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Summer flights chaos: don't count on your travel insurance

Which? finds many policies won't cover delays and cancellation due to strikes, missed connections and Covid-19

With airlines contending with staff shortages, huge numbers of holidaymakers face delays and cancellations this summer - with potential strike action threatening further chaos.   

Airlines should rearrange or refund you for flights they've cancelled, and also help with food and accommodation expenses if you're delayed for lengthy periods. 

But if they let you down, what support does your travel insurer offer?

Between May and June, we surveyed 71 travel insurance firms and analysed 199 policies to find which provided the best and worst travel cover overall. 

We found that, while travel insurance can stop a cancelled trip from becoming a financial disaster, many travelers could be left disappointed.

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Cover if you're delayed

The good news is that 93% of policies have cover for expenses (such as food and accommodation) incurred while waiting out delays, and 95% pay cancellation claims for holiday abandonment if you call it quits after an extended wait. 

The minimum number of hours you’re held up before this cover becomes available can vary between policies, but 12-24 is fairly typical.

Meanwhile, 96% of policies pay out for buying urgent replacement items (such as toiletries, clothes or medication) if your luggage reaches your destination days after you do.  

The bad news? Some policies specify - and so limit cover to - certain causes of delay, and so potentially rule out others (such as staff shortages). 

For example, Staysure's policy wording says that it covers delays that were ‘a direct result of strike or industrial action, adverse weather conditions, failure of air traffic control systems, or mechanical breakdown of aircraft, sea vessel, coach or train.’  

Meanwhile, Admiral's delayed departure and holiday abandonment t&cs list 'strike, industrial action, adverse weather conditions' and 'mechanical breakdown' as applicable causes.  

Missed departure due to strikes and unexpected events

Even the best travel insurance won't cover you if you missed your flight because you overslept.

But if there are delays in your journey to the airport that are out of your control, and cause you to miss an outbound flight, 92% of policies will cover at least some of the costs of getting your holiday back on track. 

However, we found this to be less common for other stages of travel. Only 77% include cover for missed returning flights, and 72% for connecting flights. 

We also looked at the numbers of policies allowing claims if your plans are impacted by any of six disruptive events. 

These were: bankruptcy of the holiday supplier; bankruptcy of the airline; industrial strike; volcanic ash; terrorism and civil unrest.

When it came to industrial strikes, only 60% of policies cover this as standard. Meanwhile, only half (52%) will refund you your lost holiday costs if your airline goes bankrupt. 

Just four providers had policies that covered all six events.

The cover you can expect - and the cover you can't

Unfortunately, delays and missed departures aren't the only areas where travel insurance differs.

Our survey of 71 insurers in May 2022 found that while some mishaps are covered by the vast majority of policies, others may not be:

Travel insurance cover% of policies that include as standard
Delayed baggage96%
Holiday abandonment95%
Costs incurred from delayed flights93%
Missed departure - outgoing flight92%
Missed departure - returning flight77%
Missed departure - connecting flight72%
Cancellation due to industrial strike60%

These differences mean it's important to pick a travel insurance policy you can count on.

We've given each of the 199 policies we analysed an overall 'policy score', based on our ratings of 61 different features per policy.

While the average policy score was 63%, and the lowest just 28%, the two highest policies got 86% - and received our top 'Complete' rating for their Covid Cover.

Three in ten (30%) policies received 'Basic' or 'Low' Covid cover ratings. These only appy in scenarios where you've personally become ill or tested positive with Covid. Policies rated as 'Superior' and 'Complete' provide protection in a wider range of scenarios where Covid disrupts your plans - for example if you're instructed to self isolate as a close contact of someone infected.    

Go to our best and worst travel insurance report to find out which policies topped the charts.

6 things to bear in mind when checking your cover

From covering your health to your travel arrangements to your gadgets, a travel insurance policy can resemble a swiss army knife. 

While this can make documents complicated, it's worth doing the following before you buy:

1) Check the policy wording

The main travel insurance document is called the 'policy wording' - which should be available before you complete purchase of a policy. 

This describes the policy's cover and terms in detail: if a claim is rejected, the reason will be somewhere here.

The policy should be sectioned into the different areas of cover - such as cancellation, medical expenses, and delays. Policies also include a 'general exclusions' section - with conditions that apply to the whole policy

2) Phone the insurer

If the wording is unclear around any areas of concern to you, contact the insurer for an explanation of how the cover works, and what is excluded. It's better to double check than assume.  

3) Specified risks/perils

While it's not always the case, the vast majority of policies are written on a 'specified risks' or 'specified perils' basis.

 This means that the insurer lists the specific causes or circumstances they'll cover - and anything not itemised is excluded. 

Specified risks will then also be subject to a separate list of exclusions - so you'll need to check these too.   

4) Known event exclusions

A key exclusion you might see is the 'known event' clause. Generally speaking, travel insurers don't cover things that have already happened - or that you had good reason to think would happen - when booking the holiday or buying the insurance.

This could mean that if you buy cover after becoming ill or after a strike has been announced - the insurer is unlikely to pay out if either then lead to a claim.

While it's simple in principle, it can be less so in practice. Insurers sometimes take different positions over when certain events became 'known' - either to you or more generally - and there aren't always clear criteria for how the clause might be applied. 

To avoid being caught out by the exclusion:

  • Be honest with the insurer in response to any questions asked
  • Ask the insurer about its cover for particular scenarios that concern you, if it isn't clear on the insurer's website or in their policy wording

Find out more: how to complain if you disagree with an insurer's decision

5) Let your insurer know asap

In many scenarios - from medical treatment costs to compensation for delays, to cancellation of a packaged holiday - there are often ways for you to keep in pocket without making an insurance claim.]

Insurers expect you to come to them last - if you've not been able to recoup losses through other means.

This said, it's still wise to let your insurer know as soon as possible if something has happened that may result in a claim. 

They can often provide advice and there may things you need to do in preparation for making a claim - such as gathering the appropriate paperwork or filing a police report.

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