If the experts are right, more of us are likely to go abroad on holiday this year – encouraged by a possible upturn in the economy and hoping to find some good weather overseas. But the 25 million of us that are likely to leave these shores this summer, according to estimates from the travel association Abta, will find a world that is changing fast.
Thousands of us have rapidly become used to claiming against airlines over delays of three hours or more, for instance. An EU court ruling in October 2012 opened the door to such claims. The statistics show that we have not been slow on the uptake. While the original request for compensation over the delay must be made to the airline involved, passengers whose flight was cancelled or delayed can go on to appeal to the Civil Aviation Authority's complaints service if they wish.
The CAA finds in favour of passengers in about a third of cases. The number of complaints to the CAA went up six-fold from 2012, when the authority handled just over 4,000 cases on a range of issues, to nearly 23,800 in 2013 after the delay issue was added on. Since the compensation level starts at about £210 per person on delays, the pursuit of a claim can be worthwhile – even though the rules are precise and more restrictive than the flying public might like.
This development is one of many affecting the whole area of travel insurance and the resolution of problems while abroad. A negative development is an "increase in customers not really being very careful", according to David Vincent, head of travel underwriting at Axa, the UK's largest travel insurer.
He is talking about the kind of incident where someone leaves a laptop unguarded on a train and then finds it stolen or, far worse, goes out on a scooter without a helmet and then has an accident. One of the worst examples – people diving into the shallow end of a pool – seemed to have disappeared until last year when Axa saw a few cases again (see panel, right).
A purely financial trend that travellers should watch out for is the growth in excesses on their travel insurance policies. There are some 400 products in the market, according to research specialist Defaqto Matrix. In the past four years, excesses have increased so that, for example, only 6 per cent of single-trip policies now have baggage excesses under £50, compared with 11 per cent in 2010. And 29 per cent have baggage excesses of £100 or more, compared with 13 per cent four years ago.
It is also common for insurers to charge a different excess for each part of a policy, so that a man who loses a passport, gets mugged and has his camera stolen might have to claim more than the value of three separate excesses, not one, before his insurer pays out.
But in cases where baggage that was put in the hold of an aircraft is lost, there is an alternative way to claim. "It's definitely better to claim against the airline," says Daniel Scognamiglio, head of the travel team in the Southampton office of law firm Blake Lapthorn. This is because there is no excess on these airline claims, which are made under the Montreal Convention. The maximum amount of claim per person is set at about £1,100. Passengers should report the loss to the airport or airline, obtaining a copy of a report that the airline or airport will make, called a "property irregularity report". Mr Scognamiglio says the system tends to work quite quickly and smoothly with most airlines.
Making claims in relation to illness continues to be fraught. The Financial Ombudsman Service, which experienced a fall in travel claims of 17 per cent between 2012/13 and 2013/14, says misunderstandings and other problems on medical claims are common. It told The Independent: "We continue to see a high number of cases where consumers have failed to disclose a pre-existing medical condition. In some instances, this duty has been extended to include medical conditions of relatives if this could lead to the cancellation of the trip, even if they are not going on the holiday."
Alcohol and drugs remain a vexed area. The Ombudsman says: "We continue to see a number of complaints where alcohol has been a factor. Many insurance policies will exclude claims for injuries if they are sustained while 'under the influence'.
"In many cases we see, insurers had clearly assumed immediately that certain injuries must have been sustained because the consumer had been drinking, but this might not always be the case."
If there is a question about whether an individual with a travel insurance policy has drunk too much, the insurer is likely to request a toxicology report from a local hospital. But many hospitals refuse to carry out these tests, unless required to by law. This is usually because they know that a positive result is likely to lead to the insurer stopping funding any medical care that is being given.
Another trend that is likely to make itself felt this year is a clampdown by insurers on fraud. Insurers are asking more questions about the kind of case where a claim comes in for a pair of expensive Ray-Ban sunglasses but there is little proof that the policyholder ever bought them. The insurance industry has had notable successes in tackling fraud in the area of staged car crashes and it would be no surprise if it persuades the police to become involved in investigating some of the larger travel frauds. The City of London Police has a specialist Insurance Fraud Department, which also investigates travel cover.
Axa detected a "gradual increase in people travelling again" last spring, with signs that the US, Caribbean, Thailand and Australia are drawing a regular flow of older travellers. Abta expects a slight increase in numbers in 2014, probably meaning that more people will travel abroad and that some of them will travel farther afield.
Even greater care has to be taken on visits to farther-flung places. The EU provides a legal framework that helps travellers make legal claims – and it also operates the EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) that also covers Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. It can be easy to forget, however, that a trip to Turkey takes you outside the EU. Similarly, the EU rules make it easier for claimants to make claims if they buy their flight and accommodation in one package – so people who arrange travel and board separately need to be all the more careful that they have a decent travel policy rather than the cheapest one. When annual policies often cost just £50, paying £10 extra can be a good investment.
The travel insurance sector is well known for its low premiums. But on the down side, the fine print can be restrictive. And 2014 could be the year in which premiums start to go up again. Steve Manton of Manton Associates, a consultant to the travel insurance sector, says: "As the economy improves, long haul is going to become bigger again and that will push claims up. Claims are more expensive when the distances are longer."
Thinking about similar issues, Vincent of Axa says the size of medical claims is rising. "If claims continue to go up, we need to charge more to cover the cost of them," he says. "So if costs go up, we'll have to look at the terms and conditions or at our rating."
High price for hijinks: paralysed in pool
Lawyer Daniel Scognamiglio warns of the dangers – mainly to young men – of mixing alcohol and swimming pools.
In a recent case he handled, a youth was on holiday with friends and had taken a drink before diving into a pool. He says there were signs saying the pool was shallow, and it was also clear there were tables and seats built into it.
Mr Scognamiglio says: "He simply dived in and hit his head either on the bottom or on the tables. He was, sadly, left paraplegic as a result." He paid dearly for what the lawyer describes as a "moment of frivolity".
Mr Scognamiglio says: "It's very difficult in English law to recover damages from a tour operator or a hotel when you've suffered an injury like that. It's also difficult for travel insurance policyholders as you could be seen as having wilfully exposed yourself to harm."
Health and safety rules designed to prevent people from drowning have encouraged pool providers to opt for wading rather than swimming or diving pools in the past decade, according to leading manufacturer Aqua Platinum. Cases have been brought against providers under the manslaughter laws.