A traveller‘s greatest fear is probably a medical emergency overseas. Lost items and flight delays pale in comparison – especially now. But until reacently there wasn’t a lot of Covid-19 travel insurance to protect you. A positive Covid-19 diagnosis could mean quarantine in an unfamiliar environment, language barriers and differing medical standards – a cocktail of travel nightmares. Expensive, too.
Only recently has Covid-19 travel insurance become available. Airlines, travel agents and insurers are scrambling to mitigate costs for the traveller. Covid-19 covers, for example, are tagged to air tickets or the standard travel insurance.
Here is a rundown of some Covid-19 travel insurance coverage and the trip-wires to be mindful of.
Think of “travel advisory” as the mother of all travel catchphrases during the pandemic.
Travel advisories are issued by the countries of departure – for departing travellers. In Singapore, the Ministry of Health (MOH) issues the advisories.
Travel bans, however, are usually entry and border controls imposed by a destination against foreign travellers.
“Travel advisories and travel bans are not wedded in bliss,” a local underwriter notes. Insurers, he admits, complicate matters with their own list of countries deemed out of bounds.
Some countries like Britain and the United States welcome Singapore passports, but local authorities do not endorse general leisure travel there.
Conversely, Singapore’s authorities may endorse travel to certain destinations, for instance, Australia and New Zealand, but this is not reciprocated.
In its latest travel update on Oct 1, MOH endorsed general travel to only four countries – New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam and Brunei – out of 193 United Nations members.
For official and business travel under its Reciprocal Green Lane and bilateral arrangements, there are China, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.
Besides leisure and essential travel, student travel that meets requirements is also endorsed.
Beyond these eight countries and conditions, all other travels are against MOH travel advisories. And they are not covered by Covid-19 insurance.
From mid-August, national carrier Singapore Airlines (SIA), through underwriter AIG, offered Covid-19 cover protection as part of a standard travel insurance plan.
Passengers who purchase round-trip tickets are covered for pre-departure trip cancellations; trip curtailment losses; Covid-19 related overseas medical expenses; repatriation and quarantine allowance expenses overseas.
Limited to Singapore residents flying with SIA and SilkAir, the travel insurance starts at $34 for a three-day Asean coverage and goes up to a staggering $1,757 for a 180-day worldwide cover.
Its subsidiary, Scoot, has also teamed up with insurer AXA to provide a more modest Covid-19 cover
However, these supplements apply only to MOH’s approved travel destinations or essential travel.
In July, Middle Eastern airline Emirates, with insurer Allianz NEXtCARE, launched the world’s first standalone Covid-19 cover. Deemed the gold standard, it comes with two outstanding features.
First, it is a four-letter word: free.
Second, it covers against travel advisories – except under an outright travel ban.
Also, onward destinations are covered, for up to 31 days. The cover stops when the passenger returns to the home base, whichever is earlier.
The scheme proved so popular that it is now extended until the end of December.
In early September, Etihad Airways jumped on the bandwagon with its Travel Cover, which is underwritten by AXA Gulf. The cover is similar to the Emirates scheme.
Can people buy cover against travel advisories?
Issuers in the US and Europe underwrite travel insurance, with Covid-19 cover, for overseas travellers headed to selected destinations.
They have different exclusions and may differentiate between trip insurance and medical insurance. Comprehensive plans are also available.
For example, global travel underwriter IMG-Sirius International’s CoverAmerica Gold provides coverage for non-US residents/citizens travelling to the US plus Canada, Mexico, Latin America, the Bahamas and South America.
For a 30-day coverage, the insured person receives comprehensive travel insurance with Covid-19 screening benefit and quarantine cover. Its US$250,000 (S$339,000) policy limit plan costs US$216.
But there are caveats such as deductibles; varying levels of reimbursements; and exclusions due to US sanctions.
Overseas administrators and underwriters may be more regimented. It is administratively more cumbersome to file a claim against a foreign underwriter, in a different time zone.
I cringe when I recall a previous claim with a major US insurer.
Due to bad weather, a high-altitude Central Asia flight was cancelled.
With the airport shut down indefinitely, the airline advised me to make an overland trip instead, since the spotty weather might continue for the next two to three days.
I took a hazardous 16-hour private car hire over mountainous gravel roads. Yet, the US insurer rejected my claim and said I should have waited for the weather to clear.
After three months, a dozen e-mails and many phone calls, culminating in an escalation of my case to its senior management, my claim was approved.
It was a good outcome, but what a frustrating exercise.
Thus, I would still prefer to buy cover through a Singapore administrator.
“An insurance cover is only good if a valid claim is fairly reimbursed expeditiously,” advises an insurer contact who declines to be named.
The National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas), in conjunction with Maybank’s Etiqa, is working out a Covid-19 specific travel cover.
It covers travel postponement, medical expenses and hospital allowances.
A standout is post-trip medical expenses in Singapore.
An Etiqa spokesman says the plan, once finalised, will be made available through Natas’ agents.
Sadly, but understandably, the plan will adhere to MOH’s travel advisories and their limitations. Yet, it would serve those leisure and business travellers who are journeying in compliance with the advisories.
Covid-19 cover ends when people get home. There is no post-trip cover available currently.
Even the plans that are administered overseas stop short of a post-trip cover.
So, Covid-19 swab tests, stay-home notices or quarantine expenses at designated facilities are out-of-pocket expenses.
Moreover, travellers who venture out despite MOH’s advisories – and test positive within 14 days of their return – will not receive any government subsidies or medical benefits for their treatment.
It is a sobering thought – as that could easily add a few thousand dollars of expenses to the trip.
Pandemic covers may emerge as a new normal.
The world with closed borders, on an extended basis, is not the new normal. But certainly, a cavalier attitude in travel remains out of limits.
Under normal circumstances, people choose carriers based on personal preferences such as flight schedule, budget, loyalty programme and service quality, among other factors.
But if I really need to travel beyond MOH’s endorsed list of destinations, I would give serious thought to flying Emirates – its less restrictive Covid-19 cover is assuring and meaningful.
People may baulk at existing Covid-19 covers with their weak inclusions and numerous exclusions. Yet, however limited they may be, it beats zero cover for any traveller.
I would not leave home without it – just be mindful of the fine print.
These details were correct at press time.
Text: John Tan/The Straits Times