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Disaster Prevention: How Travel Insurance Rescued 7 Holidaymakers During Medical Emergencies

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According to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), last year 159,000 UK-based travellers received financial support from insurers to help pay for emergency medical treatment received abroad. While you may think the odds of a serious illness or accident occurring whilst on holiday are small, the financial consequences can be dire.

How much could a medical emergency cost you? Tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds, in some cases. To illustrate the potential cost to holidaymakers of a serious medical emergency, we've gathered details of seven very costly, real-life medical claims requiring repatriation back to the UK, most of which required air ambulance support. Find out how much these events cost and read the stories of these unfortunate holidaymakers.

An Emergency Medical Claim: How Much Can it Cost?

In 2017 the average travel insurance emergency medical claim was close to £1,300—however many claims reached tens of thousands of pounds, with a few even hitting six figures. To understand the potential financial cost of a medical emergency abroad, take a look at these real-life examples—all of which were covered by travel insurance. Data is courtesy of our partner Compare Cover and one of their panel of insurers, Just Travel Cover.

Illness/InjuryGeographic LocationRepatriation/Air Ambulance CostTotal Cost
Broken left femur & left distal radiusSt Vincent & Grenadines£8,617.95£23,240.05
Stroke & breathing tubeUSA£79,771.17£246,700.00
Exacerbation of lung diseaseTenerife£2,772.78£4,354.38
Bleeding in the brainThailand£86,153.84£144,718.25
Mini strokeSouth America£17,459.08£17,459.00
Intestinal legionsGreece£5,000.28£5,000.28
Fractured knee and lower legCorfu£17,117.16£17,117.16

As you can see, medical repatriation alone cost anywhere from £5,000 to £86,000. (Medical repatriation gets you home if you cannot do so under your own steam, for example on a medically-equipped flight to return home, accompanied by a medic if necessary, etc.) Depending on factors like the severity of a condition and location, hospital bills also cost tens of thousands of pounds in some cases.

Travel Insurance Provides More Than Financial Assistance

In addition to mitigating the financial repercussions of a medical emergency, travel insurance also assists with logistics such as arranging medial repatriation. Overwhelmingly, there are more than two dozen medical repatriation companies operating in the UK, each specializing in different different geographic and health conditions. Surely it would be some comfort to have professional help via a travel insurance policy to organise medical repatriation during such a distressing time.

To get an idea of what these patients and their families went through, here are their stories:

Condition: Broken thigh and wrist
Location: St Vincent & Grenadines
Total Cost: £23,240
After a fall requiring urgent surgery for a broken left femur & left distal radius, local doctors recommended transfer to a different island where medical treatment was of a higher standard. To transfer patient to the other island, travel insurance arranged for an air ambulance transfer, which occurred within 7 hours of notification. After surgery, patient was medically escorted back to the United Kingdom.

Condition: Stroke
Location: USA
Total Cost: £246,700
While visiting family, patient suffered a CVA (i.e., cerebrovascular accident, more commonly known as a stroke) requiring intubation (i.e., breathing tube). An air ambulance back to UK was arranged after 10 days in hospital.

Condition: Lung disease
Location: Tenerife
Total Cost: £4,354
After exacerbation of a declared medical condition (COPD) required admittance to hospital, travel insurance arranged return flights for next of kin to be by patient's bedside before the patient sadly passed away, and for patient's mortal remains to be repatriated to the UK. EHIC was presented covering the hospital inpatient fees.

Condition: Bleeding in the brain
Location: Thailand
Total Cost: £144,718
After suffering from a traumatic subarachnoid haemorrhage whilst visiting son, patient was admitted to the ICU on mechanical ventilation. After deterioration of patient's condition and an expectation of weeks in hospital, patient was repatriated back to the UK on an air ambulance.

Condition: Mini stroke
Location: South America
Total Cost: £17,459
After suffering a mini stroke that resulted in a five-day admission to hospital in Buenos Aires, patient was safely repatriated back to the UK with an advanced life support paramedic, in order to be near family.

Condition: Intestinal legions
Location: Greece
Total Cost: £5,000
After an urgent laparotomy to investigate adhesions, patient was repatriated back to the UK with a medical escort once medically fit to fly. EHIC was successfully presented covering admittance to the public hospital.

Condition: Fractured knee and lower leg
Location: Corfu
Total Cost: £17,117
Due to a fractured knee and lower leg resulting from a fall, patient was first successfully admitted to hospital with an EHIC card. Due to the complex injuries and extremely compromised mobility, patient was subsequently repatriated back to the UK on a stretcher with two medical escorts.

Isn't My EHIC Card Enough?

You still need travel insurance even if you're travelling to Europe and you have an EHIC card—and we're not the only ones to think so. The NHS and the government both recommend that travellers to Europe get comprehensive travel insurance as well as an EHIC card.

While an EHIC card will provide access to free or reduced-cost state healthcare in other EEA countries and Switzerland, it won't cover private health care or repatriation. Without travel insurance, you'd be responsible for paying any private medical bills or medical repatriation back to the UK, should it be required.

Think You Can't Afford Travel Insurance?

According to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), 29% of people who travelled without travel insurance last year did so because cost was a barrier. But in most cases, holidaymakers can buy a single trip travel insurance policy for the price of a few Mai Tais.

How much would travel insurance theoretically cost for a traveller to the destinations mentioned above? We've gathered quotes for a healthy, 65-year-old traveller going on a 2-week-long holiday to the same destinations. On average, the cost of travel insurance would have been around 50 quid, with the cheapest plans costing in the range of £10 to £30, depending on destination. Younger holidaymakers would typically pay even less.

DestinationAverage QuoteCheapest QuoteAverage of Cheapest 10 Quotes
St Vincent & Grenadines£81.88£26.18£34.64
USA£88.77£26.18£33.80
Tenerife£30.02£9.45£12.55
Tenerife (with pre-existing condition COPD)£57.70£11.06£21.27
Thailand£59.47£21.82£26.57
South America£59.29£21.82£27.14
Greece£29.10£8.99£11.82
Corfu£29.10£8.99£11.82
Average£54.41£16.81£22.45
chart showing the cost of the cheapest travel insurance to Greece, Corfu, Tenerife, Thailand, South American, St. Vincent & Grenadines and USA

Those with pre-existing conditions would typically pay a higher price for travel insurance. However even a plan costing multiples of these prices would certainly be worth the cost, considering the potential financial devastation wrought be a serious injury or illness whilst abroad.

If you do have pre-existing medical conditions, don't hide them. Once notified of a medical emergency, one of the first steps taken by the insurer will be to validate the claim by checking the patient's medical history for any undeclared medical conditions. Not declaring your pre-existing conditions could therefore invalidate a claim.

If you're weighing the costs and benefits of travel insurance to decide whether or not to buy a policy before you travel, keep in mind that these costs would have been the sole responsibility of the traveller had they not secured travel insurance. Travel insurance can help prevent an unfortunate accident or illness from being financially devastating to you and your family.

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Comments and Questions

The guidance on this site is based on our own analysis and is meant to help you identify options and narrow down your choices. We do not advise or tell you which product to buy; undertake your own due diligence before entering into any agreement. Read our full disclosure here.