For many seniors, no longer having time constraints on when or how long they travel can travel for is a very big bonus of being retired. And winter is a prime period for travelling snowbirds who want to get away from the frigid weather in most parts of Canada. A few weeks or more in Florida or Arizona are typical destinations for many older Canadians. But others seeking more adventurous and less costly vacations are planning to visit a myriad of more exotic locations like Ecuador, Uruguay, Panama, Mexico, Malaysia and Thailand.
Whether you are planning to travel across the continent or around the world, the 10 safety tips below will help to ensure you get to your destination and back without any unnecessary delays or nasty surprises.
Check your visa: Find out if you need a visa, how to get it and how long it is good for. When my husband and I planned a trip to Russia and Ukraine with a synagogue group, I didn’t carefully check the dates when I picked up our visas. We were planning to travel in May and the date on my visa was correct, but my husband’s said March. We could not get on the plane to Moscow from our stop-over in Munich and the problem couldn’t be fixed, so we lost a week’s vacation and thousands of dollars. Visa problems are not covered by trip interruption insurance.
Credit cards: Take several credit cards and keep them in different places so you have backup if your card or your wallet is stolen. Make sure to call your bank and credit card companies before you leave. Otherwise if they see an unusual spending pattern on your card, it may be refused. Also take photocopies of your cards and record the telephone numbers you have to call if they are lost or stolen so you can move quickly if necessary.
Travel insurance: Review any travel insurance you have on credit cards, through work or other groups to ensure it covers the duration of your trip and the kinds of activities you are planning. Otherwise you may need additional coverage. Complete all medical information accurately or coverage may be denied. Understand the “pre-existing conditions” exemptions under the policy.
Pack light: This is definitely a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” I always take far too much! The ideal of course, is to take one small bag so you don’t have to spend hours waiting for checked baggage or risk that your bags don’t arrive when you do. Also if you have large heavy bags you are much less mobile and you run a greater risk of straining muscles or falling.
Check with your doctor: Schedule a doctor’s appointment before you leave. Renew your prescriptions for the length of time you will be away and pack them in the original container. Take enough for a few days in your carry-on luggage in case your bags are lost. Ask if you need any additional vaccinations before you go. Depending on your destination, your doctor may refer you to a travel clinic.
Avoid pick pockets: Be really alert and aware of your purse or wallet at all times. Ideally women should wear a cross-body purse that cannot be snatched off your shoulder. Men, do not put your wallet in your back pocket. Travel clothing has lots of hidden pockets with velcro flaps where you can safely hide your valuables. Don’t ever put your wallet down on a counter and take your eyes off it when you are making a purchase.
Other valuables: Leave your diamond rings and other flashy, expensive jewelry at home. I feel really peculiar without a wedding ring and there are often formal nights on cruises so I bought some glitzy fakes that I travel with instead. But thieves often don’t know the difference so don’t wear anything too sparkly in dangerous areas. And always use the safe in your room for extra cash, credit cards, your passports and small electronics.
Ask for special services: Airports are vast and travelers typically have to walk very long distances to get from the entrance to check-in, through security and then to the gates. Ask for wheelchair service if you need it. If the airline provides the service there is typically no charge.
Be realistic: If you haven’t skied in 30 years, don’t plan a vacation skiing in the Alps. Unless you are an experienced scuba diver and you are in excellent health, age 80 is probably not a good time to do a deep dive on the Great Barrier Reef. A bus trip to 15 cities in 20 days will leave you exhausted and the only thing you will remember about your holiday is the pictures.
Leave contact information: Make sure family members have a copy of your itinerary and telephone numbers for your hotels, tour operators etc. who can reach you. These days the texting, data and calling features of your smart phone can be activated all over the world, but unless you get a roaming package before you leave or buy a local SIM card for your unlocked phone, it can be very expensive. While you may want to “get off the grid” and turn off your electronics, there are definite advantages to having connectivity in a health or travel emergency.
When people who are retiring are asked what they plan to do after work they frequently say they’re going to travel more. And many elect to become snowbirds who escape to destinations with warmer climates for several months a year. However, for older Canadians traveling outside the country, getting the right travel insurance coverage at an affordable price is a key concern before they set off on their journey.
Therefore, to kick off Saskatchewan Pension Plan’s Snowbird Series for November, I’m interviewing Martin Firestone, President of Travel Secure, a company that specializes in travel insurance. Since he opened the company in 2003 he has become well-known for his expertise, and he has frequently been quoted in the media.
Thanks for joining me today Martin.
Q: Martin, travel insurance can be broken down into several components. Can you tell me what they are?
A: Sure. The first would be “Emergency Out-of-Country Medical.” The second coverage is “Trip Cancellation and Interruption” insurance that is typically part of a deluxe package that includes lost baggage, missed flights and default of supplier protection.
Q: Why is it so important for snowbirds who are going to be out of the country for a month or more to obtain the right kind of coverage?
A: I don’t even think it’s a month or more. I think one hour out of our province is where the problems begin in this game. It’s important because quite frankly you’re not covered if you have a medical emergency once you’re out of your province.
Q: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about travel insurance or the need for travel insurance?
A: I think the biggest one is that your government health insurance program covers you while you’re traveling. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If there is any coverage at all, we are looking at a fraction of the cost. People also think that if they don’t feel well, they will hop on a plane and come home. But lots of people we deal with can’t get on a plane. They’re not stable enough to be flown 30,000 feet in the air. And the final one is really, people think that they’re immortal and they won’t get sick.
Q: Many people have travel insurance through their credit cards. What are the pros and cons of credit card coverage?
A: The biggest problem with credit card coverage is there is no underwriting at time of application, because there is no application. You have a credit card. It has a travel insurance element, but it’s very difficult to understand what the fine print means. In that scenario you have a claim, and then you apply for payment. That’s when the true underwriting happens, and when you may find out that in fact you do not actually have coverage.
Q: The other issue, of course, with credit card insurance, particularly for snowbirds is – as I understand it – there are caps on the length of time you can be away.
A: Absolutely. So when you turn 50, then maybe it’s only covering you for up to 15 days at any one time. Then you turn 65, it reduces to six days. And then ultimately, at certain ages it just reduces to zero days.
Q: Now, some people have annual travel policies that would cover them for everything from a one day jaunt to more lengthy trips without having to think about getting insurance every single time. What do travelers need to know about these policies?
A: If you purchase an annual travel insurance policy, it basically states that you can travel up to a specified number of days as many times as you want during the year. It is an excellent product with one small problem. If there is a change in your health during the given year, you cannot make an assumption that the annual policy is going to be adequate. In fact, it could be worthless depending on the stability period. So if you have an annual policy, you always have to check in with the broker or the insurer and explain when you have a change in stability.
Q: What does stability mean?
A: Stability is simply what an insurer needs to know about how long it has been since you’ve had a change in medication. A change in medication can be an increase, a decrease, even being taken totally off a drug. And a change in the insurance world is a risk. So insurance stability periods can range anywhere from seven days to 90 days to 180 days or even one year. This simply means that if you have had a change in the last year and the stability period in the policy is 365 days, you will not be covered for that particular condition.
Q: Now, again, some snowbirds have group travel insurance as part of their retiree benefits or membership in an alumni group. Are there similar potential problems with these policies?
A: Very much so. The biggest thing you have to worry about with group, alumni, retirement, or ongoing employer-sponsored group plans is the length of the stability period. And the major problem we’re finding now with group benefits is determining whether or not the client really eligible. If the policy says you have to be at work for at least 25 hours/week for 50 weeks, how could you possibly spend six months down in Florida and still be an eligible employee?
Q: But what about people who retire and are still covered by the group policy?
A: Very good question. There are large companies that do have post-retirement coverage. It’s very important to check with your HR department or the people who are administering the plan to confirm what the stability period is, how many days you can be out of the country, and confirm other aspect of your coverage.
Q: There are several online companies or online groups that allow potential purchasers to compare prices and features and then purchase a policy. What do they need to watch out for? What would your concern be about that method of purchasing travel insurance?
A:It’s one thing to see what various competitors are charging and what their policies cover, but there’s still the problem that you may not understand the questions you answered. So without a third party, a live person to question whether you have high-blood pressure, you run the risk that what you actually requested or what the search engine spits out is still not a policy that’s going to cover you.
Q: And what about travel insurance sold by travel agencies? How does their product differ from policies offered by an online purchaser or broker?
A: Travel agents are not licensed the way an insurance agent is to sell travel insurance. That doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re selling. It’s just that they typically sell only one product. You may get some coverage, but again the fine print may indicate that it does not cover you for certain conditions. So it’s not even an issue of stability periods. If you take medication for something, that condition may not be covered.
Q: So what value do you think a broker can add to the whole process?
A: Well, on top of being licensed and having studied to learn about travel insurance, they can offer policies from several different companies. And I guess the other part is, they’re available at claim time, which at the end of the day, is probably the strongest asset of anyone selling travel insurance. They don’t get lost after the sale. They’re there to help you when there’s a claim.
Q: How much coverage is enough?
A: $1 million is more than enough. I personally have never seen a claim that exceeded $1 million. I think any of the other policies with $2 million or $5 million coverage out there are just sizzle.
Q: So regardless of how or where snowbirds purchase travel insurance, what kind of questions should they be asking?
A: The most important thing they should be asking is “What is the stability period?” They should also be asking if they have to go to a specific network of hospitals or whether if they get ill, they can just go anywhere they want. Having to go to a network where an insurer has a special pricing arrangement does help the premiums and ultimately the cost of the whole adventure. But you got to know what you’re buying.
Q: What kind of activities may be excluded by a policy?
A: Typically high-risk activities. We’re talking about downhill skiing, scuba diving — things like that. If the policy is sold properly, and there is an exclusion explained prior to the sale of a policy, then that’s fine.
Q: Now, you talked about underwriting at the time of purchase and underwriting at the time of claim. Could you clarify that for me a bit more?
A: With some credit cards and various forms of group coverage, you get travel insurance automatically. Not once do they ask you about your medical conditions, how many meds you take, your stability or anything else. So there’s no way that they could make an assessment of you, until claim time when the doctor’s reports are ordered and a phone call is made asking you about your health and your conditions. Of course, if A doesn’t line up with B, that’s when you get a letter that your claim has been denied.
Q: How typical is it for a carrier to deny coverage if a medical question was improperly answered, even if the subsequent medical condition is totally unrelated?
A: That one is a thorn in many people’s side but it is a fact of life. You answered a question wrong with respect to whether you use a puffer or you don’t. You are on vacation, you have a perforated stomach and the bill comes to $300,000. You’ll get a letter the next week saying that unfortunately, you didn’t answer the puffer question right, so the insurance company is denying your claim for a perforated stomach. This is one of the most talked about, most frustrating realities that gives the industry a bad name.
Q: Are some snowbirds simply uninsurable?
A: I would say that at minimum, the best insurance policy out there requires that the individual be stable for at least seven days. They also can’t be traveling against the advice of their physician.
Q: So if somebody has a cancer or something of that nature, could they be covered if they’ve been stable, let’s say for the seven days?
A: Yes, as long as the policy states that seven days prior to departure there were no tests, investigations or medication changes, then you would be covered up to the policy amount.
Q: I see. But might there be specific conditions excluded?
A: There shouldn’t be. If you can honestly say that, I, for the last seven days before going away, have not had any issues, then you should be fully covered for all pre-existing conditions.
Q: But that would be a policy you could typically get only from a broker?
A: Absolutely. There are only certain proprietary products out there that have a clause, which is called “the guaranteed stability rider.” That rider is not cheap, but it gives you the peace of mind that when you’re away you’ll be covered for all issues that you may have.
Q: Thank you very much Martin. Talking with you today has been very informative.
A: My pleasure.
This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted in September 2015.
I’ve read so many horror stories about people losing their life savings because they became seriously ill when travelling in the U.S. that I’ve become a bit paranoid about having enough travel insurance.
That’s probably why for many years we have purchased an annual travel policy in addition to coverage available from both of our employers and our credit card company. I figure that if something happens, one or more of the companies will make us whole.
But like many other people, I really never thought about needing travel insurance for trips to other Canadian provinces. A 2012 survey by TD Insurance revealed that 29 per cent of Canadians believe they only need travel insurance if they travel internationally and 35 per cent admit they have travelled out of their home province without it.
However, when I talked to TD Insurance VP Dave Minor, he reminded me that existing provincial plans do not necessarily cover all expenses that may be incurred if a medical emergency occurs in another part of the country.
For example, if you have an accident water skiing in B.C. and you must be transported by air ambulance back to Saskatchewan, your Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Plan will not foot the bill. Similarly, if you have a serious heart attack in Halifax when you are travelling alone, flying a family member out to be with you would normally be an out-of-pocket expense.
Because an accident or illness can happen anytime, Minor says travel insurance is also important even if you only cross-border shop in the U.S. a couple of times a year. “For people who travel across the border on a regular basis, we recommend an annual plan. When you look at the per trip cost vs an annual policy, it will pay for itself after three or four trips.”
You can compare prices and features of available travel insurance coverage from a number of carriers here. However, the cheapest policy will not always deliver the best value.
For many years we have purchased the annual TD Meloche Monnex Wide Horizons policy which is available to members of professional and alumni associations. For $187.77/year (at age 63) we are covered for unlimited trips of up to 30 days outside our home province plus hospital and medical expenses up to $5 million. The cost of the policy increases with age and customers over 85 pay $2473.54/year for the same coverage.
If you have any medical conditions or you are on medication when you apply for travel insurance it is very important to fully disclose this information and discuss it with your carrier so you understand whether any potential medical expenses for pre-existing conditions are excluded.
Also, if your vacation plans include engaging in risky activities like para-sailing, bungee jumping, mountain climbing or other extreme sports, be sure to clarify whether or not the policy will pay if you have an accident in these circumstances.
Here are some questions you should ask when you are purchasing travel insurance.
What is the maximum each policy will pay above provincial medical insurance limits?
Is there an age limit or medical criteria for who can apply?
Does age affect the kind of coverage I can expect?
How does the policy define a pre-existing condition?
Will a pre-existing condition of mine affect my coverage?
Are there any medical exclusions that apply to me?
Will I have to pay a deductible? If so, how much?
Does the policy contain a co-payment clause? What percentage of medical expenses will I have to pay?
Will the insurance company pay the hospital or physician directly? Or will I have to pay the full amount myself, and then be reimbursed later by the company?
Do you have tips for people shopping for travel insurance? Share your tips with us at http://wp.me/P1YR2T-JR and your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you use one of our money-saving ideas.
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