check whether your travel policy includes treatment for Covid-19 infection.
  • Even if policies do cover Covid-19 infection and treatment, you need to consider whether third-party on-the-ground global service and assistance providers can manage the caseload in the event of a global epidemic.
  • Ask what your travel policy will cover, what assistance the insurer has on the ground, and what their procedure is in cases of Covid-19 cancellation, infection and treatment.

Old Mutual Insure travel policyholders who contract Covid-19 while abroad will receive treatment via Europ Assistance. Old Mutual will also provide updates to family members and advise on the necessity or viability of repatriation – or quarantine – and any other support measures ahead of returning home once recovered.

If you do have to travel abroad, TIC offers the following tips:

  • Do not interact with anyone who is coughing or has a fever
  • Avoid crowded places and events
  • Use hand sanitisers frequently, and
  • Understand that the use of face masks is deemed a good but limited preventative measure.

TIC did not respond to Moneyweb’s queries but its website notes that if coronavirus leads to flight cancellations or travel bans, you will be covered provided you bought your travel insurance within 48 hours of making the first payment towards your trip (whether in part or in full). TIC also notes that you are not covered for instances where you change your mind about travel. That is, if you decide that it is safer not to travel, your travel insurance will not payout.

As Sowray says: “The world’s emergency services only work in a normal environment, and in a Covid-19 world, nothing is normal.”

The latest on travel bans in SA

  • Travel bans apply to and from high-risk countries such as Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the US, the UK and China;
  • Travellers from medium-risk source markets (Portugal, Singapore and Hong Kong) are to present themselves for testing;
  • Anyone who has travelled to these countries since mid-February must present themselves for testing;
  • South Africans who have returned from high-risk destinations must self-isolate;
  • Intensified screening at all ports of entry is in place; and
  • Non-essential domestic travel is discouraged.




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The usual insurance clap trap that you get…you thought you bought something but they had something else in mind. They provide an umbrella for a sunny day and take it away when it starts to rain.

I sincerely hope these get-out-of-jail insurances burn in hell one day. How utterly useless and scniving businesses they are.

“The Sowrays left South Africa for Spain on March 8, flying on Alitalia.”

At this stage the press was already reporting that a group of returned South Africans visiting Italy had been diagnosed and also Italy was a big problem (lets not forget about this thing carrying on in China since January) and they still left SA on an Italian Airline are they crazy.

Then we get all the travel “war stooories” and are supposed to feel sorry for them because they did not get paid out by Insurance after only taking out Insurance in February (a little bit more to this).

Besides the Insurance did they not consider their health and the health of others including people close to them. They should have cancelled then. The argument of how much you will lose if you cancel cannot be justified, lets also note that the profile of people going on exotic holidays are not going to starve if they cancel.

Mr Jones

Your PR for old mutual a poor attempt.
I use travel insurance a lot, same for other staff around me, have old mutual lost a client base here, YES!!

Mr Jones is probably a snake oil salesman, I mean financial advisor for OM.

TTfan and theporksword,

I think you are getting me wrong here. The article is about Insurance and I do completely agree like Murphy123 “They provide an umbrella for a sunny day and take it away when it starts to rain.”. I have had claims rejected on some silly clause before (not on Travel Insurance).

He also took out the insurance with Santam in February only (not in November when they booked i.e. no virus), he must have already known that this virus will in all possibility be a problem and that he will probably have to claim and as known by the public at large that the Insurance companies will try and find a way not to pay all these claims.

However beyond this and more seriously, you have to take care of your family and yourself (as you may die, forget the money) and it is irresponsible getting on an aircraft from a country that is suffering an epidemic that you fully know of before you leave and then complain about Insurance not paying you out. They should have cancelled before they left and taken the knock. Now they have gone and come back to possibly give some other people who they know or may not know this disease.

I have bought several travel policies over the years non of the travel agents have the ability to explain the policy or the inclination to explain where the pit falls are. I have been told it is a very good idea to have the cover!!

TIC is the absolute worst Travel Insurance company ever. Just read the comments on Hellopeter. Even FNB has teamed up with them as they are cheap with pathetic service. They will never ever pay you out for any claim and always find a loophole…It is crazy how they are unregulated and allowed to operate such a scam

hey, wasnt FNB suppose to help you manage your money better?

End of comments.





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