What you need to know about using your travel medical insurance

By: Sinead Mulhern on April 4, 2019
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There’s more to financially-savvy travelling than picking well-priced flights or accommodations. Comprehensive travel health insurance, for instance, is an absolute necessity worth looking into and paying for. Sure, it’s not exactly the most exciting part of travel planning, nor is it the most thrilling purchase compared to a beachside villa rental — but without it, you could lose thousands. It’s not enough to simply throw some cash at the first available policy you find, either. Travellers need to understand what’s covered, what isn’t, and how they should prepare themselves in the event that they actually need to get in touch with their insurance provider during an emergency abroad.

Here, we explain the basic details that jetsetters need to know before travelling — just in case a situation occurs on vacation and it comes time to make a claim.  

Do your homework. Understand your policy

If you don’t read your travel health insurance policy after you buy it, you’re taking a huge risk. The first thing any insurance expert will tell you is to thoroughly read the policy and decide if it’s the right fit.

“I know it can be a lot of legalese, it can be boring, your eyes can glaze over but you’re going to want to take a look at it and understand the important clauses,” says Stephen Fine, the president of Snowbird Advisor, a travel insurance provider and tool for Canadian snowbirds. Details like the length of travel, pre-existing medical conditions and activities you plan to partake in are all main considerations that can affect your coverage. For example, it sounds almost too obvious to suggest ensuring the policy covers you for the entire time that you’re abroad but many travellers assume that their credit card insurance is sufficient only to find out that there’s a time limit. Go over that and you’re likely to be refused if you need to make a claim later.

More complicated (but arguably more important) is ensuring that you’re protected for all potential health emergencies. When purchasing a policy, you’re responsible for disclosing all pre-existing medical conditions and updating your provider with any changes that happen after the purchase. Consult with your doctor to make sure you’re providing accurate information. And be honest even though this may mean you need to purchase additional coverage or get a personalized policy. Surprisingly, many people lie in order to get a cheaper premium. That’s a mistake. “Don’t do that,” says Fine. “Your policy can be cancelled and if you ever need it, the insurer is likely not going to pay your claim in that situation.”

Medical history disclosure is usually a more pressing issue for older travellers but young, wanderlust-y folks in great health don’t get off scot-free, either. If you don’t read your policy, you’re not going to know if risks associated with activities on your itinerary are excluded. Climbing, mountain biking and bungee jumping are common activities that insurance companies won’t include, and as finance and travel expert Barry Choi points out, even having one beer at the beach can be used against you. “A lot of policies say you wouldn’t be covered if you were drunk or if you were drinking,” he says. “That’s where a lot of people worry because having one drink doesn’t mean anything but that could be used as an excuse to deny you.”

Head to your destination prepared for an emergency

Hyper-organized folks who use hacks to simplify basic travel needs (hello, suitcase organizers and translation apps) ought to do the same for all their medical insurance needs. “A lot of people make copies of their passports and credit cards and emergency contacts,” says Choi “It’s not different with insurance.”

In fact, both Choi and Fine suggest making sure your insurance provider’s contact information is easily accessible for you, your travel partner(s), and any family back home. Print off any information your insurer gives you and bring copies. Keep your provider’s name and contact information in your wallet and add your provider as a contact in both your phone and your travel buddy’s. This way, if something happens, the emergency phone numbers are at your reach.

“Some providers have an assistance app that you can download which gives you quick access to your insurance provider in case you need them in a medical emergency,” says Fine. If this is the case with your company of choice, download that app before you leave and ask whoever you’re travelling with to do the same.

The hospital is going to want to be paid. And they may not release you until you pay so it’s in your best interest to contact your insurance company right away


Don’t skip insurance on short trips

If you ever leave home without purchasing a travel health insurance package, that’s a big mistake. To be clear, this includes all trips outside of the country no matter how close your destination is or how short a time you may be gone for. Choi notes that while many Canadians get medical insurance for longer trips, they neglect to do so for day or weekend trips across the border. “If you trip and break your arm and need to go to the hospital in the U.S., you could pay thousands of dollars but if you were to buy travel insurance for a day, it would cost you four dollars,” he says. Bottom line: even if you’re away for just a day-long shopping trip south of the border, get coverage.

If the worst case scenario arises, call your provider ASAP.

Many purchase insurance for peace of mind. The sentiment is that if something happens, you won’t break the bank with medical bills. Playing the “what if?” game (i.e. What if I go hiking and fall off a cliff? What if I get into an accident on that rented scooter?) usually isn’t productive but in the case of travel medical insurance, you actually do want to think about those hypotheticals and decide on your planned course of action. Everyone thinks that accidents abroad won’t happen to them… until they do.

If you find yourself in a medical emergency, call your insurance company ASAP. Both Fine and Choi agree that this cannot be emphasized enough. If you’ve prepared properly, you know that you’ve got proper coverage and you have your provider’s information at the ready. Dial them up. Explain the situation, ask for direction, and get the claims process started. Ideally, this part should happen before seeking medical treatment. However, in emergency situations like a heart attack or car accident, this isn’t always possible. In those cases, seek medical treatment first and contact the provider whenever it’s reasonably possible to do so.

Immediately contacting your insurance company may seem like a tall order, but this action can actually help you tremendously for three main reasons: Firstly, the insurance company will probably direct you to a local hospital that’s approved by them. Secondly, they’ll evaluate the situation on the spot and let you know if it’s covered. “If it’s not, they’ll let you know ahead of time so you can make an informed decision on how to proceed,” says Fine. And thirdly, as Fine points out, “If you contact them ahead of time, they’ll usually coordinate your billing with the treatment provider so you don’t have to incur out-of-pocket expenses.”

That last point alone is worth the phone call because if billing doesn’t have to be your problem, why make it? “The hospital is going to want to be paid,” says Choi. “And they may not release you until you pay so it’s in your best interest to contact your insurance company right away.”

Build your case. Collect evidence

It’s not enough to adequately research your policy and make the phone call when an accident happens. You must follow that up by collecting all evidence and supporting documents. Insurance companies need proof of injury and all medical treatment so by gathering documentation that shows this, you’re making the claims process much smoother for yourself. Documents you need include everything pertaining to your case which, for example, could include police reports, photos, receipts, doctor’s write-ups and all treatment records.

“It sounds awful but you might want to get pictures of your own injuries just so you can prove that you were actually injured,” says Choi. “Generally, the more evidence you have always helps you when you’re making any kind of claim. Sooner or later, the insurance company is going to need these documents so get them immediately. Don’t wait until you’re already home to do that. “In many cases, it can be very difficult or near impossible to get those documents after the fact,” adds Fine, “so get them while you’re there.”

Follow up

Finally, to make sure you’re compensated for any expenses owed, follow up. Be in touch with your insurance company and don’t feel bad if this involves some chasing on your end.

“You can’t just sit back when you get home and expect a cheque to come in the mail,” says Choi. “If you paid any upfront costs, you need to follow up on everything.”