Confusion among consumers about the medical cover they can expect when they travel abroad has been highlighted in an Association of British Insurers survey.

More than half (54%) of the 2,500 questioned did not know they needed a European Health Insurance Card, or EHIC, to access state healthcare when abroad.

And 31% were heading overseas without either an EHIC or any kind of travel insurance.

The EHIC allows people access to care in EU or European Free Trade Area nations.

EHIC cards can be obtained from some travel agents or from the NHS website.

Some 44% of those asked knew that the cards were valid for only five years.

But the ABI was concerned that some families were cutting back on expenses by only using an EHIC and not taking out separate travel insurance as well.

“It is absolutely not a substitute for travel insurance,” said Linsey White of the ABI.

“If you have a problem abroad and you need to be flown back to the UK in an emergency, the cost of an air ambulance can be up to £15,000 and that is not covered by an EHIC.”

An Abta spokesman told the BBC: “It is important to have an EHIC because if you do find yourself in an accident while abroad, it allows you to get access to state healthcare anywhere in the European Union, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.

“An EHIC will get you basic state care. In some countries, you will get treatment, but other things – such as food, drink or even changing your bed linen – are not regarded as the responsibility of the nurses. They are things for your family to take care of.”

Stephen Howard, secretary of the Association of Travel Insurance Intermediaries, said that people should buy their travel insurance when they put down a deposit for their holiday. This would then cover them for any cancellation costs.

He also urged holidaymakers to shop around for their policy, but care was needed because price was not always directly linked to the quality of the cover.