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What you need to know about using your travel medical insurance

What you need to know about using your travel medical insurance

Let's hope you never have to rely on travel medical insurance, but there's a lot at stake if you don't know how to use it properly. Here's everything you need to know before taking your next trip.

This article has been updated from a previous version.

There’s more to being a financially savvy traveller than picking well-priced flights and accommodations. Comprehensive travel health insurance, for instance, is an absolute necessity worth purchasing. 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 of dollars. For instance, an Ontario family found themselves with a $46,000 bill after their child’s emergency surgery in Mexico in 2019.

It’s not enough to simply throw some cash at the first available policy you see, either. Compare travel insurance online to find the right coverage. Travellers need to understand what’s included in their policies, what isn’t, and how they should prepare themselves if they need to contact their insurance provider during an emergency abroad.

Here, we explain the essential details that jet-setters need to know before travelling — just in case a situation occurs on vacation and you need to make a claim.  

Do your homework and understand your policy

If you don’t read your travel health insurance policy after buying it, you’re taking a considerable risk. The first thing any insurance expert will tell you is to read the policy thoroughly.

“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 primary considerations that can affect your coverage. For example, it sounds almost too obvious to suggest ensuring the policy covers you for the entire time you’re abroad. Still, many travellers assume that their credit card insurance is sufficient, only to find out that there’s a time limit. Overstay that duration, 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 have coverage 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 arise. Consult with your doctor to ensure 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 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 [insurance provider] will likely not pay your claim in that situation.”

Medical history disclosure is usually a more pressing issue for older travellers. Still, young adventurers in excellent health need to pay attention to their policies' terms and conditions. If you don’t read your policy, you may overlook exclusions associated with activities on your itinerary. Climbing, mountain biking, and bungee jumping are common activities that insurance companies exclude.

And as finance and travel expert Barry Choi points out, even having one beer at the beach can be used against you. “Many policies say you wouldn’t be covered if you were drunk or drinking,” he says.

Prepare for potential emergencies before heading to your destination

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

Both Choi and Fine suggest making sure your insurance provider’s contact information is easily accessible for you, your travel partner(s), and your family back home. Print off any information your insurance company provides and bring copies. Keep your provider’s name and contact information in your wallet, and add its contact details to your phone. If something happens, the emergency phone numbers are within 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 chosen company, download the 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

Leaving home without purchasing a travel health insurance package is a big mistake — heed this advice for all trips outside of the country, no matter how close your destination is or the duration of travel. 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. It can pay off to get coverage even if you’re away for a day-long shopping trip south of the border.

If the worst-case scenario arises, call your provider as soon as possible.

Many people 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 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.

Call your insurance company right away if you find yourself in a medical emergency. Both Fine and Choi agree that this cannot be emphasized enough. If you’ve prepared properly, your coverage and provider’s information will be easily accessible. Dial them up. Explain the situation, ask for direction, and start the claims process. Ideally, this part should happen before seeking medical treatment. However, this isn't always possible in emergencies, such as a heart attack or automobile collision. 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 help you tremendously for three main reasons:

  1. The insurance company will likely direct you to an approved local hospital.
  2. The provider will evaluate the situation on the spot and let you know if the medical services are 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.
  3. Adhering to your insurance company’s preferences can simplify billing. 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. “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 and collect evidence

It’s not enough to adequately research your policy and dial your travel insurance provider when an accident happens. You must also collect all evidence and any supporting documents.

Insurance companies need proof of injury and all medical treatments. Show your paper trail to make the claims process go smoothly. For instance, this 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 injuries to prove that you were actually injured,” says Choi. “Generally, the more evidence you have always helps you when you’re making any claim. Sooner or later, the insurance company will need these documents.

It’s in your best interest to 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 with your travel insurance provider

Finally, follow up to ensure compensation for any expenses owed. 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.”

About the author

Sinead Mulhern

Sinead Mulhern is a Canadian journalist who writes about health, fitness, travel and personal finance. A former Torontonian, she is now based in Medellin, Colombia where she freelances for Canadian publications while travelling. 


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