Travel Insurance & Food Allergies: Make Sure You’re Protected During Your Travels

When my baby boy was first diagnosed with a number of severe food allergies, I was devastated. All I could think about was all the delicious food he—and we—would miss out on. Peanut butter, once a staple in our home, was now banned. Much-loved bakeries were now off limits. If my husband and I wanted Asian takeout, we’d do so guiltily, after the baby was in bed, and then disinfect our table, countertops and anything else our food may have come into contact with.

As time passed, I realized that his food allergies would make it challenging, if not impossible, to take part in other much-loved experiences, like travel. Not only would we need to contend with eye rolls and exasperated sighs on airplanes (not to mention seating areas covered in crumbs that could kill from previous passengers), we’d need to research where it is safe to eat out, and whether or not our overseas host could accommodate 6+ allergies.

And then there’s travel insurance. This one is a biggie. If only because people know so little about it. See, I’m part of a couple of different support groups for parents of children with food allergies. It’s great because I’m surrounded by seasoned allergy parents who encourage newcomers when we’re feeling down, provide us with practical tips for everyday life, and give us the inside scoop on safe eating spots in the city. And yet…

This same group of moms and dads who’ve been doing this for years aren’t necessarily in the know when it comes to this one really important thing. Because I once worked for a travel insurance company, I know things aren’t always as straightforward as they seem—especially when it comes to travelling with a pre-existing condition. (And yes, food allergies are considered just that.) I know from writing about topics like travelling while pregnant or travelling with kids that pregnancy, for example, is also considered a pre-existing condition. Not everyone has been programmed to think this way—or to ask a million questions when it comes to travel coverage. But I have.

So I’ve compiled a list of tips for people travelling with food allergies below. Give them a read before your next trip—it just might save you a tens of thousands of dollars.

  1. Never, ever assume. A lot of the parents I spoke with had travel insurance through their workplace benefits and simply assumed their child was covered—no questions asked. But when it comes to travel insurance, it can be dangerous to assume anything. Always triple check your policy and then speak to an actual person to make sure your food-allergic child is eligible for coverage.
  2. Take that first “yes” with a grain of salt. The first time I hopped on the phone with my insurer (also through work), the representative assured me that, yes, my little guy was covered. If I hadn’t worked in the industry, I would have let out a huge sigh of relief, left on vacation, and then gone into debt had my child experienced an anaphylactic reaction OR—get this—any unrelated injury or illness during our trip. Luckily, I knew better.
  3. Ask questions. I found it hard to believe that my son was covered, pre-existing condition and all. So I repeated the question. And got the same answer. I thought of a different way to word it and asked again. The answer remained “yes.” I tried again. Still “yes.” I eventually got off the phone feeling really confused and very uncertain about the whole thing.
  4. Then ask more questions. A few weeks passed, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it—something just didn’t seem right. I decided to call one more time. And guess what, this time I received a completely different answer. I was told that, in fact, I’d need to buy a separate policy for my son. (What?! I knew it! But what about all those parents out there who didn’t know any better?) After being transferred to an affiliate company, what I learned made a lot more sense to me: My son would be covered if his condition was “stable” for 90 days prior to the trip.
  5. Find out what they mean by “stable” or “stability period.” The term “stable” has a positive connotation, so many people assume (there’s that word again!) that a pre-existing condition is stable as long as it didn’t worsen during the period in question. This is absolutely, positively incorrect. While it goes without saying that an allergic reaction that results in a trip to the doctor or ER would deem your child’s condition unstable, you probably didn’t know this: A simple follow-up visit to the allergist also results in an “unstable” label even if you learned that your child had grown out of one of his allergies. So when you’re booking your trip, check your calendar to make sure you don’t have an allergist appointment within the 90 days* prior. If you do, reschedule the appointment or the trip—whichever is easier.
  6. Check how long the stability period is. *For me, it was 90 days. That may not be the case with your insurer. Read the fine print on your policy (under “Pre-Existing Conditions”) or speak with a representative on the phone.
  7. Carry your wallet card with you at all times. You will need this on you in case of a medical event while travelling. Insurance companies prefer that you call them before seeking out care, but in the case of an emergency, that’s not always possible. As soon as you have a free moment, though, do be sure to give them a call. You wouldn’t want your claim to be denied because your insurer didn’t have a say in the matter (read: negotiating fees so that they aren’t paying the highest prices out there). Here’s another card you might like to keep around in your wallet, and the good news is, it’s a bit more fun.

You might not believe it, but there’s a happy ending to my story. After all those questions and all that stress, guess how much my son’s travel insurance ended up costing me?

$25. That’s it.

I had prepared myself for the worst, but because my son was an otherwise healthy little boy, and because he was stable for the 90 days prior to the trip, our travel insurance was more than just affordable—it was a steal!

The moral of this story? Do your homework before your next trip. You could end up saving yourself big bucks.

Don’t Let Homesickness Send You Home Early

10 tips for cross-cultural living

You’ve taken the leap and have moved overseas. You knew life would be different, but still, little things every day surprise you: The deep blue of the ocean that greets you on your drive to work. Those wonderful whiffs of your neighbour’s home-cooked meals. The chatter of shoppers speaking a language you don’t understand. And, a not-so-pleasant surprise—that first bout of homesickness.

Surprise, surprise—surprises can be both good and bad! While homesickness is an inevitable part of living away from home, there are ways to make sure you aren’t hit too hard or for too long a time – in the long run, it can really affect your mental health. If you want to avoid packing your bags and heading home much earlier than expected, try following the suggestions below!

  1. Keep in touch with loved ones—but don’t overdo it. When you move to the other side of the world, it’s always a good idea not to fall off the face of the planet. But it’s equally important to cut any ties that are restraining you from being 100% present in your new life. Calling worried parents with a daily update is not affordable. Or healthy. Communication with an ex is a recipe for homesickness. Creeping your friends’ Facebook pages is only going to make you feel sorry about what you’re missing back home. But sending a biweekly email update to close friends and family, or starting a blog—those are good ways to keep in touch and share your new experiences with those you miss.
  2. Explore your home away from home. There’s nothing more alienating than feeling like a stranger in your own home. Getting lost on your morning run or having to ask for directions to get to the grocery store doesn’t instill much confidence. Although there will always be a transition period while you familiarize yourself with your new surroundings, you can avoid prolonged feelings of frustration by setting aside time to explore your neighbourhood or city before you really need to know where you’re going. A do-it-yourself map is a handy way to keep you on the right path. How does it work exactly? When you head outside, sketch your route as you go. Not only will you be able to retrace your steps home, you will have made your own map for specific routes you plan to use again and again.
  3. Learn the language or pick up important phrases. Although English may be considered the universal language, it doesn’t mean that everyone can speak it. More importantly, you shouldn’t expect locals from your host country to speak your native language. It’s definitely a smart idea to take some language classes before you go. Although it is unlikely you’ll be fluent after one beginner course, you’ll head over with a solid foundation and may have even picked up important phrases (e.g., “Where’s the washroom?”) that will help you get by. If the decision to head overseas was a last-minute one, you may not have the time to enroll in a course. So do the next best thing: Get yourself a language book, a dictionary, or even a language exchange partner so you can get some practice time in.
  4. Be open-minded. Try new things. If you are planning to spend the next year studying in Europe, teaching English in Asia, or volunteering in South America, the last thing you want to do is spend your Saturday afternoons at Starbucks or eat all your meals at McDonald’s (yes, you can find multi-million-dollar corporations almost anywhere nowadays!). And contrary to popular belief, old habits are easier to change than you think. You just have to be open to change. Take cream and sugar in your coffee? Try drinking espresso in Italy anyway. Think you hate raw fish? Living by the seaside in Japan is guaranteed to change your mind. Can’t live without a hot shower? Travel to Thailand and you’ll see why it’s overrated. It’s as simple as saying “yes” to new experiences!
  5. Share your own traditions—with a twist. Nothing can bring on a bout of homesickness like being away from home during one of your favourite holidays. If you’re living in a country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, or if Christmas feels like “Christmas in Hawaii,” you may find yourself wistfully dreaming of holidays past. Looking at old photos and reminiscing about family traditions on your own is just going to leave you a blubbering mess. But taking those traditions, adapting them to your current environment, and sharing them with the locals is a way to keep the tradition going and make sure you are surrounded by people you care about. Not only will you beat the blahs, you will also be passing on your tradition to a whole new group of people—extra handy if you plan to stay there another year.
  6. Stay grounded. Living outside of one’s own country is often accompanied by a sense of “non-reality,” as it can sometimes feel like a prolonged vacation rather than real life. A sense of “no consequences” can lead sensible individuals to act less responsibly than they would back home. Your paycheque can feel like Monopoly money, resulting in over-spending and high credit card debt. And serial dating becomes a quick and easy solution to feelings of loneliness. The only problem is this: A broken heart can result in a whole new set of negative feelings, and may initiate a desire to return home sooner than you’d hoped.
  7. Forge friendships with the locals. There’s nothing worse than befriending a bunch of people only to have them leave, one by one. Unfortunately, that’s what tends to happen when you make friends with other expats like you. The best way to ensure you don’t lose all your friends at once is by getting to know the locals—they certainly aren’t going anywhere! And guess what? They might prove better suited as friends than foreign workers or international students who have adapted to a transient lifestyle. Losing your friends from around the world will likely result in some loneliness. But having a readily available group of local friends to support you when they leave is a great remedy for homesickness.
  8. Allow yourself some “me time.” As fun as exploring your new country will be, and as important as it is to befriend the locals and participate in local customs, it is just as important to allocate yourself some down time so that you don’t become overwhelmed by it all. Also, if you get accustomed to filling every minute of every day, that first day you spend on your own will feel worse than a case of food poisoning. Make sure “me” days are just as much a part of your routine as those days when you are playing social butterfly, and you’ll be less likely to be hit with a case of homesickness when you are all by yourself.
  9. Ask questions, and share your own stories. Overseas living is not the time to be introverted. Demonstrating a healthy curiosity by approaching people at parties, festivals, or even the grocery store, and asking the right questions will help you bond with the citizens of your host country, resulting in a deeper connection to your surroundings. And as much information as you take in, don’t forget to share stories from “back home” too. Keep in mind that many countries learn about North American culture through Hollywood movies, so giving them an idea of what Canada is really like will be an eye-opening experience for both listener and speaker! Engaging in this type of dialogue is a great way to get rid of the “culture shock” blues.
  10. Take up a new hobby or join a local club. Starting up a hobby that is related to the culture of your host country is a great way to ensure a feeling of belonging. It’s amazing how taking part in local sports, volunteering at a community festival, or taking language lessons can make you feel like you’re part of something important! Feeling like you belong to a community, group of friends, or even a makeshift family may be the number one antidote to homesickness. So what are you waiting for? Go sign up with that community group or join a language class now!

This Month: Snowbird Photography Exhibition in Toronto

One of this year’s featured exhibitions, Snowbirds, is a glimpse at a community of retired Quebec residents who spend their winters in the Florida sun. The good news is you don’t need to claim Quebec as your birthplace to enjoy this social documentary of life in a trailer park in the “sunshine state.” Snowbirds from all over the country can enjoy seeing themselves reflected in these photos of winter escape.

The artist, Mika Goodfriend, was born in Montreal, yet always felt somewhat distanced from the Quebecois identity. His works are unique in that they explore what “being a Quebecois means to him.” Goodfriend is currently completing a Masters in Fine Arts at Concordia University.

For more information about Snowbirds, visit:

Or drop by College Boreal, Wednesday to Saturday, 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm.

You have until Saturday, May 24 to catch the exhibit. Don’t miss it!


New Year, New… Who?

With each new year comes a desire to reinvent ourselves. And magazines and advertisements make it sound so easy. New Year, New You, they promise—as long as you buy our expensive product or service! I’m all for New Year’s resolutions, but why do we need to become all-new people to feel like a success? While everyone can benefit from a little bit of self-improvement, be careful not to put too much pressure on yourself to change in ways that are just not realistic. The more improbable your resolution (a.k.a. “new you”), the greater your chance of failure. If you’re slowly realizing your resolutions were a flop, keep reading! There may still be hope for a new year with the same great you in it!

In order to succeed, our goals need to be S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely). So take a look at yours: Were you reaching for the stars? Or were you planning your very own metamorphosis? Try to avoid changing the things that make you YOU. Instead, focus on the positive parts of your personality. Build upon what is already great by developing your existing skill set. Need ideas? A language course is a great place to start!

Being able to communicate in another language means more opportunities to make new friends or find love, while learning how to get by in the language spoken in your dream destination means taking one step closer to getting there. And when it comes time to look for a satisfying career, adding a second (or third!) language to your resume will make you all the more employable.

A few other S.M.A.R.T. resolutions—“I will…”

Antidote for that afternoon slump: I will replace my sugary snack with energy-boosting foods, like a bowl of almonds, an apple, or a salad bursting with colour.

Easy way to exercise: I will walk 30 minutes a day by parking farther away or getting off public transit one stop early when heading to school in the morning or going home at night.

Free yourself from Facebook: I will schedule a daily break from technology and will read, call a loved one, or meet a friend for tea instead!

Procrastination problems: I will find a study partner so I can look forward to learning and avoid the temptation to procrastinate.

Advice from Cupid: I will take a deep breath and ask that cute girl or guy in my class to go to the movies with me.

So forget about keeping those resolutions that mean changing the great person you already are. Choose one of your strengths and work on improving it. Or, make a resolution that incorporates one of your interests or passions. Not only will you have a greater chance of success, you’ll enjoy yourself too!

Not Home for the Holidays?

…make the best of it with these tips

Take it from me. Your first holiday away from home will likely be pretty tough. While living in Japan for several years, I couldn’t help but miss out on some important events: weddings, new babies, and… Christmas.

With music and decorations popping up everywhere, it’s hard to ignore the holiday season that is now upon us. And being away from friends and family during times like these—even if Christmas is not one of your traditions—can mean feeling a little lonely, or completely homesick. Having been there… and done that… I don’t recommend it. When I couldn’t make it home for the holidays, I made sure to find a few things that brought the spirit of the season to me.

Here are five ways to make the most of your holidays away from home.


1. Make your own family. You know what they say: Family is what you make it. When you’re this far away from home, this old saying really comes in handy. Look around you. Who are the important people in your life right now, in this place? Whether your host family, co-workers, or classmates—start planning some “family” events during the holidays to avoid feeling lonely.

I’ll never forget when one of my Japanese students invited me into her home for a turkey dinner one cold December evening. As I sat at the table, enjoying the food and the company (my student, her husband, and their three little boys), I couldn’t help but feel like I was part of the family.

2. Share your traditions. If you are missing home, the best thing to do is to share a piece of home with those around you—whether a meal, a custom, a decoration, or a song. Suggest an international potluck with friends, teach your classmates a favourite tradition, or decorate your room with traditional colours or trinkets. You’ll feel that much better, I promise.

After three failed attempts at making eggnog (3 x 25 minutes of stirring = ouch!) that looked more like chunky eggs than something creamy and sippable, I finally got it! Not only did the smell and taste fill me with feelings of home, it was a lot of fun sharing a festive drink with the locals.

3. Get crafty with holiday cards. Creating art can be therapeutic. So get in touch with the right side of your brain and set your creative spirit free! A great way to be artistic during the season is to make holiday cards for loved ones back home. Include photos, drawings, and practice your English while you’re at it! The best part: You can save a little bit of money while enjoying some alone time.

My friends and family really enjoyed the holiday cards I made during my first year away from home. Not only could they catch a glimpse of my home away from home, but it was a little reminder that I was still thinking of them—even though I was off having one of the greatest adventures of my life!

4. Pay it forward. Did you know that doing something kind for someone when you’re feeling down can bring your spirits up? Consider buying a coffee for a person living on the street, helping your classmate with their homework, doing the dishes for your homestay parents, or donating to a charity! It will definitely fill you with the giving spirit of the season.

A friend and I headed to Thailand for our first holiday away from snow. I knew we’d end up dreaming of a white Christmas, so I planned a surprise to keep our blues away. On December 25, a small gift from “Santa” appeared on each of our pillows—my friend was delighted (and so was I)!

5. Celebrate, Canadian style! Canada is a country that celebrates difference. Whatever your background, language, or religion, you can still find joy in the holiday season. Gift giving, acts of kindness, and feasts with friends are yours to enjoy no matter what your beliefs happen to be!

Some of my best memories in Japan include festivals or celebrations that were Shinto or Buddhist in nature. Although I don’t practice any particular religion, I was intrigued to learn about ancient customs and I jumped at the opportunity to take part in my host country’s traditions.

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