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Travel insurance: South America

Travelling to South America? Find travel insurance for your next adventure.

Before you set off on your dream trip to this wonderful part of the world, it's important that you take out travel insurance cover for your holiday. Travel insurance offers vital financial protection against an extensive range of travel risks including

  • Overseas medical emergencies
  • Theft and stolen items
  • Personal liability
  • Travel delays and cancellations

A travel insurance policy for South America gives you the security and confidence you need when travelling the continent.

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5 reasons why travel insurance for South America is essential

What would you do if the illness of your travelling companion forced you to call off your trip 1 week into a 4-week journey through Argentina and Brazil? Without travel insurance, you'd simply lose any money you had already handed over in deposits, not to mention possible cancellation fees. In addition to these common travel risks, some travel concerns unique to South America include:

  • High-altitude regions. Some of the most beautiful sites of South America such as the Inca Trail are synonymous with altitude sickness. The fatigue and nausea of travelling at altitude could require costly medical attention – something that travel insurance can cover.
  • Malaria and other infections. In tropical regions such as the Amazon, there is a high risk of catching malaria from mosquitoes. Additionally, due to the humid climate conditions, the spread of flu and other viruses is quite significant.
  • Pickpockets and theft. Although South America provides many memorable experiences, many of its countries are impoverished, meaning there is a risk that people will try to steal your money and possessions.
  • Drugs and crime. While South America is generally safe, there has always been a long history of drug trade. While you should strictly avoid all drug-related risks, you may encounter circumstances where you are exposed to drug-related crime unintentionally, e.g. your hotel is closed due to a police investigation for drug-related activity.
  • Adventure activities. With its vast, diverse landscape, South America is perfect for adventure activities like hiking and paragliding. These activities, of course, expose you to the risk of injury and even death. Travel insurance is the most important consideration if you plan to partake in these activities.

Travel insurance is designed to cushion the costs that may arise from any of these risks.

The following is an example that highlights the importance of having travel insurance when travelling to South America.

Example: Chilean ACL surgery

Michael was approaching the last 2 weeks of his 3-month trip around South America where he had planned to finish with a 4-day trek of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. On a sunny afternoon, he decided to go sandboarding on the infamous sand dunes at Valle de la Muerte, but he became a touch overconfident and hurt his knee trying to land a trick.

A doctor at the local medical centre advised Michael that he had a severe ligament tear and that he would need an MRI scan to determine which ligaments were damaged. On crutches and painkillers, Michael spent the rest of his night organising cover with his travel insurance provider, Travel Insurance Direct. To his surprise, Michael was able to speak to someone on the phone and explain his situation. Because Michael had "sports coverage", he was told that he would be well covered medically.

Michael was able to send through the necessary documentation to permit an MRI and surgery to repair his ACL on the same night. The cost of the surgery and hospital stay totalled over $15,000, but it was taken care of by his travel insurance provider, allowing Michael to undergo his medical procedure without the added mental and financial stress.

During his stay at the city's top private hospital, Michael was provided amenities including Wi-Fi, quality meals and his own private room. The ability to have a smooth recovery process without financial roadblocks was made possible by having an appropriate travel insurance cover.

What was covered?

  • Cost of changing his flight date and upgrade to business class for extra leg room
  • Medical expenses, e.g. painkillers, initial check-up
  • Return transport to his accommodation
  • Transport to the airport
  • Ambulance to the hospital
  • Surgery
  • Anaesthetist
  • Hospital bed hire
  • Nursing

Final cost covered?

$16,000+

* This is a fictional, but realistic, example.

What adventure activities should I add as extras?

If you plan to have adventures while in South America, you may want to take out extra cover for activities considered riskier by insurers. Make sure you check with the policy provider to see if it covers for specific adventure activities. This will leave you with the best possible travel insurance for your trip to South America. These extras could include:

  • Biking the Death Road in Bolivia. Once considered the world's most dangerous road, North Yungas Road is now a road travelled regularly by many tourists on bike as a daring challenge.
  • Hiking Perito Moreno. An enormous and mysterious glacier in Argentina, which is one of the country's most important tourist attractions.
  • Canoeing down a river in the Bolivian Pampas. In waters teeming with caiman, piranhas and giant anacondas.
  • Jungle trekking on an Amazon survival tour from Manaus. In search of anacondas, jaguars, piranhas, poison dart frogs and vampire bats.
  • Climbing Nevado Ojos del Salado in the Andes. This is the world’s highest active volcano, sitting at 8,693km in elevation.
  • Diving with sharks in Atol das Rocas, Brazil. An adrenaline-pumping activity, where you dive in waters where sharks gather in swarms of up to 30 or more.

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Am I covered for chartered boat tours?

Yes, but a proper licence is usually required

While travelling in South America, you may decide to take a boat trip down the Amazon basin and it is essential that you are covered by your travel insurance.

While the boat may look seaworthy and be skippered by a capable captain, your insurance cover is entirely dependent on whether the captain is licensed or not. Boats that are legal for charter have papers stating that they are licensed passenger vessels operated by a licensed captain. If you are unsure, ask to see their papers.

The benefits of taking out backpacker insurance

salt-flatsTravel insurance, just like health insurance, can come in many different shapes and sizes. One popular option for travellers spending a significant amount of time in South America or overlanding through multiple countries is backpacker travel insurance.

Some of the unique benefits offered by this type of insurance include:

  • Up to 18 months' coverage length. Unlike normal travel insurance, which puts a cap on the length of your trip, usually between 30 and 60 days, backpacker travel insurance covers you continuously for up to 18 months, which is great if you plan to backpack over the whole of South America over an extended period of time.
  • Wider region cover. Backpacker travel insurance insures you for a whole host of countries on one trip, meaning you don't need to arrange cover for each country you plan to visit in South America individually.
  • Designed for workers. Backpacker travel insurance will often incorporate cover for working abroad and travellers who commonly teach English or other skills to locals in South America in order to fund their travels.
  • Automatically covers some adventure activities. Backpacker travel insurance covers a range of adventure activities popular with younger travellers, which are not usually covered by regular travel insurance. This is highly beneficial for a South America trip that presents so many opportunities for adventurous activities.

If something goes wrong, what do I need to make a claim?

What do I need?

If you need to make a claim on your travel insurance, particularly a medical claim, you will need to have original documents relating not only to your medical expenses, but also to the cause of your accident or illness. That’s why it’s important to get everything in writing, such as contracts with tour operators or adventure activity providers, so your insurer can accurately assess your claim.

General steps when making a claim

  • Collect all documents. This includes police reports, details of a tour company/airline/hotel, receipts for belongings, medical bills, etc. For instance, if your wallet has been pickpocketed, you will need a police report and a receipt or proof of purchase of your wallet.
  • Contact your insurer. This is where you will provide all the details of an incident so it can access your claim. You may need to scan these documents and send them through along with the provider's claims form.
  • Request upfront payment from the insurer. In some medical emergency cases, South American hospitals will require an upfront payment from your insurer. This is where you should attempt to get a guarantee of payment or an upfront payment from your insurer.
  • Make sure you double-check the policy fine print. Check for exclusions to make sure you are covered as well as any wording that allows you to claim in situations where your claim is denied.

The following is an example which highlights the importance of getting it in writing and reading the terms and conditions of service providers and what can happen if you don’t.

Example: Read and hold on to all documents

Damien was excited to begin a 3-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni desert with his friends from back home, after watching videos of the picturesque wonder on YouTube. To start their South American adventure, they ventured into the desert with a Bolivian tour company. Their tour was cut short on the second day due to a combination of the bus driver's negligence and the wet surface of the flats.

The vehicle owned by the Bolivian tour company was being driven at excessive speed on the salt flats, when the driver lost control, causing the vehicle to roll over and crash. Damien was one of several passengers who suffered severe injuries, fracturing the shin of his left leg as the bus flipped and landed on its side. Damien required serious medical attention.

When the other passengers contacted the tour company office, they refused to accept responsibility for their driver's negligence and refused to provide the information needed for insurance claims. This was until the police were finally called in and the information was handed over. Damien was able to provide his insurer with the details of the tour company, along with the police report. After his cover provider confirmed the claim, Damien was able to receive upfront payment for the surgery at a hospital in Sucre along with payment for the cost of the hospital stay.

* This is a fictional, but realistic, example.

Who do I contact in an emergency?

If you find yourself in an emergency in South America, some helpful contacts include:

  • You travel insurer. Your insurance provider will have a 24/7 helpline for claims and medical emergencies.
  • Australian embassies and consulates. You can find the contact details of Australian embassies and consulates in South America below.

Common South American travel scams

In South America and in many other parts of the world, there are some common scams you need to be aware of to ensure that no one takes advantage of you. These include:

  • Fake or dishonest taxi drivers. Make sure you’re travelling with a legitimate taxi driver before you set off. You may also need to agree on a price beforehand and familiarise yourself with the best route so the driver doesn’t try to jack up the price by taking you the long way round.
  • Keep an eye out for pickpockets. Especially at train stations and other crowded areas.
  • Avoid trouble areas. No matter where you are in the world, every city has an area where locals and tourists alike will recommend you don’t visit. Use your common sense and stay away from such areas.
  • Fake police officers. Be wary of scammers posing as police officers to try to swindle you out of your money – or worse.
  • Be careful with your passport. Make sure you’re aware of situations where you are required to hand over your passport (e.g. border crossings), so you don’t let it out of your sight except when you absolutely have to.
  • Get the price and description of your hotel room in writing. This will prevent dodgy operators from claiming you "misheard" something over the phone.
  • Don’t let anyone else get their hands on your luggage. Also, don’t leave your personal belongings unattended in a public place.
  • Check for extra items. Check items on the bill when you’re dining out.
  • Watch out for those claiming they want to practice their English on you. It starts with a friendly approach, but quickly turns to a sob story about poverty and increasingly aggressive pleas for money.

South America travel tips

So you’ve booked and paid for your South American adventure and now can’t wait to head off on your journey? Make sure you check out this handy list of tips before you hop on a plane.

  • Use your common sense. Some parts of South America have a pretty bad reputation for crime, drugs, corruption and a few other nasties. But don’t let this put you off visiting this beautiful part of the world. Use your common sense and you will most likely avoid any potential problems.
  • Buses are usually the best way to get around. Internal flights are quite expensive in South America, so be prepared to ride the bus to get around.
  • Don’t try to see it all at once. South America is a big continent with so much to see and do. Unless you’re planning an extended stay, don’t try to pack too much into one trip. Pick a couple of must-sees and then build an itinerary from there.
  • Learn Spanish. If you’re keen to broaden your horizons, consider taking Spanish lessons before you arrive. It’ll make it a whole lot easier to get around.
  • Keep a credit card separate. Don’t keep all your money and cards in your wallet – keeping one card separate can be a great help in an emergency if your wallet is stolen.
  • Scan your important travel documents. Keep all your files on a USB drive and on the cloud if necessary.
  • Make sure you have all necessary vaccinations. Do this before travelling.
  • Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t wave large amounts of money around or wear expensive jewellery. Stay away from dark alleys and dangerous areas of town.

What exclusions should I know about?

The following exclusions will typically apply to most travel insurance policies. Your claim will not be paid if:

  • It arises from a pre-existing medical condition not covered on your policy.
  • You travel to a region which the Australian government has issued a warning against visiting.
  • It is related to a pandemic or epidemic, or if it is related to a sexually transmitted disease.
  • It arises from pregnancy or childbirth.
  • You do not take reasonable action to limit your loss.
  • If your loss is a result of irresponsible behaviour on your part, such as leaving baggage unattended in a public place.
  • It relates to anxiety or any mental or nervous disorder.
  • It arises from you being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • It is the result of any intentional self-inflicted injury or attempted suicide.
  • It arises from you acting illegally or unlawfully.
  • It is a result of a government authority detaining, confiscating or destroying anything.
  • It is the result of you riding a motorcycle above a certain engine capacity.
  • You participate in certain extreme sports or adventure activities.
  • You undertake paid work on your trip which is not for your usual employer in Australia and which was not organised before you began your journey.
  • It is related to acts of war or terrorism.

With a sensible approach and a willingness to shop around, you can be guaranteed of finding the right type and level of cover for your South American adventure.

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