Insurance should be included on packing list

Stranded passengers carry their luggage outside the Ottawa airport after a suspicious package was found in the airport Wednesday, July 7, 2004. Insurance is a good item to include on any packing list so travellers are covered in unexpected circumstances abroad - whether it be injury, illness or just plain old inconvenience. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

CALGARY - First the severe thunderstorms hit. Then a landing gear malfunction forced the evacuation of a plane at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

If that wasn't bad enough, Air Force One was set to land in the Windy City so that U.S. President Barack Obama could spend his birthday there.

Havoc ensued at what is an incredibly busy hub at the best of times. No planes were landing or taking off, and what was supposed to be a quick stopover between Boston and Calgary two summers ago became a 18-hour Midwestern sojourn.

It would have been a pricey stay if I hadn't purchased travel insurance to cover the cost of a night in a hotel, three meals and toiletries to tide me over until I could be reunited with my checked luggage.

Insurance is a good item to include on any packing list so travellers are covered in unexpected circumstances abroad — whether it be injury, illness or just plain old inconvenience.

I obtained my policy through my credit card provider, but coverage can also be provided through banks, travel companies and employer health plans.

"Emergency medical is without doubt the most important coverage to make sure any traveller — whether they're driving, flying, taking a boat, taking a train — has when they leave their province of residence. It's absolutely critical when you leave Canada," said Martha Turnbull, head of travel claims at RBC insurance.

Provincial health plans provide some coverage, but it's negligible.

"Generally speaking, a safe rule of thumb is the provinces provide very little, if any, meaningful coverage for out-of-country travel when it comes to emergency treatment," said Turnbull.

For example, she said, an RBC Insurance client developed pancreatitis when he travelled to Cancun, Mexico. The bill for five days in a local hospital and air travel home came to $83,748.46. His government health plan shelled out only $1,376.99 and RBC paid the rest up front.

Policies might also include non-medical items like trip cancellation — say, if a family emergency comes up and a vacation has to be called off — and lost luggage.

Every traveller's needs are different, so costs vary, said David Lytle, editorial director at travel website Frommers.com.

Evacuation insurance is good to have if you're in an unstable part of the world or are taking part in risky activities while travelling. That type of premium coverage is going to cost as much as 15 per cent of one's travel budget.

Insurance usually won't cost typical travellers any more than seven per cent of their budget, Lytle added.

"It's a personal decision for everybody," he said from San Francisco.

The length of a trip is also a consideration when purchasing coverage. Trip cancellation is probably not necessary for a weekend getaway, for example.

"But if it's something where it's a long trip, a complicated trip, an expensive trip, it's probably a good idea to look into coverage so that you're protected in case, for example, the vender goes out of business," said Lytle.

It's important to know precisely what a policy covers and what it doesn't.

"Oftentimes they don't do the legwork ahead of time to know what's going on, and they think they purchased one thing when they actually have something else," said Lytle.

It's a given that many travellers will want to let loose while they're on vacation, but they should exercise some degree of restraint because injuries sustained under the influence of drugs or alcohol probably won't be covered, Lytle said.

Michael MacKenzie with the Canadian Snowbird Association, a group that provides support and advice to travellers, urges travellers to get a good handle on how pre-existing medical conditions might affect their coverage.

For instance, if a health problem arises between when the policy was purchased and the departure date, medical costs might not be covered.

"It's good to talk to your physician and get them to help you with it," he said.

"Be honest about it obviously — that goes without saying."

Mackenzie said insurance shoppers shouldn't be put off by complicated forms.

"Our experience is that there's kind of an inverse relationship between the difficulty and detail required in filling out the application, the form, and the number of claims that are paid," he said.

"It's not a bad thing, necessarily, to have a difficult and detailed form to fill out."