When a faraway destination feels like too far from home

If you want to pull out of a holiday because of terrorist threats, can you expect a refund from your insurer? Melanie Bien reports
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The Independent Online

The recent terrorist attack in Morocco and the warning that further attacks may be planned in Kenya are likely to have left those intending to take a summer holiday or visit relatives in these countries in something of a quandary.

While most of us are determined not to let the threat of terrorism dictate where we go on holiday, terrorist attacks are clearly on the increase, so why should we put ourselves and our families at risk unnecessarily? After all, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) points out, holidaymakers from Western countries are a prime target.

However, if you decide to pull out of your Moroccan holiday you can probably forget about a refund.

"Travel insurers usually allow two reasons for cancelling a holiday," explains a spokeswoman for the Association of British Insurers (ABI). "One is due to specified causes such as the death of a relative or being called for jury service. If you have to cancel in cases like these, you should get your money back.

"The other allowable cancellation is for reasons 'beyond your control' - if your destination makes it on to the FCO's non-travel list, for example. Here again, you should get a refund. But if you simply decide you don't want to go the country, you won't have a case for claiming on your insurance."

The FCO's Travel Advice list is used by insurers and tour operators to decide whether travel to a particular country is safe and whether a policyholder can make a claim on his or her insurance. If a country appears on this list, you can still travel there but you will find it almost impossible to get insurance for your trip. The list, which is available on the FCO's website (see below), currently includes certain parts of India, Nigeria and Sri Lanka, as well as countries, such as Iraq, that don't tend to be on the tourist trail.

If the situation deteriorates in a country to which you are travelling and the FCO issues a warning against all non-essential travel before you depart, tour operators should offer you the chance to defer your trip, choose an alternative holiday or take a full refund. They are obliged to do this under the code of conduct drawn up by the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta).

However, Morocco doesn't make it on to the FCO's list, so holidaymakers won't be able to use this as a valid reason for cancelling their trip.

"We do not warn against travel to all countries in which there is a risk of terrorists operating," says the FCO on its website. "If we were to do so it could cover a large proportion of the world, serving only to cause panic and disrupt normal life. That is precisely what terrorists are striving to achieve."

Anyone wanting to cancel their holiday in Morocco therefore stands to lose money unless the FCO's advice changes nearer the time of their departure. Holidaymakers should read the small print on their booking form: there might be a period within which they can cancel and lose only their deposit. But if they decide at the last minute that they are not going to travel, they will forfeit the whole cost of the holiday.

"If you've booked your holiday and are now worried about travelling to that destination, go to the tour operator or travel agent you booked the trip through and state your concerns," recommends Marie Dyne at Churchill Insurance. "It is worth asking, because they may make an exception for you and give you a refund. But your insurance won't cover you if you have a change of heart."

British holidaymakers caught up in a terrorist attack in a foreign country are unlikely to be covered by their insurance policy. Insurers tightened the rules after the attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, as the risk of similar atrocities occurring has become much greater.

However, not all insurers take a hard line. "The vast majority of insurers don't cover terrorist attacks but they do judge claims on a case-by-case basis," says the ABI spokeswoman. "In the past, some insurers have made ex-gratia payments, for example to people caught up in the Eta bombings in Spain."

"Should something happen and you are injured in a terrorist attack, Churchill will help out," says Ms Dyne. "We did help those affected by 11 September and the Bali bombing."

People who have annual travel insurance should check their policy documents carefully before travelling to ensure they are covered for a particular destination. If the wording is at all unclear, speak to your insurer.

The FCO has issued guidelines for those travelling abroad, reminding travellers of the risks of indiscriminate attacks in public places. It recommends that holidaymakers take sensible precautions, be aware of local sensibilities and monitor the media. Up till the date of their departure, they should keep an eye on the FCO Travel Advice for the country they plan to visit, as this can change at short notice. If you become concerned for your safety while you are on holiday, get in touch with the British embassy or consulate.

The risk of becoming involved in a terrorist attack is small, but like most other risks associated with foreign travel, such as natural disasters, it pays to be vigilant. Travellers should look out for anything suspicious, such as an unattended bag at an airport, or a group of people acting suspiciously around an obviously Western institution or gathering. And if you do see anything suspicious, report it to the local police immediately.

For advice on where it is safe to travel and where it isn't, visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's website at www.fco.gov.uk or call 0870 606 0290.

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