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Travel insurance: cancer-free but still a risk?

Travel insurance with medical conditions

Is it fair for insurance companies to penalise cancer sufferers with eye-watering premiums, even when the customer is declared cancer-free? Which? member, Debbie Neal shares her story.

Holidays are a luxury that not all of us can afford, but when you’ve been hit with a diagnosis of cancer and face months of gruelling treatment, getting away for a break before it all begins becomes essential.
I wasn’t after a round the world trip or an Arctic adventure, just a few days in a small town in France to enjoy the food before my treatment for tongue cancer meant I would be unable to eat normally again.

Cheap flights booked, I contacted my usual holiday insurance company, only to be told that as I’d had a recent cancer diagnosis and had not started treatment, I was uninsurable. I searched online for advice and found some recommended travel insurance companies for people with cancer. Success – they could offer me insurance.

From £20 to £400

I knew it would be more than the £20 I normally pay, but I wasn’t expecting it to be over £400 for a few days in France. I queried if I was really 20 times more likely to claim than my husband (the same company would insure him for £20, even with his high blood pressure), but it was take it or leave it, so I took it.

Six months later after treatment more awful than I could have imagined, I had a clear scan and I could start rebuilding my life.

I went back to the company I’d used the previous summer. I was flabbergasted to be told it was closer to £450 this time! But I was cancer free, I argued, and nothing about my condition was an emergency. Again, take it or leave it.

Where’s the risk?

I am not a holiday insurance risk. If my cancer does come back, it will be very slowly and my consultant will pick it up in the clinic. I might have to cancel, but my flights and hotel combined were not £450. I am not at risk of collapsing and needing emergency repatriation to the UK. So why is the premium so high? My insurance company could not explain why or tell me when my insurance would go down.

As a cancer sufferer I am vulnerable, and looking forward to a holiday at the end of my treatment kept me going when things were bleak. I would have paid almost anything to go away and in my opinion it is knowledge of this that forces the price up, not the increased risk.

This is a guest post by Debbie Neal, a Which? member. All opinions are Debbie’s own, not necessarily those of Which?

dieseltaylor says:
22 May 2016

There are two obvious points here;

1. That no body is keeping track of statistics regarding holidays and illness claims. I have made the point in relation to products and recalls. If consumers only speak to the manufacturer or the insurer then they are the only people with access to the statistics.

My remedy would be for a body, such as a Cancer charity to log all people travelling abroad and the claims , and non-claims. You might also do this for people holidaying in the UK, and people without insurance.

Insurance is a numbers game and if we, consumers, are not prepared to get a handle on them we will always be complaining.

I sold insurences , including travel insurances, so have some experience in the last century of speaking to different firms nad going to underwriters [rarely]. One of the main tools of insurance companies if they do not want a business sector is to hype the price to silly levels so they are unattractive to buyers.

There is a point about whether you should force companies to trade when they do not want to – I am against that. However if I could prove it was statistically profitable to take ex-cancer sufferers etc then with data a case could be made.

One thing not voiced here is the number of ill people who die on holiday in accidents – or possivle suicides. The cruise industry probably have stats on the number of people who fall overboard at the end of a cruise for instance.

Perhaps this needs to be considered.

The second point is why do you need insurance? Surely at least for the Uk and Europe you can drive, train abroad. As for desires to go to the US , the most expensive country in the world to have any illness I would think it wiser to go pretty much anywhere else.

Barrie Birch says:
22 May 2016

I agree with your second point. Why do we need insurance? If holidaying in the UK, not many people buy insurance for a week’s stay in Scotland or Cornwall. In the EU, we are covered for reciprocal health care with an EHIC card. The only problem would be a need for repatriation for circumstances such as death abroad but not for illness and medical treatment.
I know of a friend who suffered a heart attack in Italy and received excellent treatment for it. However, having insurance , the insurance company insisted on him being repatriated whereupon after landing back in GB they then left him to our medical services and therefore renounced any further responsibility or liability. In this case it would have been better to remain in Italy to complete full treatment and relied purely on the Italian Health Service.


I wholeheartedly agree with you DT. There is a complete blanket of mystery over travel insurance risks and premiums and it would benefit from a penetrating investigation since, once again, the most vulnerable are either being exploited, or denied a holiday of their choosing.

Whether Which? is up to the task of running a suitable campaign I could not say, and perhaps its resources would be better deployed in areas were there are no other champions. But in the UK there are scores of cancer-support charities in various forms and colossal funds and their silence on this issue is both deafening and disappointing.

I think I read in a previous Which? Conversation discussing travel insurance that people who exclude certain conditions from their cover find that, in the event of a health-related claim, every attempt is made by the insurer to pin the cause of the event on the excluded condition.

If ever there were a case for a Freedom of Information law this is a deserving one since, unlike with any other purchase, 90% of the people who buy a travel policy get absolutely nothing in return. Yes, I know you can’t put a price on peace of mind, and that the whole point of insurance is that it’s a cheap safety net if the worst comes to the worst, but in my view there is more than a whiff of profiteering here; the sheer number of companies offering it who are absent from all other insurance sectors is a bit of a give-away.

Another little wrinkle with travel insurance is that if you get it ‘free’ with your bank or credit card account, as well as having a superior or further-reaching policy with an insurance company, there will be an argument between them both over the liability for and apportionment of any claim as one policy might cover the risk while the other doesn’t, or not sufficiently – and failure to disclose the existence of the gratis policy [and vice versa] could invalidate or limit a claim.

Getting back to health cover in travel insurance, it would be useful if there was a medical opinion on what existing conditions, or events during the holiday, are likely to require repatriation or intensive medical treatment; I suspect that a cancer diagnosis is not one of them. Strokes and heart attacks that can come out of the blue are more likely occurrences. It seems the industry presumes the worst in calculating its premiums; the skies are not exactly dark with medevac planes flying in to our airports during the holiday periods.

As for the risk of death in Venice or wherever, then an inexpensive term life insurance policy can provide the funds required for repatriation, although, as ever, the premiums will be loaded according to a medical assessment but still might be better value overall.

dieseltaylor says:
23 May 2016

One only has to look at what Sasha Rodoy has done for laser eye surgery victims to realise that afflicted people can band together to generate some action. Major charities sometimes need a rocket to get them motivated – and at least consider if the number affected is a significant enough to justify the effort and expense.

As is my wont I wondered about travel policies in other EU lands and whether they had the same problems; and may even have answers to exclusion policies!.

As battling corrupted charities is my main concern I have a very brief look – not being multilingual is a drawback – but this some slightly relevant work from the excellent Germans which not directly relevant to cancer does show the number of policies and the cancellation aspect of a policy:

” If you like and traveled widely, white: can come between, always something – a disease, a death or the loss of a job. Who does not want to sit cancellation costs for the often worth a trip cancellation insurance. Financial test has tested 128 tariff variants for travel cancellation insurance: individual and family rates each for a trip and as annual contracts, with and without excess”

Alexia Cox says:
10 July 2017

Dear Debbie and others,

I really appreciated reading your comments.
I am now in remission and I am finding myself in Debbie’s shoes after looking for a quote on a comparative website…..sorry we can’t insure you!
Any suggestions please that a year has gone pass?