Find out what you need to know about travel insurance and travelling with a disability.
This guide looks at some of the hurdles associated with travelling with a disability, including long-haul flying, finding disability-friendly accommodation and obtaining travel insurance with a pre-existing medical condition.
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What is travel insurance and why do you need it?
Everyone who travels needs travel insurance whether they have disabilities or not. Accidents happen, and if you find yourself ill or injured in a foreign country, you could be faced with huge medical bills for treatment and hospitalisation. Trips also get cancelled for a variety of reasons and bags get lost or stolen every day, so travel insurance is simply a form of protection that ensures you won’t have to foot the entire bill yourself if the worst does happen. A typical travel insurance policy will provide cover for the three main areas of risk:
- Overseas emergency medical treatment and hospitalisation
- Trip cancellation and delay
- Loss, theft or damage of luggage and personal items.
Travel insurance is a little trickier to obtain when you have a pre-existing medical condition that may or may not be covered (most insurers will consider disability to be a pre-existing condition). Whether you'll be able to buy travel insurance depends on the type of disability you have and the degree of risk you pose to your insurer (in other words, how likely you are to make a claim).
Getting the right policy
Most insurers cover a range of minor pre-existing medical conditions from asthma and allergies to hypertension and Type 2 diabetes. So if your disability is listed as being automatically covered in the product disclosure statement (PDS), your condition will be covered at no extra cost.
Many insurers will also cover more serious conditions, subject to further assessment. If your disability is under control, you have not been recently hospitalised and your doctor considers you fit to travel, you may be able to obtain cover, though usually at a higher cost.
Some conditions are not covered by travel insurance under any circumstances, such as cancer, terminal illness and organ transplants. If your disability falls into one of these categories, you’ll still be able to obtain travel insurance for non-medical purposes, but you won’t be covered for claims related to your disability.
Always declare your pre-existing medical condition to your insurer. Even if the condition hasn’t given you any trouble for years, you need to declare it and try to get cover for it. If you don’t declare the condition and it causes you to become ill or injured on your trip, your policy will not cover the resulting medical bills.
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Travelling with a wheelchair
If you’re planning to travel with a wheelchair, the following tips may help your trip go more smoothly:
- Have your wheelchair serviced. Make sure it’s in good condition because it may be more difficult and expensive to repair if something breaks or fails overseas.
- Be prepared to check in your wheelchair. Most airlines won’t allow you to take an electric wheelchair in the cabin, so make sure you take everything out of the storage compartments before checking it in.
- Make yourself known to airline staff. This ensures you’ll get preferential treatment when you board the plane and for any special meal or seating requirements.
- Avoid overseas hire. While you can hire wheelchairs overseas, it can be expensive. Most airlines will allow you to bring your own wheelchair without extra charges.
Taking medication on holidays
If your disability requires you to take regular medication, there are a few things to bear in mind when taking drugs overseas:
- Make sure they’re legal. Different countries have different rules for different medications. What may be legal in Australia could be a banned substance in other countries. Check with the embassy of the country you are travelling to before you purchase flights.
- Keep all medication in their original packaging. This makes them easier to identify and can save you a lot of time and embarrassing questions at customs.
- Have enough medication to last your entire trip. Australian prescriptions are not recognised overseas.
- Speak with your doctor. Ask your doctor to write you a letter describing your disability and confirming that your medication is for personal use only.
- Take it in your carry-on. Carry your medication with you in your carry-on luggage to avoid losing it if your checked bag goes missing.
- Contact your travel provider. If your medication needs to be refrigerated, notify the airline ahead of time. Some airlines won’t allow you to use the plane’s cabin fridge.
As all airlines are now required to provide services for passengers with disabilities, air travel should be reasonably straightforward and uneventful if you do a little forward planning:
- Contact the airline ahead of time to make sure it’s aware of your disability and will have the necessary facilities and assistance available when you fly.
- Contact airport authorities if you require assistance getting around the terminal and checking your bags. Most major airports have electric vehicles that can deliver you to your gate.
- Make sure the gate you are departing from or arriving at has aerobridge access (some smaller budget airlines may require you to use steps).
- Make sure you book an aisle seat and that cabin crew will be able to assist you if you need help getting to and from the toilet.
- If you use a wheelchair, make sure it falls within the airline’s weight and dimension limits.
- Check to see if there are others with wheelchairs on your flight, as most airlines have a two-wheelchair only policy.
- If you use an assistance dog, make sure it will be allowed on the plane and into the country you are travelling to (there may be quarantine issues to address).
Flying with a disability
Flying with a disability can be particularly difficult on long-haul flights. The following tips may help make your journey easier:
- Try to fly with a carer who can make you trip more comfortable by helping you with your medication and any mobility issues.
- Drink plenty of fluids and exercise, even if only in your seat, to prevent the risk of deep vein thrombosis (blood clots).
- If you have a stopover destination and your mobility aid is checked in, make sure you have access to a hired one while you are waiting to continue your journey.
- Try to book two shorter flights with a stopover in between if you want to avoid long-haul flights.
Just as flying poses problems for those with disabilities, so too can accommodation when you arrive at your destination. Forward planning is definitely required here, as standards of accessibility can vary widely. Before you book your accommodation:
- Visit websites such as Hotels.com, which have specific disability search criteria.
- Contact the accommodation provider and ask about its accessible facilities. If there is any doubt, request an email with pictures of access ramps, accessible parking, elevators and bathrooms.
- Avoid organised tours as they often require you to have a carer accompany you and the accommodation may not be disability-friendly.
- Visit disability-focused websites for travel and accommodation tips and reviews.
The following disability and travel-related resources may also prove useful:
- National Information Communication Awareness Network (NICAN). NICAN provides information on recreation, sport and tourism for people with disabilities.
- Can Go Everywhere. Can Go Everywhere is a source of information on all things accessible tourism that will help anyone with special requirements.
- The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). The CASA is the aviation governing body.
- AQA Victoria Ltd. AQA Vic is dedicated to improving the quality of life of people affected by physical disability.
- Disabled Motorists Australia (DMA). The DMA is a not for profit organisation for motorists with disabilities.
- People With Disabilities. PWD offers information to Australian's on disability rights and advocacy.
What if I’m refused cover?
If an insurer refuses to cover your disability or pre-existing medical condition, you can appeal directly to the insurer. If you feel you have been discriminated against, contact the Australian Human Rights Commission. You will need to provide medical reports showing that your condition is under control, is a listed pre-existing condition for which cover is normally provided, that you don’t suffer from any other major health problems, and that you are not likely to need medical or hospital treatment on your trip. You can make a confidential complaint by visiting humanrights.gov.au or by calling the Australian Human Rights Commission on 1300 656 419.
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Travelling with a disability is achievable provided you do your homework ahead of time and shop around for the airline, hotel and travel insurer who can cover your accessibility needs.