I wasn’t too upset when my camera and I parted company in Cuba. I was sad to lose the photos, but the camera was insured, and I expected my travel insurance to pay for a new one. Except that it didn’t because the camera was stolen from my suitcase, and as a valuable item it should have been in my hand luggage. I hadn’t read the small print, and the insurers rejected my claim.

Travel insurance is always a grudge purchase where you juggle the risk of not having any cover against the cost of the policy, multiplied by the suspicion that insurance companies are experts in wriggling out of any claim. So even when you think you’re covered, you’re possibly not. If I sound cynical it’s due to plenty of experience in how much wiggle room is built into those reams of small print.

On a trip to Costa Rica via the UK, I landed in Heathrow just as every flight out was cancelled due to snowstorms. I spent five days shivering in London before I could fly home. I spent frugally, meticulously kept every hotel and food receipt and submitted them along with a claim for the cancelled flight and new flight home. I doggedly spent hours on the phone and scanning paperwork as the insurance company checked this, rechecked that and queried everything. “You’re not covered,” they finally decided. “There’s an exclusion for inclement weather at the point of destination.”

I hung up in despair, then rang back in a flash of genius. “I am covered,” I said, “London wasn’t my destination point, and I can guarantee it wasn’t snowing in Costa Rica.” I got the money.

Yet despite these moans, I never leave the country without insurance. While the cover for lost luggage is piffling and compensation for missed connections is negligible, such events won’t kill or bankrupt you. But a week in a foreign hospital might. Or worse, there’s the prospect of not getting decent treatment unless you’re evacuated.

If something goes wrong medically, your treatment costs are covered. Or rather they might be covered – because the wiggle room continues.

When you’re buying insurance, the salesperson always recites a long list of medical conditions, so don’t tune out if you do have a pre-existing issue. If you run up medical bills the company will check to find anything – like a known heart condition – that invalidates your claim.

Nor will they pay anything from claims caused by war, invasion, revolution or riots, so if you’re suddenly caught in a riot, you’d better seek cover of a different kind.

Tour groups usually require proof that you’re insured before you join their trips precisely for those potential medical emergencies. But you often need insurance long before you set foot abroad, says John Ridler, the media spokesman for Thompsons.

“South Africans need visas for most countries, and as part of the visa application you have to provide concrete proof of travel insurance. Schengen countries are absolute sticklers for that, and it’s also a problem for Australia because you have to have a certain level of insurance.”

Ireland doesn’t require a visa, but if an immigration official asks to see your insurance and you don’t have any, they can prevent you from entering, Ridler says. “They can even prevent you from boarding the plane at Johannesburg. It’s not that these governments care about your health – it’s that they don’t want to pay for it once you’re there.”

The cheapest way to get insurance is to buy your air ticket with a credit card, because the major credit card providers supply free travel insurance. It’s fairly basic, but for about R375 you can top it up and be well covered for up to 90 days.

I’ve just bought top-up insurance for 45 days in South America for R375 thanks to tickets purchased by credit card. If I hadn’t done that, the policy would have cost R1 750.

Unfortunately as your age climbs, so do the premiums. Some companies charge one rate for people up to 69, a higher rate for those aged 70 to 84, and if you’re 85 or over, you’re going to struggle. The major insurance players won’t cover you, although Standard Bank’s credit card insurance goes up to 88 and Diners Club has no age limit.

“Over a certain age the premium is more expensive because the chances are higher that you’ll have a funny turn or a dicky heart,” Ridler says. “But it’s still money well spent. If you take out insurance you can almost guarantee nothing will go wrong, but if you don’t have it, something will.”

If you face anything that will involve a hefty claim, don’t swing into action and expect a refund later. Some policies say that if you want the company to pay more than R5 000, you must call their emergency number first and get written agreement. If you don’t, their liability may be limited to R5 000.

Besides, the emergency number is useful because the people manning those 24-hour hotlines have more experience than you in a crisis. In a medical emergency they can tell you where to go for treatment, organise for you to get there if you’re incapacitated, and make the necessary prepayments.

If you lose your passport they can guide you through the process of getting a replacement, so it’s a handy number to jot down.

Another key to making a claim is impeccable records. All claims for incurred expenses need receipts, and any claim triggered by a criminal act must be supported by a police report.

For luggage insurance, the best approach is simply not to travel with anything valuable. “If luggage goes missing the airline will pay you out, but don’t tell them you lost a fur coat, two diamond rings and eight tiaras because you’re not going to be paid,” says Ridler. “They pay a certain amount per kilo, which is one of the reasons they weigh your luggage. The same applies to bags that are broken into, so don’t keep an expensive watch or a camera in your luggage.”

The Montreal Convention holds airlines responsible for checked-in luggage, although their liability is limited to around €1 131 per passenger. You may get better compensation from your insurance company, but some policies provide no or only minimal cover for bags in the care of an airline.

Sunette Barnard, General Manager of Duma Corporate Travel in Cape Town, says comprehensive luggage insurance is pricy and always carries a hefty excess. “An airline will pay out for lost luggage, but even if you lose something like an expensive coat or pair of shoes they pay per kilogram. It’s very seldom that baggage gets lost completely, normally it just gets misplaced or damaged. I don’t think luggage insurance is worthwhile because airlines generally pay, but I don’t take my most expensive items.”

The important parts are adequate medical and personal liability cover, Barnard stresses. Personal liability covers all damages, compensation and legal expenses you become liable for if your actions injure or kill another person or damage property – as long as you don’t inadvertently admit to anybody that it’s your fault.

Duma Corporate Travel warns business customers that if they take part in any labour activities, a run-of-the-mill policy won’t suffice.

Barnard also stresses the need to call the emergency number before taking any action in a crisis. “You have to call the insurance company before you do anything because they might say ‘you should have done this or that’, so speak to the insurer first to say ‘we have a situation, what should we do?’  ” she says.

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