Travel with Dr. Jean: Do I really need travel insurance?

Travel insurance is a must for anyone in this time of shifting public health restrictions, but especially if you’re over 65

  • Jul 14, 2022
  • 1,159 words
  • 5 minutes
Photo: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen/Unsplash
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Last month, a very fit and active friend of mine spent 100 hours in a cardiac ICU in Florida following sudden chest pain. He then had a ‘mini-stroke’ which affected his speech for 10 minutes. This is very bad news, especially when you’re 85.

Imagine his relief when he received no bill  — nothing! — from the hospital as he was put on an air ambulance back to Canada. True, he had no pre-existing issues with his heart or circulation. But his age alone would have put him in a category that can carry a jaw-dropping cost.

What he did have was a gold-plated insurance policy. He ‘overpaid,’ not because he’d been diagnosed with cancer or heart disease, but just because he was old.

His case proves that when you get old, bad things can happen, and the older you are, the more likely they are to happen, no matter how fit and mindful you have been in your life.

I’ll be 80 this year; my husband is a much younger 72. We’re both adventure travelers and athletes. I’ve run the Boston Marathon and was there in 2013 when the bomb exploded at the finish line.

I’m also a physician. I pay attention to the travel needs of my aging patients because they’re often too eager to get on planes and ships, especially after two years of lockdown. That’s why, over the next few months, I’ll be sharing my travel advice for seniors — that is, any traveler 65 and older.

My friend’s story highlights the importance of travel insurance for travellers of all ages, but especially seniors. There are two kinds of travel insurance: cancellation insurance in the event your trip is called off or postponed, and health insurance if you get sick or die while you’re on a trip.

The pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have changed the rules around exclusions — in other words, things that your policy won’t cover.

First, COVID is a known event and was excluded until early 2022. But you can buy COVID coverage by adding it to whatever insurance package you sign up for.

The cost is around $125 on top of your basic coverage. But it may be a life saver and at the very least ensure your peace of mind. The first step is to contact your current travel policy provider and ask them about COVID coverage.

The second exclusion is a nuclear attack at your travel destination. Unlike COVID, you can’t pay extra for nuclear coverage. It is an exclusion in all circumstances.

Checkup before you check in

Many of my patients over 80 don’t want to see me before they head off on a trip. They may well have pre-existing conditions, like a weak heart, or they’ve had cancer. They don’t want me to uncover a new condition like hypertension or diabetes that would disqualify them from coverage. And if not disqualify, then make their premiums rise often beyond the actual cost of their trip.

Photos: ArtHouse Studio/Pexels
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As a physician, what I want is for them to have a stable pre-existing condition, one that hasn’t changed in the past three months.

So many of my patients haven’t had their blood pressure tested in the past two years; haven’t had blood work to check their sugars, kidney function and liver enzymes; haven’t updated their routine shots for pneumonia, shingles and tetanus. With all the urgency around getting their COVID vaccinations, these routines have fallen off their radar.

Ideally, your checkup will give you enough time for your doctor or nurse practitioner to stabilize a new finding before you travel and give you the comfort of knowing you’re “good to go.”

Most insurance companies have online questionnaires, part of your application that slots you into a high-risk or lower-risk category based on your age and maladies. Don’t ever try to fudge your answers for the sake of saving $100. It’s not worth it.

Safety in numbers

Back to insuring your newly-tested body.

Travel insurance packages are dense reads and seniors find reassurance in looking to advisor groups to find policies created for them. The largest seniors traveller organization is the Canadian Snowbird Association. It has 100,000 members and has endorsed one company for over 25 years, as has the Royal Canadian Legion. (You don’t have to be a military veteran to join; anyone can).

The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) wisely wraps travel insurance in with its compulsory auto insurance packages. In fact, most insurers now offer COVID travel insurance as an add-on. I view COVID coverage as a must. Until the World Health Organization deems it to be endemic — that is to say we all have robust immunity from it — Canadians will live in a world of travel restrictions and shifting categories of travel advisories. 

You need to know what your options are if your international destination is suddenly slapped with a Category 4 travel advisory. Your COVID insurance and most likely your trip interruption insurance will be invalid if you choose to go there, in spite of the federal government’s level 4 Travel Advisory warning.

The agent advantage

We’ve used the same travel agent for 30 years. If you know yours as well as we know Kris Knowles, talk to them in detail about what you need. They should be able to recommend one or two insurers. They should know what’s covered and what your travel plans are. Will you plan for only one bucket list trip or are there likely to be a few in the year? If the latter, consider an annual or multi-trip plan. They may even recommend evacuation insurance if you’re deep in the mountains and you break your leg and a helicopter is the only fast way out. We added that extra insurance when we travelled to Everest Base Camp so that there was $5,000 sitting in a safe in Kathmandu if a heli-pilot had to be called out for a rescue above 4,500 meters.

Finally, if something bad happens, you’ll be dealing directly with your insurer; your agent can often clear away the barriers to ensure you are speaking to a live human being.

Travel is exciting but it disrupts your routines and body rhythms, adding stressors that aren’t obvious as you heft your bags into the taxi.

So: see your family doctor before your next trip, and start shopping for travel insurance. It’s an added cost of growing old, and of making travel part of your life. But traveling without insurance is like riding a rollercoaster without a safety restraint.

Dr. Jean Marmoreo is a physician, writer, adventurer and Fellow of the RCGS. Her book, The Last Doctor, on medical assistance in dying, will be published in September. 


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