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.