Small print dooms Brits’ travel insurance in Thailand

Thai paramedics attend a Brit badly injured in a traffic accident.

This year looks like becoming a record-breaker for badly injured Brits who are stranded in Thailand and unable to pay their medical bills. Whilst the British foreign office and even the Tourist Association of Thailand thunder away at the importance of buying accident and illness cover, the reality is that most travel insurance is not designed to cover life-saving operations or expensive repatriation. Total bills are typically GBP 100,000 and much more if an air evacuation service is needed.

The Association of British Insurers says that 17 percent of all overseas claims are rejected, mostly through lack of documentation, and adds that the average payout for successful claims is just over GBP 1,000. In other words, insurers are mainly paying out on small issues such as lost luggage or booking cancellations rather than medical emergencies. The award-winning blog Travelbunny stresses that most failures come down to the small print in the policies which is there to protect the funds of the insurance companies rather than you.

A review of charity crowdfunding sites, notably GoFundMe, reveals that no fewer than 23 Brits (or their families) have appealed for cash in the past six months to pay for traumatic incidents in Thailand and/or to fund repatriation. Most cases involved traffic accidents, usually on motorbikes or mopeds, with falling from buildings and being mugged the runners-up. The amounts requested in public appeals ranged from GBP 25,000 to GBP 300,000 with the average income received being around 10 percent of the advertised target. At best, charity crowdfunding is a peripheral partner rather than a principal funder.

The reasons for failed insurance policies are sometimes specified in crowdfunding entreaties. In 10 detailed traffic accidents, five injured Brits were refused cover because they were not wearing a crash helmet, two were relying on British driving licences (only international or Thai-issued are lawful here), two were participating in hazardous sports (elephant trekking and bungee jumping) and one had had been out of the UK for more than 30 days. Some reports were ambiguous, for example “Amex let me down” or “repatriation not allowed”.

Not surprisingly, not a single GoFundMe appeal mentioned alcohol or narcotics as an insurance denial reason – even though most of the road accidents occurred late at night. Some Thai hospitals are reluctant to perform such as tests as they don’t want to ruin the chances of a successful insurance payout. However, insurers in a big claim will want clear evidence there was no alcohol or substance abuse. The warning clauses most used in the small print are “must take reasonable care” or “must observe national laws”. For example, it is technically compulsory in Thailand for back seat car passengers to wear safety belts which, of course, creates issues when they have not been fitted.

Informal surveys in Thailand suggest that only about half of incoming tourists have any kind of insurance. Of those who do, most rely on travel insurance which may charge them five percent of the total holiday cost. Apart from being aware of the small print, the best advice is probably to stay away from renting a vehicle at all costs. If something nasty does occur, you can be assured your insurance company will leave no stone unturned. That’s guaranteed.