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Food poisoning on holiday

Food poisoning on holiday? What are you rights and can insurance help?

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Written by  Emma Lunn
3 min read
Updated: 28 Dec 2023

Travellers’ tummy, Delhi belly, Peru poo… Call it what you like, but a dose of diarrhoea and vomiting overseas can ruin your holiday.

Each year thousands of holidaymakers suffer upset stomachs and food poisoning. Bugs can spread quickly in all-inclusive resorts and hotels where buffet style food is served, while in other destinations poor food hygiene by street vendors might be to blame.

Food poisoning is defined as an illness caused by the consumption of food or water contaminated with bacteria, toxins, parasites, or viruses – these are known as pathogens. You might recognise the names of some common pathogens such as norovirus, E-coli, and salmonella.

Cases of holiday food poisoning can range from mild symptoms for 24 hours to more serious instances where you need to seek medical help.

How travel insurance can help

A comprehensive travel insurance policy will include cover for medical expenses, often up to £10 million or £20 million. If food poisoning means you need to see a doctor or be admitted to hospital, your travel insurance should cover these costs.

Garry Nelson at InsureandGo, in partnership with Asda Money Travel Insurance, says: “Our travel insurance packages cover food poisoning, including any medical costs, extra flights and accommodation that might be required because of illness, as well as any excursions that were booked and pre-paid and missed due to hospitalisation.

“However, we strongly recommend that any policyholders check their terms and conditions carefully. What is covered within each policy is stated clearly within these documents as well as the conditions that apply – for example, for any hospital stay and evidence of the excursion booking pre-dating the illness etc.”

Most travel insurance will also pay out if an outbreak of food poisoning means your resort or accommodation has to close.

However, travel insurance won’t compensate you for not enjoying your holiday due to being ill or stuck in your hotel room.

A statement from the Association of British Insurers (ABI) said: “Policies can vary and in some limited circumstances they may cover other things, such as cancellation of pre-booked activities, but they won’t cover loss of enjoyment. It’s important people check their policy and know what they’re covered for.”

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What happens if hotel food is to blame?

There have been several high profile cases where holidaymakers have become ill after eating contaminated food at a hotel paid for as part of a package holiday, or at an all-inclusive resort.

If you can prove negligence from the hotel caused your illness, you may have a case for compensation. However, proving the hotel was at fault – due to poor food hygiene standards, for example – can be tricky. Cases often stand more chance of success if other hotel guests are sick too.

Travel insurance is only designed to cover financial losses, such as medical bills and missed excursions, but the right legal advice could result in a successful claim for compensation for pain, inconvenience and a ruined holiday.

Some travel insurance policies include “legal expenses” cover. This can be used to instruct a specialist travel solicitor to pursue a claim against a hotel for negligence.

No win no fee lawyers

If your travel insurance doesn’t include legal expenses, a no-win-no-fee solicitor might be able to help. With this set-up, the fees are charged at the end of a case and are deducted from the damages won.

Mark Gibson, partner at Digby Brown Solicitors, says: “Claims for food poisoning on holiday are not as straightforward as people think – you can’t just assume the strange food from the exotic buffet is the cause and expect to receive compensation.

“The existence of a pathogen like a bacteria or parasite needs to be confirmed and the only way to do that is by medical analysis – seeing a doctor, even on holiday, can confirm this and start an evidential chain. The key steps for tourists are to report your illness to the holiday rep, keep receipts for medicines and speak to your GP when you return home to get the relevant testing.”

Contracts for the provision of package holidays are regulated by the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangement Regulations 2018 (SI 2018/634), while tour operators are also bound by the Supply of Goods and Services Act.

A Court of Appeal case in 2017 (Wood vs Tui UK) is regularly cited by solicitors. The case was concluded with the judge deciding that Tui was in breach of the Supply of Goods Act when Mr and Mrs Wood contracted gastroenteritis from a hotel buffet at an all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic in 2011.

Simon Lomax, a legal executive in the international serious injury team at Irwin Mitchell, explains: “When making a claim for damages for gastric illness or food poisoning, careful consideration of the underlying contractual obligations is required to determine a ‘lack of conformity’ with the package holiday. 

“In food poisoning cases, holidaymakers must establish a lack of conformity or improper performance of the contract to succeed. That is to say that not everything that goes wrong during the holiday gives rise to liability for the tour operator. 

“Legal cases usually succeed if it can be shown that the food served at a hotel was not fit for human consumption. The argument often advanced by solicitors is that if a victim of food poisoning can prove that a hotel served food contaminated with a harmful pathogen – for example, salmonella, campylobacter or E.coli among others – such a failure resulted from the hotel’s inability to cook and prepare the food properly.”

In some cases, a holidaymaker’s case won’t just be limited to the actual sickness and suffering, but also for loss of enjoyment of the holiday. Claims can also be made if there are further losses when the holidaymaker returns to the UK – for example, if they are still unwell, unable to work or need further medical treatment.

How to avoid food poisoning on holiday

Of course, in an ideal world we’d all enjoy our holidays, and no one would get sick. To give yourself the best chance possible, check if local tap water is safe to drink. If not, stock up on bottled water, decline ice cubes in drinks, and avoid salads that might have been washed in tap water.

Where possible, eat freshly and thoroughly cooked food that is still piping hot from cooking. Avoid food that has been kept warm for a long period of time.

If you do get sick, try to stay hydrated and take rehydration salts/sachets and probiotics. Once your stomach starts to settle, stick to plain and safe food such as toast or rice.

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