You can’t buy peace of mind, not about the world, life, what you will be, your job, what your children will turn out like, whether your (current) relationship will stay the distance, whether [dramatic pause] your dreams will come true. But for the smaller, financially quantifiable things (be they sundry or catastrophic) there is insurance. That reads like an ad or an Insurance Institute text book. In fact, it is a sexed-up, paraphrased version of the Principles of Insurance text book, if my memory serves; I’ve worked in the industry over five years, I have the qualifications and even the t-shirt (no, I really do, and a fleece and an umbrella!).
But this hasn’t helped my month long search for the right travel insurance for my trip. Usually when I go away I insure with my employer because if things go wrong I think I know which limbs to twist to get me home. You don’t have that luxury with a faceless firm you found on the internet. But my employer does not have the appetite for this kind of trip, and I’ve found that neither do a lot of other insurance firms. I have also found that I am in the hinterland of ‘young’, the upper limit being 35 for some firms.
Anyway, I know how important it is to have a good insurer, not just a cheap one. You’re buying the cover in case something bad happens, the last thing you want is not only for something bad to happen but then to be messed around by a company that trains its claims staff to look for every which way not to pay for your bad event (or it is quite blatantly excluded and you did not read the policy). You are paying a travel insurance company to safe-guard your health (or the financial consequences of your health going wrong), so for someone like me, risk averse and with my forehead permanently wrinkled, I am not going to take a punt on a company that suggests the principle selling point of its policy is its low cost. So, I set out wanting something ‘reassuringly expensive’ – another ad rip-off?
Insurance interlude: Insurance is all about risk, so the riskier the pursuit or subject of the insurance, the more money you have to toss into the pot to guard against the financial implications of something going wrong. This makes sense. So, it makes sense that winter sports cover comes at a premium, you have more stuff than the average traveller, it is more expensive and you are more likely to break yourself than the average traveller. This equals more English Pounds.
I began to look at companies (avoiding anything with ‘cheap’ in the marketing material or any companies with names that implied quickness or cheapness) and soon came to realise it was simply not that simple. The basic risk assessment of my trip identified two main problem areas: the first, that winter sports issue, because while my employer insures me against the risk of an injury on the slopes and the associated medical expenses, there is the risk that I become injured and cannot continue from France to Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand and my employer does not insure that. The second is the trekking; slips, trips and falls in rural locations at altitudes in excess of more than 5000m and the potential for altitude sickness. In grave, serious circumstances you might even need a helichopper to get you to medical attention, but wait, can you pay? No money, no chopper. So, I need a policy that covers me from December to August with four months winter sports and trekking. Then, to avoid making life too simple, there is that pre-existing medical condition.
Now, despite identifying trekking as my major risk, it did not occur to me to think that it might fall into the insurance box of ‘hazardous activity’- it’s just placing one foot in front of the other, surely? Some activities that do: abseiling, BMX riding, climbing, fell running, football, gliding and team building (if you insure with the Post Office). An insurance policy wording is a great list of all the amazing extreme things out there that you might want to try. Eventually, I came to realise that trekking often featured on these lists. In fact, lot of insurance companies will cap the height to which you can trek: it might be standard to trek up to 2000m and thereafter it might be considered hazardous to go between 2000 and 4000m, so you pay an extra premium. But the Annapurna Circuit goes up to 5514m and a lot of companies will simply not insure it. Tempting just to take that risk – insured at 4000m, not insured at 4001m. I can see myself dancing gleefully over that imaginary line, backwards and forwards – insured, not insured, insured, not insured. ‘What’s 1500m?’ The Shoulder Devil mutters. ‘You break your ankle at 4075m, who will know?’ Shut up, Shoulder Devil. This sadly ruled out a number of reassuringly expensive insurance companies.
Most insurance companies cover winter sports but you always pay an additional premium. And yes, it about doubled the premiums I was being quoted. It was not until it came up in conversation that I realised that a lot of companies will only provide a maximum 28 days cover. Faced with this and frustrated by another complication I asked how they knew that you had only actually spent those 28 days on the slopes. Receipts, that was the answer. And without receipts (given I will have a season lift pass and be too poor to actually buy anything on the slopes)? What, my honesty? And before the Devil started up with his silver pound saving (you can spend it on a new hat) tongue started, I ditched that idea…
Finally, the pre-existing medical condition. Once more, I found that all companies treat this differently. World Nomads, for instance, will simply exclude any condition related directly or indirectly to a pre-existing medical condition. Now, I have asthma, and this is never a problem for me but then hiking to 5500m is not something I do every day. A normal person may suffer breathing problems at 5500m and I knew for me, while any problem I might have may not be asthma related, World Nomads would exclude it. Other companies adopt a different approach and will ask some basic questions to rule out any potential problems, while others have dedicated health screening lines, one of which you immediately paid an additional premium for having called at all, even if the screening was clear…have headache coming on.
In the end, I realised it was not possible to buy my peace of mind. With quotes exceeding £1000 (approaching the cost of my flights to S E Asia) and others around the £500 mark, all unsatisfactory in some small way, I decided I simply could not insure the winter sports. If I get broken doing some kind of knarly death slide (not a recognised snowboard term) or more likely slip going out the front door and this stops me going to South East Asia, then I lose the money. And for £205 the trekking to any height is covered, as are the medical conditions and with a company that has a reasonable reputation in the industry. I would call that piece of mind, not peace of mind.
The main problem; I found it so hard to compare like for like cover. If only there was a website…oh, there is? Seriously, given the complicated nature of what I was looking for GoCompare (or any other good aggregator site) would not have helped. For one, I think they are all about price. My only source of information, other than what the company wanted to tell me, was reviews (reviewcentre.com is good for this). Some made my forehead wrinkle: ‘I am writing this from my hospital bed…’ This is not going to be good, nobody gives good feedback from their hospital bed. One made me laugh though, a review of the Post Office Travel Insurance entitled ‘Keen to take your money, but not keen to pay out’ The story unfolds: the guest reviewer was ‘the victim of fraudulent activity’, a game of dice no less, authentically named ‘thimblerig’, which the unlucky man (because I assumed it was a man) was forced to play against his better judgement, thereby losing 250e. He was shocked and astounded that his travel insurance would not pick up this unfortunate depletion of his holiday spends. One star! The first item in the comments section?…