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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?


Which advice is look at as many policies as you can I do just that and have always found cover at a reasonable price But many people do not take notice of advice so what can you do to help Just let them be and ignore their moans

Personal health is only one of many risks and perils that can disrupt a holiday. The consequences of an illness or death can be costly but they should be kept in proportion. If Debbie’s normal holiday insurance premium is £20 for such a trip then her changed circumstances might justify some increase but not a twenty-times increase. For many holidays travel insurance is compulsory so accepting the risk yourself is not an option. There appears to be a lot of competition in the travel insurance industry but it doesn’t seem to have much affect on premiums. This is because almost every one of the companies offering travel insurance have their policies underwritten by one of a small number of big insurers and that is where the decisions on qualifications, limitations and exclusions are made. It would be useful to know what percentage of holiday policies sold result in a health-related claim.

Angela says:
21 May 2016

Obviously look around for the best value policy, however what they are saying is that Cancer sufferers are being unfairly treated by insurance companies even when clear of the disease. Insurance companies will do their utmost to get as much out of you as they can. Even being on a course of antibiotics will hike the price by £100. Totally galling as the last day of the course was the date of the flight.

I have had cancer 3 times, the 3rd is being treated now. 2 years ago I wanted to go on holiday to Spain for a week just to relax. The reason being I had just got over having the upper section of my left lung removed with the tumour on it and being cleared of any more traces of cancer. In 2002 I had my prostate removed and the ongoing checks were positive. When I applied for travel insurance the minimum was £820 for one week and the maximum £1280. My reaction was I do not want the cancer to be included on the policy. This meant I was insured and that condition had been mentioned. The cost was £32 for the week. I was insured for everything else as normal. If I had the cancer come back while on holiday and it was life threatening, it was cheaper to purchase a scheduled flight home than paying £820 for insurance. The moral of this is insurance companies are blatantly ripping off cancer sufferers. I believe strongly that this matter should be addressed to stop insurance companies using this practice.

The ongoing checks being positive is meant as no sign of the cancer returning.

Eric, you have really hit the nail on the head with your comments

Eric; I have had the same problem with these rip-off companies even though, after treatment (for a naturally slow-growing neuroendocrine cancer) I have been pronounced ‘stable’ and my Consultant has written a letter to say i am fit to travel. After several months of ‘computer says no’ I’ve got a multi-trip annual insurance (europe only) which covers me for everything except the NET. Which is fine, I am happy with that. Cost = £240. Others – those that didn’t immediately say ‘no’ wanted up to £1500.
The company is OneStop4.com

I had a diseased mitre heart valve replaced some 4 years ago which has now left me in far better health than what I was previous, yet travel insurance underwriters cannot see that, all they seem to think your going to drop dead at any moment, so they pile on the premium to ridiculous levels. You can shop around though and there can be a really big difference from policy to policy of which one quote may be a lot more acceptable.

Nicholas M says:
21 May 2016

Time for which campaign I think, this is scandalous. Unnecessarily discriminatory against individuals that have suffered enough already.

Or what about one of the big and powerful cancer charities taking this on board?

Francis Blake says:
21 May 2016

I really cannot comment on the issue, but I strongly doubt that insurers can prove that cancer sufferers claim 20x (or more) than others when on holiday.

Being declared cancer-free is only a statement at one point in time; it just means the cancer has not reappeared yet (harsh, but my experience). From an insurer point of view, that increases the risk. But how many re-occurences stop a holiday short and how much is claimed? I bet it is insignificant. If insurers spread that cost on all travel policies, the increase would be insignificant and customers could take satisfaction of knowing they help vulnerable people have a good time (I know I would).

My suggestion to the Debbies of this world, who have every right to a fair customer treatment by insurers, is immediately to log a complaint. If the proposed resolution does not satisfy you or 8 weeks have elapsed, take it up with the Financial Ombudsman Service. In spite of noises to the contrary, they do take decisions based on fairness to the customer (no, I don’t work for them).

Well said, Francis. Absolutely right. The travel insurance providers are going way beyond experience-based commercial differentiation and actuarial calculations into outright discrimination against a minority of travellers. The nice round numbers are a clue. I wish we could get an honest risk assessment and claims analysis for this sector.

My mum has been enlisted in a tumour marker research project at her local cancer hospital, which involves her seeing her oncologist for a brief update and a blood test every three months. She has agreed to do this to help other cancer sufferers in the future, to enable early tumour detection and recurrence through simple blood tests. However, this has had the undesired effect of her now being considered “an unacceptable risk” where obtaining travel insurance is concerned, as three-monthly hospital visits are considered to be too frequent, and no insurance company will cover her. Eventually, after dozens of phone calls to travel insurance companies, she was told by the only company that would consider covering her, that a trip to the US would set her back £2,000-£3,000 and she would also require a detailed medical report; they would then base their final decision on the report. She knew her oncologist would support her wish to travel and would consider her fit enough to travel, but the premium was just not worth it. She dropped all ideas of going to the US. So much for the “Bucket List” we all hope to complete during our lives!

We were told it wasn’t worth risking travel without insurance for cancer as they will tell you that the trip over the broken paving slab that broke your ankle occurred as a result of having had cancer, and you’re not covered for cancer so therefore you’re not covered for the costs incurred by the broken ankle.

Good luck Debbie and happy travelling…!

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Andrew West says:
22 May 2016

I feel as if I should be touching wood since, luckily, I don’t (believe I) have the sort of medical limitations that others describe here. But I do think about it whenever I arrange travel insurance and what is being described here, by those who have been affected, is quite scandalous.

For travel within the EU area (where, these days, my wife and I generally take our holidays) then hospital needs would be met under the reciprocal arrangements of the country you’re visiting, just as EU visitors would be treated by the NHS. What extra are the Insurers proposing to provide?

My thoughts echo those of others: self-insure for the risks you do not believe are being treated fairly and put the money (or credit) aside for getting home in a hurry if you should need it. And instead of paying thousands of pounds to insurers for a short break away (and given that most cancer effects seem most unlikely to be sudden and catastrophic) just insure for losing your luggage, motorway breakdowns and emergency dentistry etc – and go for it!

I understand that this might not be the way to go for every destination, but you get my drift. Nil carborundum desperandum, as (I think) they say.

If I can add to what has already been suggested, this issue is a prime candidate for a Which? Campaign.

– and, from my heart, good luck to you who are needing it sooner than me!

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.

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.

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”

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?

I had a CABG bypass in 2016. I hadn’t had a heart attack, only palpitations. The single trip premium is always massive because the telephone agent, working from a script asks if I have had a heart attack. When I answer ‘no’ they still put down that I have. I am fitter than before and have had no ill effects, yet I am charged for “heart disease” year after year. I believe it, like most insurances is a complete rip-off, which needs investigation.