By Tim Evershed | Edited by Sam D
Updated September 2016
Every year thousands of people of all ages plan gap-year and other worldwide backpacking jaunts. If that's you, it's vital to get specialist travel insurance – often called backpacker insurance – as soon as you book, so you're covered if the worst happens.
In this guide we explain how to bag the best backpacker insurance deals, how they work and what to watch out for when you buy. If you're just going on a standard holiday, check out the best standard travel insurance policies.
Backpacker best buys
The 10 Need-to-Knows
Whether you're going round with a rugged backpack or sporting a posh suitcase, if you're going away for more than 60 consecutive days standard travel insurance is unlikely to cover you. You'll therefore need specialist backpacker insurance – sometimes called 'gap-year' or 'extended leave' insurance.
These policies can protect you for up to 18 months as standard in most cases, and can even be extended.
A backpacker insurance policy will insure you for as long as you're away – and usually also let you temporarily return to the UK to visit friends or family, or deal with an emergency.
From our research of more than 500 standard travel policies, the majority limit cover to 30 or 31 days before you have to return home. However, plenty of policies do extend insurance to 60 days, but for the majority of backpackers that won't nearly be enough.
Going away for less than 60 days? Have a look at the best standard travel insurance policies.
For most, backpacking is a chance to step off the beaten track, throw off the shackles of everyday responsibilities and take more risks than usual.
But don't assume skiing and snowboarding or extreme sports and adventurous activities will be automatically covered on basic policies. In almost all cases, you'll pay a higher cost for pursuits such as quad biking, bungee jumping, kayaking and white-water rafting.
That said, gentler pastimes such as scuba diving, hiking, safari and even jet skiing tend to feature as standard on many backpacker policies.
Many policies will even spell out limitations on a particular activity – eg, some will only allow you cover for one bungee jump per trip.
Whatever cover you have, check the precise wording. Say you add winter sports cover if going skiing – it should cover standard skiing and snowboarding, but may not cover going off-piste or more extreme versions such as ski jumping or snowmobiling. You may have to pay more for these. Specialist providers such as BMC and Snowcard may be able to cover you.
Backpacking often involves staying in hostels, overnight coach trips and going on long treks.
While these have their own appeals, they also leave you open to an increased risk of theft, as it's not like staying at a five-star with an in-room safe or having an airline look after your baggage while in transit. In some hostels there may be nowhere to lock up valuables while you sleep or while you're away.
Leave baggage or valuables unattended or not locked up in hostels, on overnight coach trips, or on treks, and insurance is unlikely to pay out if they're stolen.
So take these precautions:
Do you really need all those gadgets?
While you may go on your annual holiday with suitcases bristling with iPads, phones, laptops, luxury gadgets and cameras, a year trekking around the world with just a bag on your back means you physically won't be able to carry 'em all with you.
As well as freeing up extra room (and weight) in your luggage, the fewer goods you carry, the lower your risk of losing them or having them stolen. Hotels, campsites, hostels and other accommodation also increasingly offer internet access via a rented tablet or computer in your room, giving another reason to leave your electronic kit at home.
And apart from the benefit of reducing your security risk, if there ever was a chance to get away from a computer screen, a gap year must surely be it...
Buy a robust padlock for bags/suitcases
Your best bet is to deter opportunistic thieves or outwit them. In many cases, a robust padlock can help. You don't have to spend £50 on a specialist lock; for roughly £10 you can buy a single chunky padlock or pack of three 'digit combination' locks.
Tell your bank you're going away
Before leaving, tell your bank and credit card provider that you plan to be overseas for some time – and, if you can, where you'll likely be for certain periods.
The more info you give your bank, the better; banks keep a close eye on suspected fraudulent use and will kibosh a card if they think it's been stolen.
While it only usually needs a quick phone call to reactivate a frozen card, this might not be possible if you're stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Keep note of emergency numbers
Jot down the following and keep them in a protected folder in the luggage:
- Bank/credit card 'lost and stolen' numbers on a piece of paper.
- Family's and friends' numbers – in case you don't know them off by heart and your phone's lost or stolen.
- The British consulate in the countries you're visiting.
- Your travel insurance claims number.
- Local emergency numbers in the countries you're visiting, eg, 999, 911.
Every travel insurance policy covers different things but all offer a varying degree of cover on:
Medical problems (unless caused by a pre-existing condition)
Nobody plans to be ill or have an accident, especially on the trip of a lifetime, but it does happen and if it happens to you, this will cover the expensive business of getting treated overseas. In most cases that includes dental emergencies and repatriation – the cost of having to fly you back to the UK if necessary.
On a slightly more morbid note, most policies cover cremation costs or the repatriation of a body should you, or someone else covered under the policy, die during your trip.
If you can no longer go on your travels, or need to come back early, your backpacker policy will cover cancellation of the trip. However, you'll need a valid reason to abandon your trip before insurers will pay up.
Each insurer will have its own list of valid reasons, which usually include losing your job or serious illness in your family. But, if you have a change of heart or simply get homesick, your claim will probably be rejected.
Unlike standard travel policies, some backpacker insurance even covers failure to pass university exams as a reason for cancellation.
Baggage and personal belongings
Your backpacker policy will also cover you if your gear is lost, stolen or damaged while you're travelling. Almost everything you take overseas, including computers, phones, cameras and clothing is included. Many insurers will also cover you for the loss of a passport, cash or a driving licence.
However, policies can vary greatly both in the amount covered and in the excess – the amount you have to pay towards the claim yourself. For example, items such as cash or expensive goods can be subject to an additional higher excess.
Personal liability protects others and their property from accidents you may cause on holiday. For example, the personal liability element of your insurance would cover you if you inadvertently injured a fellow traveller. Insurers will typically cover you for up to £2 million, which should be more than enough.
Unfortunately travel schedules are at the mercy of the elements, so delay cover is one of the more important reasons for taking out backpacker insurance. Most policies cover against more than just bad weather though, with many including incidents such as industrial action and mechanical breakdown.
If your flight's been delayed for more than three hours or it's been cancelled you may be able to claim compensation of up to £470 directly from the airline, but the reason for the delay or cancellation must be the airline's fault, so bad weather, for example, won't count.
This compensation is only for EU-regulated flights. An EU flight is where the flight departed from an EU airport, regardless of the airline, OR where an EU airline landed at an EU airport. Under this law, EU airports also include those in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. See our Flight Delay Compensation guide for more info.
If this doesn't apply – perhaps because you flew both to and from an airport outside the EU – you could try making a claim on your travel insurance policy. Insurers typically pay out for each 12-hour period you've been delayed, but the payouts are often tiny compared with what you can get from your airline.
Accidents while undertaking casual work abroad
Some backpacker insurance will allow you to do certain types of paid or unpaid work abroad – and pay out if you need to make a claim because of an incident while in employment. Typical casual backpacking jobs such as bar and restaurant work, fruit picking or playing music will normally be covered.
Some policies will also cover teaching posts or coaching sports in paid or voluntary roles. Manual labour, such as construction jobs, is usually excluded from paid work but may well be allowed for voluntary work. However, even volunteers will probably not be covered while using machinery.
What is allowed differs from policy to policy, though, so check the cover you're considering fits with your work plans.
Of course, things aren't always that easy and there are a number of exclusions...
Like all insurance policies, there are a number of things that providers will not pay out for
Alcohol- or drug-related injury
Backpackers are bound to let their hair down and some destinations are notoriously hedonistic, but beware because insurers are not going to cover you for drunken pranks or drug-fuelled adventures.
If an insurer suspects you were under the influence of non-prescription drugs or were over the alcohol limit when an accident happened, they may well refuse to pay your claim. Even if an accident happened on an organised activity, like a boat trip or a bungee jump, if you're high as a kite, or even just had one too many beers, your policy could prove worthless.
Insurers have different classifications of 'drunk', with some using blood alcohol limits, so check the policy carefully before you buy.
Pre-existing medical conditions
Insurers will often cover you if you have a pre-existing medical condition, though if you fail to tell your insurer and then need treatment for that condition, or a related condition, you won't be covered. You may also struggle to get a claim paid if you ignore medical advice on medication or jabs required to enter a country or region. So, if you go to Kenya and decide against getting jabs for diphtheria, hepatitis A, poliomyelitis, tetanus and typhoid, do not expect your insurer to foot the bill if the worst happens.
Backpacker insurance will cover your personal possessions when you're travelling. But it doesn't mean you can be gung ho with your stuff. If you leave items unattended and they're stolen, your insurer won't pay for their replacement.
Travel to dangerous countries
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) outlines which countries are unsafe for travel. If you travel to a country on the FCO's list your cover is likely to be invalid. Check out the FCO's current travel advice for more.
If you've booked a backpacking expedition and have left getting insurance way down at the bottom of your 'to do' list, you're taking an unnecessary risk.
Thinking you don't need to arrange cover yet as your adventure doesn't start for another six months is a big mistake. In fact, it's even more reason to arrange backpacker insurance, as anything can happen before your trip even starts.
Why? Because backpacker insurance won't just cover you while you're away, it also covers you for cancellation, or anything else that might go wrong, BEFORE you make your trip.
Double-check you're covered for the USA, Canada, the Caribbean and Spain
Be mindful that some Europe policies do not cover Spain. Meanwhile, some worldwide policies do not cover the USA, Canada and the Caribbean.
So if you're going to any of those countries ensure your policy actually covers you while there.
"Why should I get backpacker insurance? I probably won't use it," you may ask. But the whole point of insurance is to cover you for the unforeseen – unpredictable events that may occur before or during your trip.
Of all life experiences where you might deliberately think about insurance, a gap year is one. A gap year is all about taking risks, visiting exotic locations and putting yourself through unusual experiences.
While it might not be all white-water rafting and trekking in the Hindu Kush, you'll most likely be doing plenty of pastimes out of the ordinary which will expose you to risk. You need to accept that, and as it's impossible to predict the future, all you can do is give it your best shot. To sum up...
Insurance is about making unpredictable events predictable in case the unpredictable happens.
The thought of having to declare medical conditions can be daunting, but travelling without making your insurer aware of any issues can result in any claim you make being rejected. Make sure you give a full and frank rundown of all the health issues you have that will be relevant to your policy.
Pricing radically changes depending on who you are, so it's important to disclose everything. But the rules are changing: from August 2016 insurers will be unable to unfairly reject customers' claims if they've given wrong information about a part of their policy that is irrelevant to their claim. See Insurance rejection clampdown.
Until then... if your insurer doesn't know about your conditions they will be excluded and you could face a massive bill if you need treatment.
Remember, if you have an annual policy and your circumstances change, or you become ill, let your insurer know. For more, see our Pre-existing Medical Conditions Travel Insurance guide.
Insurance firms go all out to scare us into upping cover levels. Don't be duped into upgrading for no reason. Platinum policies with £10m medical cover are bunkum.
"Why," you ask? Well, you're charged more but the chances of you making a claim that high are slim. According to the Association of British Insurers, the average cost of a medical travel insurance claim in 2013 was £930 – a far cry from £10m.
Like a boy scout, a backpacker should always be prepared, so here's a list of other things that can be done or checked in advance of travel.
Sort those visas out
Many countries require visas if you wish to enter, others if you want to work. Some visas are a mere stamp at the border, others will take days or weeks to process. Do your homework and work out visa arrangements long before leaving home.
British citizens are thankfully welcomed into dozens of countries without any need for a visa, although it's often the case that where it says 'No Visa' is needed, you'll usually need a passport with at least six months left to run on it (when you arrive); proof of enough cash to live/travel; proof of further flights; and documents showing a next destination on your trip.
Try Visa Central or VisaHQ for a guide to how many days you can stay for and whether a tourist visa is easily available. They're only a guide, though: for precise details, you'll need to visit each country's own government information websites.
Book a date with the needle
Get advice from your GP practice about which vaccinations are necessary for your destinations. Some vaccines are given over weeks while others might leave you feeling too unwell to travel for a few days. Give yourself time to recover before you leave. It's also a good idea to check if you'll be travelling to any malaria hotspots and seek anti-malarial tablets from your GP if required.
You'll find plenty of top tips on the NHS's own vaccination help website – it gives advice on the types of vaccination, how to get them, side effects and details of those which are free on the NHS.
Organise your cash and cards
It's a good idea to have some local currency ready when you arrive in a new country – especially in your first port of call. Use our TravelMoneyMax comparison tool to get the best rates before you jet off, and 15 of our cheapest tips and tricks to boost your spending power.
So have a look about for a good rate of exchange and convert enough cash to see you through your first few days.
To keep the rest of your travel money as safe as possible, a mix of cash, pre-paid cards and credit cards is a good idea.
Depending on where you're going to be spending large chunks of your time, certain cards for overseas spending will suit you better than others. Don't forget to split your money between cards and keep these in a hidden money belt on you at all times.
Make copies of your paperwork and write down emergency numbers
Make sure your travel insurance policy – as well as all other travel documents, including a photocopy of your passport – are printed out and kept on you.
Also it'll be worth doing the same for relevant phone numbers – such as the British Embassy at your destination, local emergency service numbers and 24-hour helplines provided by some travel insurers – to save having to look for them in an emergency. It'll be a lot of admin work but could be a lifesaver if you end up in a tight spot.
Get familiar with the Know Before You Go campaign
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) launched the Know Before You Go campaign in 2011 to help backpackers be better ready for travelling to different countries. It's jammed with travel tips and loads of tailored country advice. It includes links to the FCO on social media including Twitter, with tips for safety and travel advice. Find more info on the Government's website.
Backpacker insurance best buys
Here are our top picks that meet our minimum cover levels, though your age influences which are the best deals, as most insurers split policies for those up to age 45 and for those age 46 and above. Though once you get over 65, cheap cover gets more difficult to find.
Best Buys – up to and including age 45 (at time of travel)
|Policy||Europe (from)||Worldwide (from)||Max age||Medical||Cancellation||Baggage||Cash||Liability||Holidaysafe (Backpacker & Longstay Plus)*||£120.45||£252.97||45||£10m||£3,000||£2,500||£500||£2m|
|Travel Insurance Direct (Long Stay – Standard)||£143.99||£289.29||45||£5m||£1,500||£1,000||£250||£2m|
Note: The worldwide premiums include USA. All example premiums based on backpacker trip of up to/for 12 mths.
Best Buys – age 46 and above
We've also picked out the best deal if you're a little older, though be aware that many insurers have maximum age limits so anyone over 55 should double-check.
Cover for anyone who is 70 and over may be very difficult to find, so if that's you, try a broker who may be able to get you a specialist deal. You can find a broker via the British Insurance Brokers' Association.
|Policy||Europe (from)||Worldwide (from)||Max age||Medical||Cancellation||Baggage||Cash||Liability||Holidaysafe (Backpacker & Longstay Plus)*||£168.84||£354.16||55||£10m||£3,000||£2,500||£500||£2m|
|Holidaysafe (Backpacker & Longstay Plus)*||£219.23||£460.39||65||£10m||£3,000||£2,500||£500||£2m|
|Holidaysafe (Backpacker & Longstay Plus)*||£252.94||£531.24||69||£10m||£3,000||£2,500||£500||£2m|
|Hiscox (GAP Year)||£244.52||£415.69||49||£10m||£2,000||£1,000||£200||£2m|
|Hiscox (GAP Year)||£276.42||£469.91||59||£10m||£2,000||£1,000||£200||£2m|
Note: The worldwide premiums include USA. All example premiums based on backpacker trip of up to/for 12 mths.
If you've time... check comparison sites too
It's also worth checking prices on comparison sites. We found that prices on MoneySupermarket.com* sometimes beat our top picks for those that meet our minimum cover levels, though be aware the really cheap policies may have limited cover.
Other comparisons to try if you've time include Confused.com*, Compare The Market and Gocompare*, but from our research these rarely beat our best buys on policies that meet our minimum levels (though please let us know if you do find cheaper cover via them).
Pre-existing medical condition? You may need specialist cover
Some conditions are more difficult to cover than others, so consider your needs carefully. If you have, or have had, mild asthma or high-blood pressure you may still be able to get cover via the methods above, though always tell your insurer about your condition even if you don't deem it serious.
If you're still unable to find cover, speak to a specialist broker who should be able to help. Try the British Insurance Brokers' Association broker helpline.
If cover is still unaffordable, the price may drop considerably if you ask insurers to exclude some, or all, of your pre-existing conditions. Overall, it's a judgement call on the risks of travelling with limited cover.
How to make a claim on your backpacker insurance
Claiming on your travel insurance shouldn't be daunting and – if you understand the terms and excesses on your policy – you shouldn't be in for any nasty shocks. Follow the five steps below in the event you need to claim.
1. Submit your claim as soon as possible
Contact your insurer as soon as you can. Some parts of your policy may have a short window to submit a claim and it may take a while to be processed.
2. If it's a medical claim get an insurer to accept it first
If you need medical attention – and it's not an emergency – get an insurer to accept the claim first. If the insurer accepts the claim, you won't be faced with a bill after treatment if your claim is eventually rejected. For obvious reasons, don't delay treatment if it's an emergency.
3. If it's a theft- or loss-claim, notify the police
If something goes missing or is stolen when you're abroad you may need to get a crime reference number or the overseas equivalent to make a successful claim. Report the incident to the police as soon as you can – you often have to do it within 24 hours – to make sure your claim doesn't hit the skids.
4. Keep your receipts
If you're claiming for lost luggage or delay, remember to keep receipts of essential items you've bought in the interim, such as food and drink. Many insurers allow you to add these expenses to a claim and may ask for receipts as proof.
5. Complain if you feel your claim was unfairly rejected
If your insurance company rejects your claim and you think it's done so wrongly, don't take it lying down. Complain to the free Financial Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is an independent adjudicator that will make the final decision on a claim if you're locked in a dispute with your insurer. For more on how to make a complaint, read our Financial Rights guide.
How to complain about your insurance provider
The insurance industry doesn't have the best customer-service reputation and while a provider may be good for some, it can be hell for others. Common problems include claims either not being paid out on time or at all, unfair charges, or exclusions being hidden in small print. It's always worth trying to call your provider first, but, if not, then…
Free tool if you're having a problem
This tool helps you draft your complaint and manage it too. It's totally free, and offered by a firm called Resolver which we like so much we work with to help people get complaints justice.
If the complaint isn't resolved, Resolver will escalate it to the free Financial Ombudsman Service.
Important: If your issue is about a voucher or incentive that was part of an MSE Blagged deal, then instead just let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org as that's usually quicker.