Travel insurance for backpackers: a beginner’s guide

By Carmen Recavarren
Posted on 21 January 2017

Hostels - Parachute

Caption: Think of insurance as a parachute… and if you’re thinking of parachuting, get insurance.


A standard backpacker insurance policy ought to include good medical cover and repatriation – getting you home for ongoing medical care – if it all hits the fan. But that’s just the beginning. There are hundreds of insurance companies going after the backpacker market, and backpacker insurance products can vary wildly. Some policies cover only certain territories, while others have a time limit on them. So it's super important to think carefully about what sort of cover you need before you travel, and the best way to do that is to consider what kind of backpacker you think you’ll be.

The gap-year newbie

You’re stepping out into the wild for the first time, and you’re going it alone, or with a couple of other first-timers. You probably pack more than you need, often taking creature comforts that you’ll lug around until you realise you don’t need them.

Theft insurance should be high on your list of priorities. Thieves are good at spotting newbies, and your relative naivety puts you at a slightly higher risk than seasoned travellers (though theft can, of course, happen to anyone). Even if it’s just for your own peace of mind, it’s worth having a policy that will get you back on your feet as quickly as possible.

On a little side note, don’t take anything that would break your heart to lose. The chances are everything will be fantastic, but it’s not worth risking it.

The techie backpacker

You want to keep your gadgets with you, so you can shower the people at home and your social media followers with updates on your adventures. Or maybe you’re a budding or pro-am writer or photographer turning your content into an income stream. Either way, if you’re going tooled up with a GoPro, a tablet, a smartphone and maybe even a drone, you should make sure you have insurance to match – remember that many insurance policies don’t cover high-end products as standard. It’s possible you’ll need to provide your insurer with a photo, a model number and a serial number for every gadget you plan on taking.

Adrenaline junkie backpacker

If leaping out of planes, jumping off cliffs or exploring caves is your idea of a backpacking adventure, you’ll be pleased to hear that several insurance companies cover a number of activities and sports in their standard policy. But always read the small print. Activities might just mean walking, camping and trekking. Or there might be specific limits: a policy might cover hiking, but only to 2,000 metres above sea level; or scuba diving, but only to a depth of 30 metres. Bungee jumping and backcountry skiing might be absolute no-nos.

We recommend searching out a specialist adventure or extreme sports insurer, or tacking extreme sports components onto your basic policy. Yes, it can be considerably more expensive, but will give you (and everyone back home) peace of mind that if you can’t be safe at least you won’t be sorry.

Volunteer backpacker

Most volunteer programmes last up to a year, so insurance policies tend to be of the same duration. If you’re volunteering for longer, be sure to extend your policy. It’s important to consider your location too - the nature of volunteering means you could be visiting a country designated ‘high risk’ by insurers. It may not be covered by a standard backpacker policy. If you’re volunteering through a charity, talk to them to get some advice tailored to the project you’re going on.

Spiritual backpacker

You’re no materialist. You’re letting the world guide you through your backpacking experience, and you need very little, except maybe your anti-slip yoga socks. As you release your fate to the planet, home comforts and hi-tech gadgetry is far from your mind, but you should still make sure you have a solid policy that will cover your medical bills and emergency evacuation. Hunt for an insurer that will pay hospital or clinic bills directly, so you don’t need to deal with the financial side at source.

Party backpacker

Many places out there don’t take cards, so cash will be your only option in the clubs and bars. If you’re out on the lash, you’re more likely to drop your guard (or your wallet) and need to get your funds replaced when you wake up in the morning. So making sure your cash and cards are covered on the insurance is particularly important.

Cheaper policies tend to not cover cash, making a more expensive policy with a lower excess worth your while. When you’re looking at your travel insurance fine print, keep an eye out for how much cash is covered and how much you’d need to accept as loss before the insurance company will cough up.

Also be aware that some insurers don’t cover events that result from being drunk or intoxicated.

Whatever kind of policy you choose, choose something. The worst thing you could do is head out with no backpacker insurance at all. Even if you never have to use it, it’ll put your mind at ease and reassure everyone back home.