By Simon Vaughan, Senior Editor & Special Travel Advisor/Outpost

Every year thousands of Canadians get stranded, lose possessions or have an accident or illness while on vacation. For some the events are not only physically and emotionally traumatic but they leave financial burdens that last for years. However, with the right travel insurance coverage even the worst mishap can be overcome.

“Hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” my grandmother used to say.

It’s an age-old adage that can be found in most languages and many cultures. We all hope everything will go swimmingly in life, but we know that won’t always be the case which is why we have boxes of candles in a drawer somewhere and an emergency supply of batteries. Or at least we know we should do even if we haven’t actually got around to it yet.

If it’s a useful mantra in everyday life, it is positively indispensable when travelling.

From carrying copies of passports and embassy contact details, to extra memory cards for our camera and a bag full of aspirin, Gravol, Imodium and After-bite, there’s nothing that can save a vacation quite as quickly as a bit of preparation and there’s nothing that can ruin one—and subsequent life—quite as totally as a lack of insurance.

I confess that when booking my travels I have been known to consider not buying travel insurance. It’s only ever the most fleeting of thoughts and it usually only pops up when the numbers in my cost column overwhelm the numbers in my budget column, but I’ll admit that it does happen. The fact is that in all my trips I’ve only ever had to make a claim once – and that was only for a few hundred dollars—and yet I’ve likely spent thousands of dollars buying coverage. Within minutes I come to my senses and relent because, just like your grandmother always imploring you to wear clean underwear in case you have an accident, you just know that it’s the right and sensible thing to do.

And Murphy’s Law says that the one trip you don’t have insurance on will be the one trip you’ll rack up a $100,000 medical bill.

Travel insurance is fairly straight forward. You buy a policy that covers you for what you want protected. This could just be medical expenses, simple cancellation (caused by uncontrollable circumstances, generally not by a change of mind), or complete package insurance that includes medical and cancellation as well as other expenses like delays and lost baggage.

However, within those boundaries there is a lot of fine print. In fact, if you’ve ever actually looked at the fine print in an insurance policy you may well have something that rivals The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. While it’s advisable to know your coverage inside-out if you don’t have time to read every single line, there are a few things that trip up many travellers and are worth a special closer look. Here are five travel insurance tips to review before buying.


Many travel insurance policies do not cover you if you get hurt while engaging in certain sports activities. Not only may they not cover more understandable things like skydiving or bungee jumping, but they can even exclude more sedentary pursuits such as mountain biking, jet-skiing or even horseback riding. If you are contemplating doing anything like this on your trip, check the policy closely before buying. If these activities—and anything else you may possibly decide to do on a whim—aren’t covered, shop around for policies that do include such sports.

Pre-existing Medical Conditions

Don’t mess around with the old “Pre-existing medical condition” clause. Before settling any medical bill, insurance companies will do their research. If they learn that before you left home you had the ailment that sent you to hospital in Amsterdam or to the clinic in Mexico, they won’t pay-up. If you’ve had an operation or a recent serious illness, make sure you get your doctor’s OK to fly before you travel and get that consent in writing. If the doctor says you’re fine, if worst comes to worst, the insurance company shouldn’t have a problem either.

Read the Fine Print

If you’re taking a fancy camera or expensive sports equipment, double-check the fine print. Most package insurance policies cover loss of luggage up to a certain verifiable amount, but many won’t include expensive camera equipment, a top-end bicycle or fine jewellery unless you purchase additional coverage for those specific items (and even that’s not always an option). Before going to extra efforts however, it’s a good idea to check your home insurance policy as it may cover you for such possessions even when on vacation.

Travel Warnings—

The Canadian government maintains a list of countries and regions it advises against visiting. If you choose to ignore the government’s warnings and venture to one of these areas and then run into problems, your insurance provider may not cover you. Some insurance companies may simply need to be specifically advised of that destination before you go, others may require you to pay a premium for that potential hotspot while there are some destinations that no one will likely cover you for at any price!

Pay First?

As long as you abide by the insurance company’s instructions and rules, some insurance companies will deal directly with the clinic or hospital and you’ll never see a bill. However, there are insurance companies that require you to pay first and then they’ll reimburse you when you get home and present them with the paperwork.

That might not be too bad if it’s a couple of stitches, but I’m guessing that most of us don’t carry enough cash to pay if we get hit by a car, are taken to hospital by air ambulance and kept in traction for several weeks.

Familiarize yourself with the procedure for medical coverage before you or your travelling companion have that accident or are taken ill, and ensure that you follow the insurance company’s instructions to the letter. If your insurer requires you to pay up-front, make sure you have access to enough funds or look for an alternative policy.

  • Simon Vaughan is Outpost’s Senior Editor as well as Special Travel Advisor

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