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When the unexpected happens overseas, check Smartraveller

Your bags are packed, you’ve exchanged some currency, and that long-awaited holiday has finally arrived. It’s the adventure you’ve been looking forward to for months – plenty of sightseeing, immersing yourself into a new culture, and getting a chance to finally read that book – but what if something unforeseen happens while you’re away?

Case study: Elizabeth and Giuseppe

Elizabeth and her late husband Giuseppe celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a trip to Thailand, thanks to their daughter, Georgina, who lived in Hong Kong and bought the tickets and travel insurance as a gift. They were holidaying in the seaside resort of Hua Hin when 85-year-old Giuseppe fell ill. He was admitted to the local hospital’s emergency department, where he was put on oxygen and later moved to intensive care. The next morning, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and septic shock.

Elizabeth and her late husband, Giuseppe.

At the hospital, Elizabeth was asked to sign paperwork that was in Thai and pay an upfront fee of AU$9000 for Giuseppe’s treatment. Georgina was in regular contact with the travel-insurance company in Hong Kong regarding covering costs, but she was not aware that the insurance company could pay incremental sums to cover the hospital bill each day.

The situation worsened; heart surgery with a prospective fee of more than AU$10,000 was discussed, holiday visas were getting close to their expiration date, and back-and-forth communication to obtain medical reports was required. Although Elizabeth and Georgina initially felt they should deal with the matter themselves, they decided to call the Australian Embassy in Thailand. As soon as they spoke to a consular officer, they felt at ease. It was reassuring to know that consular assistance may include liaison with local hospitals and local authorities, and help to communicate with other family members or contacts.

Giuseppe went on to have heart attack and was put into an induced coma, so the family started looking into options to medevac Giuseppe back; they were told it would cost about AU$150,000. Sadly, things quickly took a turn for the worse and he was placed on life support before any plans could be brought into fruition.

Giuseppe had previously made it clear that if he were ever in a critical condition with little hope of recovering, he did not wish to be kept on life support. The family managed to track down a letter to that effect, witnessed by Giuseppe’s GP. However, they learnt that switching off life support is illegal in Thailand. The consulate officer advised that it was not possible to override a doctor’s decision or intervene in another country’s laws, and the family’s only option was to sign a ‘do not resuscitate’ form.

As Giuseppe’s condition was not improving, the family began thinking about funeral arrangements. In Thailand, burial plots are reserved years in advance for an annual fee, so the preferred option was to cremate Giuseppe locally and repatriate his ashes in Thailand.

A beautiful Thailand holiday that took a turn for the worse. Picture: Shutterstock

Giuseppe passed away a few days later and Elizabeth made the difficult decision to return to Australia. The consular officer assisted the family with the task of finding a funeral director in Bangkok. They transferred Giuseppe’s body from Hua Hin to Bangkok, where a small service was held before he was cremated. The Australian Embassy then finalised the necessary documentation so the family could fly the ashes home.

Elizabeth always thought she and her husband would be buried at home in Sydney, where they had already reserved a plot. Making the decision to have him cremated in Thailand was difficult, but the service was beautifully done, especially when monks placed flowers on the coffin.

Elizabeth praised the support from the consular officer during this difficult time. They guided her through the process, explained local laws and customs, advised on unfamiliar administrative procedures and what steps to take, and provided details of translators to help with the language barrier. She was also thankful her daughter had arranged travel insurance as part of the holiday package. When Georgina purchased the insurance and checked with the insurance hotline, they had assured her they would receive good care if needed.

Having the right travel insurance and knowing it will cover the high costs of hospital care overseas can significantly reduce the stress on loved ones at such a difficult time.


Elizabeth’s Advice

“Australian travellers need to be honest about their medical history when buying travel insurance and declare any pre-existing conditions, so they have more certainty about what help they will receive if something does go wrong.”


Don’t Risk Everything

Accidents can happen to anyone, and medical costs overseas can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. Australians have faced financial hardship to cover these costs when things have gone wrong. It’s important to ensure you have the right cover of travel insurance for any overseas trip, as travellers without travel insurance are personally liable for covering any medical and associated costs they incur.

If something does go wrong, your first point of call should be your travel-insurance company, which often have 24-hour assistance centres that you can contact from anywhere in the world.

If you are not covered by insurance and cannot pay your medical bills, you should first contact family or friends and your financial institution, as they may be able to transfer assistance funds to you using a bank or money-transfer service.

Many people assume the Australian Government will pay for your medical treatment overseas or medical evacuation to Australia – they won’t. To find out more about how the government may be able to help, take a look at the Consular Services Charter on



Be Informed contains advice and information on 176 destinations, representing an objective assessment of the risks Australians may face overseas. It’s designed to help Australians decide where and when to travel.

Each year, the Australian Government’s Consular State of Play report provides statistics on the consular assistance cases of the previous 12 months. In addition to the location and type of consular assistance provided, the report includes information on travel destinations, age groups, travel insurance and general travel advice.

A recent survey of traveller behaviour in South East Asia was cited in the latest report – it revealed some shocking insights into attitudes towards travel insurance…

• 11% of travellers had no travel insurance.

• Uninsured travellers were significantly more likely to be men and under 30 years of age.

• 13% of those without insurance expected the Australian Government would contribute to medical expenses (remember, it doesn’t).

• 82% of under-30s undertook risky behaviour, like water sports, riding motorcycles and excessive consumption of alcohol.

• 19% of people with pre-existing medical conditions did not check if their insurance covered it.

• 44% of travellers who did have travel insurance took part in one or more risky activities not covered by their insurance.

If you can’t afford insurance, you can’t afford to travel.

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