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How to avoid making the mistakes that could cost you your insurance coverage

What could be worse than running into trouble on a trip and not having travel insurance? Well, how about running into trouble on a trip and discovering that the travel insurance you thought had you covered… doesn’t.

Of course, I think that anyone who travels, especially out of the country, should have travel insurance. To me, it’s a no-brainer, and I won’t make the case for it here. But what I do want to talk about is how to avoid some of the horror stories I regularly hear from people who thought they were covered and got a big nasty surprise – and thousands of dollars in unexpected expenses – when they went to file a claim.

The one thing I would say to anyone thinking of traveling is, “Take this travel insurance stuff seriously.” Think it through. Do the research. Decide what coverage you need. Talk to your consultant. Ask questions. Read the contract. Whether you’re traveling on business or for pleasure, make sure you have all the bases covered.

The details and conditions do vary from plan to plan, and from group plans to individual plans, but here are some of the issues to take into account.

Pre-existing conditions. When you buy travel health insurance, you’ll have to report any medical conditions that you have, or that you’ve been treated for recently. (And, as I explained in a previous blog, “treated” includes things like just talking to your doctor about a possible condition, even if there is no further action.) And note that this also applies if you have group coverage, and you develop a new medical condition prior to your trip. You may need to get extra, “top-up” coverage for that condition.

Incorrect information. It seems pretty obvious, but you’d be amazed at how often there are problems with claims related to incorrect information provided by the traveler. Important details like travel dates and the number of days. Other things like addresses or identification numbers or dates of birth. They may or may not invalidate your claim, but they can sure make things complicated.

Changing your plans.You buy coverage for a trip to Destination A but, halfway through, you decide to take an excursion to Destination B. Guess what? You may not be covered on that side-trip. Really, any significant change in travel plans from what you told the insurance provider can have an impact.

Factor in your “free” travel insurance. You may have some level of coverage on your credit card – it’s one of the benefits of many cards. This can get tricky. It’s possible that your credit card plan gives you the basic coverage you need, but you really want to make sure. It’s in the fine print of the cardholder agreement. You will probably want to buy more coverage, and you need to talk to your consultant about the credit card plan. What it covers and what is doesn’t, yes, but also how it affects the coverage you’re buying. Some plans have a clause that requires you to go to any existing coverage (including credit card) before you can claim from them. Make sure you know exactly where you stand.

Skipping the vaccinations. You travel to a place where vaccinations are required. (You can check what vaccinations are required at the Government of Canada travel health advisory site.) If you fall ill with a disease you should have been vaccinated against, there may well be issues with your claim.

Taking risks. Traveling to dangerous places can invalidate your coverage. Check the government site for any travel advisories. There are many vacation activities that are considered high risk – and yes, this is in your travel insurance contract. You have to know what you’re planning to do on your trip, and you have to know what’s covered and what isn’t. Things like scuba diving, para-sailing, and hang gliding need to be considered. But there can be other, less obvious, things that can be a problem.

Irresponsible behaviour. There are a lot of risky things people do on vacation, and it’s not always obvious just where you cross the line from “vacation activities” to “excessive risk.” Obviously, excessive use of alcohol – okay, getting drunk – will have an effect on any possible claim resulting from whatever trouble people get into while under the influence. The same for drugs, both legal and otherwise. Anything that can be described as a “stunt” or “prank” is probably excluded from coverage.

Ignoring the paperwork. Travel insurance is not something you can afford to buy and forget. Keep the contract with you when you travel. Make sure you have contact information and instructions on how to file a claim from your destination. It’s probably a good idea to keep a hard copy with your travel documents, as well as an electronic copy you can access remotely if, say, your bags and your smart phone are lost. Have that 1-800 number written down, and make sure you also have your policy number for when you call.

Updating your coverage. Travel plans and circumstances change. Perhaps you change your plans before you even leave. Maybe something comes up halfway through. Whatever. But if there is any change, you need to contact your insurance provider, let them know, and make arrangements to be covered. Make sure you have contact information to do this.

Getting the best coverage. There are a lot of other issues to consider. If you travel frequently, buying annual coverage may be a better deal than a series of one-offs. If you book months in advance, you may want to get trip-cancelation insurance at the time of booking, rather than just before the trip. Make sure you have trip cancelation and lost-luggage coverage (which may not be included in many group plans).

Yes, you have to make sure you understand precisely what coverage you have bought, and what the insurance provider is agreeing to do for you. Your coverage, and the premiums you pay, are based on what you tell the insurance provider. You expect them to live up to their responsibilities under the agreement, and they expect you to live up to yours.

And that’s why you need to take it very seriously.

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