Reasonable Doubt: Buying peace of mind for your next adventure

Travel insurance – what’s the big deal? Kevin Yee shares horror stories from across the world to show how you don’t want to leave home without it.

From the comfort of a guesthouse, nestled up against snowcapped mountains and across a river bordering Afghanistan, a flurry of activity unfolded before me. A van screeched in from the dirt road and was hurriedly unloaded by locals.

Out of the van popped a young Finnish man and woman carrying weary smiles. The woman hopped on one foot and leaned on the man for balance. She had just broken her ankle while cycling in a mountain pass and had to return to town.

The two were attempting to cycle across central Asia through Tajikistan. They had been through a lot just to get transported back to town. Now they were dreading the ordeal that lay ahead: getting emergency medical treatment.

It wasn’t just the concern of the poor quality of health care in this part of the world. It was because they knew they would be paying out of pocket for their expenses. This is because, even though they had travel insurance, their accident happened over 3,000 metres above sea level. Under their insurance policy, accidents at that altitude weren’t covered. So they ran into a scary scenario for all travellers: finding yourself with no insurance where and when you need it the most.

Recently, there was a local news story about travel insurance. A Surrey couple bought additional insurance through Royal Bank of Canada for their vacation rather than their existing insurer Pacific Blue Cross. They did this because the extra coverage through RBC was cheaper.

While on vacation, one of them needed emergency health care. They tried to go through RBC for coverage. However, because of a “first payer” clause, RBC required any coverage to first come out of all other policies in place. For this couple, this meant going through Pacific Blue Cross.

For them, this was a shock. This is because their Pacific Blue Cross policies have lifetime maximums. And the Surrey couple relied on Pacific Blue Cross at home to cover treatment of a chronic health condition. So not only were the Surrey couple unable to rely on the RBC insurance that they specifically bought for their vacation, they had to dip into their limited Pacific Blue Cross coverage. If those lifetime limits are reached, they will need to look elsewhere for insurance coverage or pay out of pocket.

Both of these stories show the importance of shopping carefully for travel insurance. How should you shop for travel insurance? This requires reading and understanding the insurance policy itself. However, most people find insurance policies mind-numbing to read. It’s like those pages of legalese that we all quickly scroll through just to tick off the box that says “I agree to the above terms and conditions” before signing up for anything online.

There are certain things to keep in mind to help you navigate a travel-insurance policy. Although insurance policies are all written differently, there can be a similar pattern. They usually start with definitions of words and phrases within that policy. Then it’s the bulk of the policy that explains what the insurance generally covers and the actual dollar amount of the coverage. After, the policy usually has specific clauses for exclusions. This is where the policy basically says, “Although that last section said we would insure you, these are the particular scenarios where you are on your own.”

This is also where that Finnish woman got herself in trouble. Her travel insurance policy excluded accidents that take place at altitudes higher than 3,000 metres above sea level.

Exclusionary clauses might relate to specific activities like scuba diving, mountaineering, or ATVing. Or exclusionary clauses might relate to the location. Policies could exclude coverage if you go into a war zone or a medical-quarantine zone. It is really up to the insurance company to come up with the policy, so the onus is on you to read up on these exclusions.

Think of where you are going and what you will be doing. What type of emergency could you run into? Are you going to remote locations from which transportation to a hospital would be difficult? Are you entering a politically unstable region that might require emergency evacuation? Are you an adrenaline junkie taking part in activities that could get out of hand?

Asking yourself these questions will help you determine what aspect of a policy is right for you.

If you aren’t sure after your reading whether or not you will be covered for a certain situation, you can call and ask a representative of the insurance company. It might not be you: these clauses can be vague.

It’s not fun deciding on—and between—insurance policies. It requires you to play a never-ending game of “what if”. But the whole point of insurance is to have peace of mind. This peace of mind is only available if you do your homework and make informed decisions about your policies. Otherwise, you may not only have an interrupted vacation but an expensive dispute with an insurance company on your hands.

A word of caution: you should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.

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