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Is now the right time to buy travel insurance?

Woman sits at airport wearing mask during COVID-19

With no end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, caution surrounding travel, particularly international travel, is understandably high. The Government of Canada continues to advise avoiding non-essential international travel, but, for many, long months of travel restrictions are taking their toll. Pent-up wanderlust is driving would-be travellers to book trips for early 2021 despite the risks. 

Travel aggregator, Squaremouth, says that international destinations have, for the first time, become more popular than American destinations for US travellers. According to survey results, 86% of trips in the first two months of 2021 are international destinations. 

Similarly to buying a home and purchasing insurance to protect your assets, travel insurance is also necessary. Sure, it may be the least exciting part of the process, especially if you are looking at a sunny winter getaway, but with so much uncertainty, it’s easy to argue the need. Closed borders travel restrictions, and the health of you and your travel companions make the decision easy. If you are going to book a trip, you need to buy travel insurance. 

After working in the insurance industry for years, an up-close look at how crucial sufficient travel insurance can be and how detrimental it is when you don’t have enough came clear. Client cases like this out-of-provincial air ambulance that racked up huge medical bills due to the lack of coverage still make my stomach churn. 

In each case, travel insurance would significantly save the client as air evacuation, and international hospital stays can be financially crippling to a family. To say I am an advocate for travel insurance is a considerable understatement. So, what types of insurance do you need? Let’s find out.

What types of travel insurance exist?

Travel insurance documents to help travellers feel confident in travel safety

Travel insurance falls into two main categories: health insurance and trip insurance. Travel health insurance covers illness and injury that may occur in transit or while on your holiday. Trip insurance covers expenses incurred because of flight delays, lost luggage, trip cancellations and the like. This kind of coverage hasn’t been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as health insurance has. 

The extended incubation period of the virus and potentially long stays in hospitals mean high insurance companies’ costs. Many organizations that generally offer travel health insurance paused their coverage offerings or have exclusions for any COVID related claims with the added risk. 

Blue Cross recommends purchasing travel insurance any time you leave your province. If you have private health insurance, there is a good chance it will cover costs within Canada and outside the province you reside in should you need it. Still, it’s always a good idea to check before you leave. 

If all you have is your local coverage, you may not be covered for health care costs. On the other side, you may face the difficulty of having to pay out of pocket and claim back your costs when you get home. It’s a headache you can avoid by purchasing travel insurance before you leave on your trip. 

How much insurance coverage do you need?

Woman looking at insurance documents on iPad

An excellent general minimum of coverage is $1 million. Ask if your insurance covers things like medical evacuation, someone to accompany you home, expenses for your travel companions while you are in the hospital, and repatriation of your body should you die while travelling. Consider what might happen if you need to call the insurance company before you receive medical treatment, and if there are additional costs you would have to pay upfront and seek reimbursement for. 

A handy feature of many employee benefit insurance packages and some credit cards includes travel insurance. This perk isn’t always well advertised, so you may not realize you already have some coverage. Be sure you know your policy’s details before assuming you have sufficient coverage. Some plans require you call in to indicate when you will be away to “activate” the coverage, some credit card plans only cover you for travel that you pay for with the card, and some plans offer only a token amount that it would be prudent to “top-up.” For example, $5000 likely won’t even cover your first night in a US hospital. 

Note that many policies exclude “extreme” activities like skydiving and bungee jumping, but also things you might not consider very extreme, like hiking or ATVing. 

It’s also imperative that you are honest during any medical questionnaire. Although these calls can feel intrusive and frivolous, they are essential. You may have the thought to speed through the call, answering “no” for every question. As a past insurance agent, I strongly advise against this. You may miss something essential to your application and void your insurance should a time come that you need to use the coverage. 

When you submit a claim, insurance companies pay out only if required according to your contract terms. If you answered incorrectly or omitted any relevant information when you entered into that contract, it voids the contract and won’t pay. An investigator will research how fully and honestly you answered your questionnaire, so it’s best to avoid the headaches and start on the right foot. 

How does travel insurance work during COVID-19? 

Air travel in the coronavirus pandemic, safe travel, social distance, new normal

Not every travel insurance company will cover COVID-19 related expenses, so it is vital to make sure you are covered before you go. With extended quarantine and isolation periods requiring a follow-up diagnosis or potential contact with a known case, expenses can add up quickly. Manulife and Allianz are part of a select group of companies currently covering the novel coronavirus for travellers. 

Several Caribbean countries, Tahiti, and the UAE require proof of international insurance for visitors. A spokesperson from insurer Allianz told Conde Nast Traveller that “the reason for [requiring healthcare coverage] is to prevent local healthcare providers and governments from having to foot the bill for uninsured tourists.” Allianz also states that the coverage does protect travellers from “potentially catastrophic medical bills or emergency medical transportation costs.”

With the possibility of COVID-19 infection and travel restrictions a continually looming threat, airlines have been seeking ways to overcome would-be-traveller hesitation. They are doing this by offering previously unheard-of insurance coverage. 

Westjet has partnered with Tugo for no cost COVID-19 health insurance for their passengers, while Air Transat and Air Canada offer coverage through Manulife. Westjet and Air Canada’s coverage is cost-free for eligible passengers. 

So is it worthwhile to purchase travel insurance? I would say unequivocally, yes. 

Any insurance is better than no insurance, but the very best insurance is the policy that you have researched. Read the fine print, ask all the questions, and feel confident that should COVID-19 (or any other illness or accident) befall you when you are travelling, you’ll be covered. 

Some people are content to stay put for the foreseeable future, while others are ready to travel beyond our border in the coming months. Regardless of if you go now or go later, travel health insurance is still the most important thing you can bring on your trip.

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Jen Mallia

Jen Mallia is an Edmonton writer who is passionate about travel, Netflix, and raising good humans (not always in that order!) She has written for numerous print and online publications and is always on the lookout for the next great story — around the corner or across the globe! You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter: @jen_mallia