Visitors to Canada Insurance Grows into the Mainstream

With global borders reopening, albeit unevenly, the prospect of reconnecting with long-separated family and friends is made a lot easier given Canada’s increasingly generous “Visitors to Canada” travel insurance product line.

Crafted to protect short-term international tourists as well as parents and grandparents visiting their families under the federal government’s Super Visa program, Visitors to Canada (VTC) plan benefits are also available to residents awaiting permanent visa status, citizens applying for reinstatement of their provincial health plans, as well as international students seeking alternatives for their college-based health insurance options.

Health care in Canada is expensive. Don’t underestimate it

Though Canadian residents don’t normally receive “bills” for hospitals or physician services, they pay a lot in taxes or premiums to maintain their health care system—one of the most expensive in the developed world.

In any large Canadian city, uninsured visitors can expect to pay up to $1,000 or more for an emergency room visit, $5,000 for a daily ward, or much higher for intensive care. And doctors’ and ancillary services or ambulance fees may be charged in addition. As hospital administrators freely admit, international patients can be a substantial source of supplemental (but necessary) revenue for their own publicly funded operating budgets.

Fortunately, Canada’s travel insurance providers have over the years increased their limits on coverage—some up to $300,000 CAD—and have continued to expand the range of benefits necessary to meet the variegated needs of a global clientele: emergency air repatriation to the patient’s home country if necessary; transporting family members to patients’ bedsides; arranging for and paying costs of returning bodily remains to the country of origin; expanding the range of necessary medical services (i.e., including telehealth services, prescription medication benefits, and in some cases even maternity coverage [so long as pregnancy did not precede outbound travel]).

But product lines, age limitations, benefits, and exclusions vary among insurance providers, so it’s necessary to do some homework to get the right fit.

Expanded services—but limits still apply

All VTC plans have many common elements. But none are intended to replicate the broad range of comprehensive, preventive, and health maintenance services offered to resident Canadians by their provincial health plans. They are not designed to cover unstable pre-existing conditions, or elective services, or terminal care, or treatment for serious conditions that require pre-determined medical intervention or that don’t meet the eligibility standards cited in the applications for coverage.

Though VTC plans may cover certain defined pre-existing conditions that are stable during a specified pre-travel period (e.g., 180 days), those conditions must still meet the definition of “stable” as explained in the policy, even if the applicant’s doctor has approved travel. The published definition determines eligibility for coverage.

When and where to buy

Visitors to Canada policies are best purchased from a Canadian insurer before travel begins as that allows coverage as soon as the traveller arrives in Canada. However, an application done at a distance may be a little more difficult as coverage is based on the insurer having a complete and accurate medical profile of the client. Take that into consideration if you’re assisting a parent or relative prior to their arrival. If they have any pre-existing conditions, the insurer should know before the application is completed.

In most cases, if the policy is purchased in Canada, benefits will only kick in 48 hours after its effective date, except for accident or injury, which will be covered as of the effective date. However, if symptoms of an illness that set in prior to or during the 48-hour waiting period are revealed only after the waiting period, expenses for treating those symptoms will very likely be voided. This stands as a caution to any aspiring applicants who might “wait until the last minute” before deciding to buy insurance.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

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New Alerts for EU-Bound Holiday Season Travellers

Reports of COVID infection rate spikes, growing objections to government lockdowns, and frustration with constantly changing vaccination passport rules are sparking recurring public protests throughout much of the European Union.

According to Schengen News, protestors in Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Croatia are resisting enforced lockdowns of indoor restaurants, bars, ice cream shops, sporting events, museums, cinemas, and even private parties. Though most of the protests have been peaceful, some—particularly in the Netherlands—have led to material damage, violence, and arrests.

Consequently, Canadians planning holiday travel to Europe need to make doubly sure they have the proper documents, are thoroughly covered for COVID-related illnesses and trip cancellation expenses, and fully aware that individual countries in the EU can suddenly impose their own entry rules on travellers from other countries, as well as those within the EU.  

For example, effective November 22, Austria went into full lockdown on all non-essential activities through at least December 13. Until then, inbound travel has been halted. And in a move that may presage significant rule changes in other countries, Austria has cut down the validity period of vaccination certificates (passports) from 12 to nine months. This is Austria’s fourth lockdown since the start of the pandemic—a pattern seen in other EU countries.

Third booster shots may become mandatory

The European Union Commission has urged (though not mandated) all member states to heed the advice of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and impose nine-month limits on the validity of vaccine certificates and require WHO or ECDC–approved booster shots be made available to persons whose vaccination certificates approach the nine-month limit.  

The vaccines provided to Canadians and Americans fit within that requirement.

Here’s the takeaway for Canadians looking forward to European travel for the holiday season or beyond

The European Union, which encompasses 27 nations, is not a monolith. Member countries have ultimate control of their own borders, although they try to maintain some unanimity amongst themselves. They are, however, political entities, so differences of opinion and action are common.

Similarly, the 26 Schengen Area countries (which include non-EU members Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, and Lichtenstein) are also free to suspend common rules temporarily to deal with individual issues on the ground.

What that means for Canadian travellers is that you must know and comply with the entry-exit rules of the individual countries you’ll be visiting or through which you may be transiting, as well as the rules about current vaccine verifications required by those countries. And don’t forget to consult the travel advisories posted by Travel Canada.

Most important, you must know the benefits and the limitations of your travel insurance coverage in case of a medical emergency, whether or not you’re covered for COVID-related illness, whether your benefits meet the medical coverage requirements of the countries you’ll be visiting (many countries now require verification of adequate travel-medical insurance…your provincial coverage won’t do).

And, given the frequency of public unrest about changing government entry/exit rules, make sure you’re protected in case you have to cancel or rearrange your itinerary at the last moment. You want to get as much of your prepaid fees back as you can. Reliable advice from your travel insurance advisor is more important than ever.  

Don’t try to go it alone. This is not the time for heroics.

© Copyright 2021/2022 Milan Korcok.  All rights reserved.

What International Students Need to Ask about Studying in Canada (Part 2)

Let’s dispense with one myth that is propagated widely by those who think they know Canada’s health care system. It’s not “free”—and it’s not cheap. Next to the United States, which is in its own league of super-high costs, Canada’s health care system is among the top four or five most expensive in the world. Even a routine visit to a hospital emergency room may cost an international student $1,000 or more, so understand your health insurance plan options well before you leave home.

First, Canada does not have one universal health care system but 13, each administered by individual provinces or territories. And though they are required by federal law to provide unlimited, comprehensive care (no pre-existing conditions restrictions), they don’t cover everything—such as elective cosmetic surgery, routine eye and dental care, annual checkups, chiropractic visits, or physical therapy. Even prescription drug benefits are limited. Consequently, most Canadians find it necessary to buy supplemental health insurance or have it provided to them through employee or pension plans. 

Some, but not all provinces allow international students to join these public plans. But even then, there are gaps in coverage that need to be considered.

Provincial/territorial overview

British Columbia, which hosts 22 per cent of Canada’s international students, allows you to join the same provincial Medical Services Plan that is available to all permanent residents, but it charges monthly fees to international students ($75 as of January 2020) and there is a three-month post-application waiting period before benefits are available. Private insurance plans for students are available to cover the waiting period.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Northwest Territories all allow access to their public health care plans, but don’t count on arriving in a province and automatically becoming eligible for health care coverage. There are application processes, and you may have a waiting period. Normally, your school of choice will explain this to you, but you still need to be proactive and make sure you have coverage from the day you arrive—even if you need to buy short-term insurance, such as Visitors to Canada coverage, to tide you over. 

Colleges and universities in Ontario (which hosts 46 per cent of Canada’s international students), Manitoba, and Nova Scotia provide or require international students to enroll in health insurance plans designed for their purposes. Generally, these plans are similar to the comprehensive coverage available to permanent residents of the province. They also offer supplemental plans that provide benefits not available in the basic provincial services.

Prince Edward Island and Yukon require students to obtain their own health insurance from the private marketplace and all must be done before your arrival in the province or territory.

The Northwest Territories Aurora College (the only post-secondary institution in the territory) has very limited access for international students, but arrangements for health care coverage are best discussed directly with administration. Dress warmly.

Quebec requires most international students to obtain their own private insurance, except for residents of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Norway, Romania, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Sweden, who are covered under the provincial health plan per reciprocal social security agreements with governments of those countries.   

Qs and some As

Because rules and requirements differ from province to province, we have drafted just a few key questions you should ask (and that insurance brokers should be able to answer) in selecting the most appropriate and cost-effective supplementary health insurance coverage for your stay in Canada.

The answers to most of these questions will depend on the type of plan you choose.

What will your enrollment in any health plan cost?
Some colleges prefer to wrap these costs in with tuition and fees. Unwrap them. You don’t want to be surprised by an extra $1,000 or $2,000 charge you weren’t expecting.
Will you be covered from the moment you leave home for any medical emergency, loss, or damage to your belongings while travelling or waiting for benefit eligibility?
Will there be any monetary limitations on your health care coverage? Will you have coverage for special prescription medications for chronic conditions?
Will you be covered for unexpected COVID-type situations, or harm resulting from emergencies like earthquakes, civil disturbances, or riots at concerts?
You want to learn how to ski? Will you be covered for skiing accidents… or mountain climbing, or scuba diving, or parasailing?
Will family members travelling with you be fully covered—from the moment you leave home?
Visitors to Canada plans used as temporary measures to provide coverage for designated waiting periods usually impose at least a 48-hour waiting period before benefits are effective if the policy is purchased after arrival in Canada. If purchased before travel begins, they provide coverage upon departure… much safer.
While in Canada, will you be covered for occasional weekend trips to the United States or some other country during vacation periods?
If you’re enrolled in a public provincial plan, you are not fully covered for any trips out of the country. Most Canadian residents routinely buy stand-alone travel insurance for any trip out of the country, no matter how short. Hospital costs in the US can run into thousands of dollars per day for routine hospital confinement, and even more for emergency care.
Will you be covered for travel to other parts of Canada? Mostly yes, but there may be gaps. Ask, ask, ask.

And that is just a starter. Proper health care coverage is a major issue for any international student in Canada. Do your homework early.

© Copyright 2021/2022 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

International Students Favour Canada in Post-Pandemic World (Part 1)

After an uncharacteristic drop in international student applications during 2020, Canada now appears to be on the verge of becoming the second-most-valued provider of post-secondary education in the world, following only the United States.

According to IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada), more than 730,000 new student permit applications were received for processing through August 2021—an increase of approximately 27 per cent over the same period from pre-pandemic 2019.

Immediately prior to the onset of the pandemic (2018/2019), US colleges and universities hosted 1.09 million foreign students (undergraduate/graduate studies). Australia, a magnet for students from China and southeast Asia, was the academic home to 667,079 students, and Canada to 625,785 in 2019. The UK hosted 485,645 international (mostly European) post-secondary students in 2018/2019.

But that dynamic has changed drastically. Australia’s Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy at Victoria University reports international enrollments virtually collapsed during the pandemic due to the country’s severe isolation procedures and there were approximately 210,000 fewer international students in Australia this year than would otherwise be expected. Furthermore, modelling suggested that about 165,000 international students will remain inside Australia, a reduction of over 410,000 compared to October 2019.

By contrast, Canada’s strongly rebounding future trajectory for international students clearly outpaces that of the US, where tighter student/immigration rules and concerns about safety are cutting back prospective applicant numbers. In the meantime, Canada, which also saw a dip in 2020 student enrollments to 530,540, remains at the top of the favourable list for its highly rated quality of education, welcoming student/immigration rules, and inviting pathways to post-graduation permanent resident status. As former Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino stressed when announcing an expanded post-graduate work permit policy earlier this year, “We don’t just want you to study here, we want you to stay here.”

A Navitas Agent Perception research study completed in March 2021 (which reviews the opinions of nearly 900 travel advisors in 73 countries) showed only 30 per cent of agents viewed Australia and New Zealand to be “open and welcoming to international students” due to their continuing lockdown. Conversely, 79 per cent saw Canada as “open and welcoming,” compared to 51 per cent for the US and 74 per cent for the UK.

All students need health insurance

What this presages for private health insurers (all incoming foreign students to Canada are required to have health insurance) is a potentially buoyant marketplace. But for students, it can be a challenging puzzle as the health insurance ground rules are set by provinces. And contrary to what many international students think, health care in Canada is not free—in fact it’s among the most expensive in the world.

Furthermore, Canada does not have one universal system of health insurance coverage—but 13. And the differences can be quite significant. For example, though students in most Ontario colleges and universities are expected to enroll in school-sponsored programs that reflect benefit levels consistent with provincial residents’ services, most go on to add supplements that cover such necessities as prescribed medications, dental care, and vision services. Ontario is home to 48 per cent of Canada’s international student population, all of whom must navigate this system.

In British Columbia, which hosts about 23 per cent of Canada’s international students, there is a generous pathway to join the provincial Medical Services Plan which is virtually the same basic health plan available to all provincial residents. But there is a three-month waiting period before applicants can receive those benefits. And even then, most residents choose to supplement the basic services.

Fortunately, supplementary plans are easily available to cover those waiting periods, but students must take the initiative to apply.

In our next post, we’ll delve into some of the differences students face in choosing their insurance depending on where they study, and we pose the questions students should be asking about their health insurance needs—as well as what insurance advisors and brokers should be prepared to answer for their increasingly varied and sophisticated international student customers.   

© Copyright 2021/2022 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

What Canadians Need for Safe Travel to Europe and US

With borders re-opening now that COVID transmissions are generally abating, you need to know the requirements of all individual nations on your planned itineraries. And most important, consult with your travel insurance broker or agent to make sure you know the coverage benefits and exclusions of your insurance policy before heading to the airport. The pandemic has changed they way we travel. Don’t try to do it alone.

Europe Bound?

Canadian travellers heading for Europe will generally find their vaccine passports widely accepted as the European Union recently recommended COVID restrictions be lifted for fully-vaccinated residents of Canada and 18 other 3rd countries (non EU): including those with proof of restored immunity after having recovered from COVID infection. Fortunately, for Canadians, the EU accepts all vaccines that were used in Canada, including those used in combination with Astra Zeneca as meeting its criterion.

However, though the UA has lifted its embargo on Canadians and others, individual EU nations remain free to lift or retain their border restrictions against other EU or “3rd countries”(outside the Union) which they consider high risk as surges continue. Just recently it raised temporary warnings against to travel

Germany, Finland, Ireland, Estoia Slovenia, Slovakia as “unsafe for trave” Such warnings are listed almost daily, as the Eu has a threshold for assessing safety levels in its block– the criterion being that mutual re-openings are best achieved between nations that report no more than 75 new COVID cases per 100,000 inhabitants per day on average over a two-week period.

But overall, EU countries have achieved vaccination rates over 75 percent among all adults, with some states moving well beyond that (France 85 percent, Spain 83 percent, and Germany 78 percent). Still, in the interest of safety, it’s important for Canadian travellers and their trained travel advisors to pay attention not only to the broader EU guidance, but to the documentation requirements of individual nations to which they’re heading or transiting

US Bound?

Now that US authorities have announced that proof of mixed-vaccine regimens will be acceptable for

entry, several million Canadians who have been vaccinated with combinations including the Astra Zeneca brand have one less barrier to overcome on their trip South. This is certainly good news for snowbirds.

Overall, the acceptance of a covid passport is not as universal in the US as it is Europe. As we have noted in earlier articles, Americans are split on the issue of mandatory vaccination and more than 20 state governments have legislated that private business, restaurants, sports venues, recreational areas, shopping malls, etc. are prohibited from demanding patrons show proof of vaccination on grounds that such demands intrude on individual health privacy issues. Florida, Arizona, Texas, and some border states are among those maintaining such prohibitions. Other major States, New York and California require their businesses to verify proofs. But given the lack of a national consensus any Canadian proof of vaccination will likely be taken at face value and not be challenged.

© Copyright 2021/2022 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.


The US Land Border Will Finally Open to Canadians. Now What?

Now that the Biden administration has announced the reopening of the US land border to fully vaccinated Canadians in November (we hope sooner rather than later), the question remains: what documentation (paper or digital) will you need to get into shopping malls, restaurants, sports arenas, hotels—all of those venues that make for a satisfying vacation or visit with family?

The short answer is: that depends where you end up. The equally short one is: you should do just fine with the proof most vaccinated Canadians currently have.

One of the most frequent questions we have heard from concerned Canadians planning southbound travel has been: “What about the AstraZeneca shot that was mixed in with my Moderna or Pfizer jab? Does that qualify as the approved second shot needed for full vaccination status?” That’s not a trivial question as the US CDC has not yet approved AstraZeneca. But the issue has been raised to the higher levels in the CDC, which is still fine-tuning the details of vaccine documentation rules for the border reopening. So just wait and see.

We’ve also heard that some Canadians planning southbound trips “come hell or high water” have added booster shots of Moderna or Pfizer to their vaccine records just to make sure they’ve covered all bases. Good thinking.

So who’s really checking?

Given that the server in a Cheesecake Factory restaurant (who is also charged with examining your documents) is not likely to know (or care) about the mixing of vaccines, the worst that can happen is that you might have to have your dinner carried out to you in your car.

Earlier in one of our articles, we noted that 20 states have banned businesses from demanding or asking for proof-of-vaccination requirements. These are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. As of October 13, 2021, this lineup remains intact.

Four states (California, Hawaii, New York, and Oregon) have facilitated the creation of digital vaccination status applications or proof-of-vaccination programs that allow fully vaccinated people to bypass some coronavirus restrictions. Among these, California has implemented the strictest vaccine monitoring programs, and also maintains the most stringent masking, distancing, and social gathering regimens—although these are not applied on a statewide basis. Local county/municipal authorities have a good deal of latitude in determining what requirements they want to impose on their business patrons and guests.

Florida, by contrast—and to a similar extent Arizona—allow residents and visitors to use their best judgement about masking, distancing, and gatherings such as sports events. In these states, vaccine mandates are off the table—although in some instances they’re being challenged by the courts. But in the US that’s a never-ending process.

Given the very positive response to the reopening decision (which many state legislators have been aggressively promoting for several months), Canadians can expect a resounding welcome once they cross the world’s “longest undefended border.”

© Copyright 2021. Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Once the US Border Opens, You’ll Need a Vaccine Passport Checklist

With most of Canada’s provinces adopting some form of vaccine passport rules for entry to venues such as sports events, restaurants, public buildings, and other indoor functions, large portions of the US—particularly sunbelt states familiar to Canadian seasonal visitors—remain far less demanding of guests from up North, or anywhere else.

Once the US land border opens to Canadians you may want to take note of where you might be asked to show proof that you’ve had your two shots…and where that won’t be necessary. Your vaccination card or mobile app confirmation should be acceptable.

As of September 22, 2021, governments in 20* states have ordered or signed bills prohibiting government agencies from issuing COVID-19 vaccine identification cards or requiring proof of vaccination (cards or mobile apps) as a condition of entry for any premises. These states* include such Canadian target locations as Florida, Arizona, Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia, as well as border states Idaho and Montana. In many of these states, masks are optional, left to personal choice. In Florida supermarkets, for example, there appear to be more unmasked than masked patrons. In these states masking is left to personal choice for the most part except for entry into health care facilities. (*Source: Ballot Pedia)

New York State, on the other hand, requires vaccine verification to enter most public venues like restaurants, theatres, and sports events, and masking is also widely required. Oregon allows vaccinated patrons to gather without masks in indoor venues.

In California, most decisions about vaccine requirements are left to individual cities and counties, so it’s best to have proof of complete vaccination at hand if travelling in that state. And in California, as well as most other states that require full vaccination, the term “vaccination” means two jabs with the same vaccine brand—or one jab of Johnson & Johnson. Mixed brands don’t meet the definition of “fully vaccinated,” but then a lot also depends on how perspicacious your document inspector (often your server) is.

In Hawaii, proof of vaccination is a widespread requirement, so be prepared. It’s a long way to go to be marooned outside of the airport bar.  

And if you’re travelling to Florida to board a cruise ship at one of its five ports, be prepared to show proof of vaccination—and that also means two jabs of the same brand. Mixed-brand vaccinations are not accepted for boarding on most of the major cruise lines. If you don’t show such proof, you may still be allowed to board (except on Norwegian Cruise Line vessels) but you will not be allowed the full run of the ship (like premier restaurants, saunas, pools, and other gatherings) and you’ll have to be masked. In effect you will be travelling second class—noticeably so. We note, however, that the cruise lines are imposing the vaccine-proof rules in defiance of a Florida law banning such practice while their challenge works its way through the courts. So stay tuned.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Determined to Start Travelling Again? Learn the Landscape

When Canadians were surveyed in mid-summer about their future out-of-country travel intentions, it appeared that visits to the UK/Europe and Asia/Pacific were well down the list, with the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean being the preferred choices, at least for the time being (according to data from the Conference Board of Canada).

A major reason for that imbalance is the confusion and inconsistency about COVID testing requirements, vaccine passports, and the almost daily rule changes about what documentation or immune status is required to enter any given country. Most confusing is the narrative out of Europe which used to be easy to navigate thanks to the borderless entry requirements of countries in the Schengen Area. Show your passport to enter one member country and travel throughout the others without further border checks. No longer.

The Schengen Area is a consortium of 26 mostly European countries dedicated to providing easier, border-free travel among its members. It is distinct from the EU.

With the advent of huge migration waves from the Middle East and North Africa in the decade before the pandemic, many European countries individually suspended the Schengen easements and reinstated border checks demanding passport/visa clearances. Then came COVID, and the border “windows” were being raised and lowered almost on a daily basis as member countries adopted colour-coded map references for countries that were relatively safe (green) to definitely unsafe (red).

Here is a sampling of advisories in Schengen’s daily report for September 6: “Malta recognizes vaccine passports of Egypt and Lebanon” … “Spain bans non-vaccinated travellers from US” … “Estonia adds Norway, Bulgaria, San Marino and Slovenia to her Red List” … “Denmark moves unvaccinated and unrecovered travellers from Croatia, regions of Austria, Italy, Norway, Sweden to its Orange List.” And that’s only one day’s advisories.

To explain: there are five colour-coded categories into which countries fall on the basis of daily testing and infection rate data as monitored by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC): Green (the best), orange (less so), red, and then dark red (the worst). There is also grey for areas where the ECDC doesn’t have substantial enough data for a rating. The UK is grey. And each of these colour codes represents specific metrics denoting the number of new cases reported, percentage of positives, and infection rates.

Planning European travel over the next few months?

Do your homework and stay on top of changes—they occur daily.

Here is a link you can use to keep up to date on European visa and COVID-related entry requirements to most countries in the EU.

In addition, keep up with the Travel Canada site which lists entry/exit rules and requirements for any nation you wish to visit or through which you must transit. And the Reopen EU site will give you a neatly packaged view of all European and neighbouring countries on their colour-coded status.

But regardless where you plan travel, assume there may be COVID-related, travel insurance, or medical coverage requirements for entry as more and more nations are making such coverage mandatory. 

You may also need proof of coverage (your provincial health coverage is not accepted—it’s too limited), and you may have to prove amounts of coverage as well as terms. Carry your policies with you. Wallet-sized cards indicating only your provider or broker are not enough for you to depend on in these dynamically changing times. Some countries, especially in the Caribbean and Asia/Pacific, are now requiring not only proof of your own coverage, but are levying mandatory travel insurance fees at the entry site to cover medical emergency costs (including those related to COVID) for the duration of your stay. Thailand, for example, will levy an insurance fee whether you have your own insurance or not, as will Jamaica which levies a $40 USD medical insurance coverage fee (to cover you up to $50,000 USD) while on the island. Cuba too has been requiring proof of private medical insurance for about 10 years—either that or buy Cuban insurance on arrival from a local company.

The US does not require travel insurance coverage, but if you’re familiar with the fees charged by US hospitals and doctors for even casual treatments you should need little convincing to get the kind of coverage offered in Canada: limits going to CAD $5 million or $10 million per trip.

What used to be relatively easy isn’t anymore. But then, living without the option to travel is no fun either.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Outbound Travellers Hopeful—But Still Cautious

As summer fades into fall, Canadians remain determined to reinstate their travel plans—but it appears travel insurers have a job to do in providing clear advice about how their products have adapted to accommodate coverage in the post-COVID era.

According to a new survey by the Conference Board of Canada, while 70 per cent of outbound travellers agree that the availability of COVID-specific insurance policies (for both cancellations and medical issues) increases their willingness to travel, 54 per cent have little or no understanding of how these products have actually changed due to the pandemic, and 47 per cent say they have no understanding of COVID-coverage details.

Says the CBoC, “This offers an opportunity for insurers to offer clear direction and advice to clients seeking assurance about the adequacy of their coverage vis-a-vis their specific health concerns as well as the requirements of the countries that are now demanding proof of insurance from visitors in addition to vaccination documentation and COVID test results.”

It notes further that flexible change and cancellation policies are now the most positive motivators for 74 per cent of travellers’ willingness to book travel. This is higher than use of official “proof of vaccination” items (64 per cent) and preferable vaccination rates at the chosen destinations. Overall, more than half of respondents point to the availability of COVID-specific insurance coverage and the variety of enforced public health protocols as positive motivators in travel-booking willingness.

Is pent-up demand still pent up?

About half of Canadians surveyed said they were prepared to travel within a month or two of trusted sources (i.e., Canadian or destination governments) reporting COVID was no longer a threat. Interestingly, though 63 per cent of respondents chose federal or provincial governments as their most trusted source of information, only 36 per cent looked to public health agencies with the same trust.

And once they do hit the road, where will it lead? Thirty nine per cent said they would likely head to the United States, followed by Mexico or the Caribbean (24 per cent). Only in Quebec did respondents choose the Caribbean or Europe as their first post-pandemic trip destination.

In projecting its seasonal outlook, the CBoC cites inconsistent entry rules and contradictory messaging from global leaders as leading to consumer confusion. They expect this to continue, resulting in suppressed travel demand.  It also expects the continued closure of the US land border, low vaccination rates, and consistent health protocols (masking, social gatherings, etc.) will result in 9.7 million fewer transborder trips compared to the summer of 2019. Similarly, reduced capacity and varying entry requirements for visitors are projected to reduce overseas trips by 4.8 million throughout the season.

Despite these barriers, largely man-made, confidence in travel planning is cautiously returning. CBoC emphasizes that at the beginning of the season, 15 per cent of respondents to earlier surveys were unsure about their short-term travel activity and 32 per cent were certain they would not be taking a trip. But as vaccination rates increased and mobility restrictions eased, just seven per cent of respondents are now unsure about travelling. However, one third (33 per cent) are still certain they won’t be travelling. That clearly leaves some room for travel product providers to try to move the needle.

Have a Pre-existing Condition? Don’t Give Up on Travelling

As travel insurance has evolved over the years, more and more people in less-than-perfect health have become eligible for coverage. That’s a good thing. But you still need to be mindful that travel insurance is supplemental to your government (provincial) health plan, not a substitute for it, and there are exclusions and limitations in all travel health plans you need to be aware of when selecting insurance.

The most basic plans are those offered within credit card benefits, but they are generally short term (10, 15, or 30 days), usually designed for persons younger than 65, and generally do not cover medical emergencies caused by pre-existing conditions—although there are exceptions in higher-end credit cards for which you pay a premium. But even then, coverage for pre-existing medical conditions is very limited.

Fortunately, having a pre-existing condition does not mean you can’t get excellent coverage in a dedicated travel insurance plan. But do your diligence well, and don’t wait until the last minute to buy your insurance. Treat it as a serious purchase.

Don’t skip over the limitations

Generally, if your pre-existing condition (say, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, gastric reflux, or other chronic condition) has been “stable” for a specified time (e.g., 30, 60, 180 days)—which means it hasn’t revealed new symptoms, hasn’t required a change in medication dosage or type, lab tests or procedures, and hasn’t been treated by a physician or referred to a specialist—it may be considered stable and you’ll be covered. But read and understand how “stable” is defined in the policy. It’s how the policy defines “stable,” not how you may define it, that counts in the end.

If you have a pre-existing condition that might not meet this stability standard and you still feel confident enough to travel, you might ask about a pre-existing condition “waiver” that allows you to be covered for all other medical emergencies unrelated to your pre-existing condition. That’s a good option, but make sure your policy specifies that you have such a waiver. Get it in writing.

Medical underwriting—a growing trend

As snowbirds and elderly travellers have become such a substantial force in the travel market, medically underwritten plans have grown exponentially. Their value lies in the insurer’s ability to fashion a plan of benefits for your specific health profile based the answers you provide to a detailed questionnaire or medical declaration. These generally require only “Yes” or “No” answers, but because some medical terminologies are used, make sure you look up the definitions provided. Don’t guess. And if you still are unsure about how to answer any questions, it’s always a good policy to ask your doctor for help. Accuracy is important. Once you complete your application, your responses will be graded for risk level and your premium set accordingly.

Also understand that failure to disclose any medical conditions, treatments, or diagnoses on your questionnaire can void your total application and lead to denial of your claim if you later have one.

For example, if while travelling you have a medical emergency—let’s say a gallbladder removal—and you subsequently file a claim and it’s discovered that you failed to confirm having been treated for atrial fibrillation at some earlier time, your gallbladder claim may be denied—even though your AF had nothing to do with your gall bladder emergency.

How can that be? It’s not a nasty trick. The premium and conditions of coverage in your medically underwritten plan are based solely on the information you provide. If the underwriters had known you’d had AF treatments in the past, you would have been given a different plan option, at a different premium level, with perhaps other conditions. In effect, you didn’t qualify for what you got. Your family physician’s advice may have helped.

Medically underwritten policies have opened up the world of travel to many people who otherwise would have been totally sidelined and forced to stay home. And as the world of travel opens up again, look to the new opportunities that exist. You may be pleasantly surprised.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

To find out more about how MSH Americas can help you, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

 +1 416 730 8488 (or toll-free at +1 800 360 3234)

How Travel Insurance Has Evolved—For Your Benefit

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, travel insurance providers have made policy changes to better protect you from unforeseen events and situations beyond your control. This is important, as sooner or later, you can be sure we’ll be revisited by regional epidemics, pandemics, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, civil demonstrations, or terrorist attacks—perhaps even wars. History has taught us that much.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to explore what’s new in travel insurance, what’s essential for you to know in fashioning the best coverage for you and your family as we return to normalcy, how to get the most value for your money, and how to earn peace of mind.

When to cancel a trip—and how

Let’s start with the issue that generated so much concern this past year: coverage for trips that were cancelled, interrupted, or delayed beyond endurance.

Traditionally, Canadian travel insurance has primarily focused on emergency medical benefits: high hospital costs and medical fees in foreign countries (especially the United States) that are only marginally covered (often less than 5 per cent) by government health insurance plans. It has been more than 30 years that private health insurers have been picking up the burden of foreign medical bills for Canadian travellers—bills often soaring to six figures. 

During this time, cancellation/interruption benefits have been incorporated into many travel insurance plans. But it took mass cancellations of cruise and airline itineraries as well as border closures during the pandemic to focus on the details and limitations of trip cancellation coverage.

Traditionally, the allowable reasons for claiming trip cancellation benefits have been individually listed in policy contracts. They were specific. They included an onset of sickness or injury in the traveller or the traveller’s companion; death in the traveller’s or companion’s family; a call to jury duty; sudden job loss; catastrophic damage to the traveller’s or companion’s home; unexpected weather event such as hurricane or flood at the trip destination; the failure of the traveller or companion to obtain required travel documents; cancellation or rescheduling of a destination business meeting; a default or suspension of a travel supplier such as a cruise, airline, or tour operator; and other similar scenarios—all spelled out in the contract.

But what the benefits didn’t cover were cancellations for other, unspecified reasons, such as changing one’s mind about travelling to a certain destination, or fear of catching disease, or bad weather at the chosen destination, or simply dealing with uncertainties during troubling times.

Prior to the pandemic’s readjustment of world travel, Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) plans were gradually beginning to catch on, even though they cost some 40 per cent more. But since then they have grown in popularity because of the flexibility they offer travellers to plan with more incentive and imagination. With a conventional trip interruption policy, if you cancelled to avoid a hurricane only to see the storm do a sharp turn and head back out to sea, that would void your cancellation claim. No damage, no reason to cancel. But with a CFAR option, the trip cost is protected.

But remember the caveat

What is protected is only what has been prepaid and is non-refundable. If the trip supplier—resort, hotel, cruise, airline, or tour operator—returns your cash, rebates to your credit card, or offers a voucher for a future time, the insurer is not liable to make good. No double dipping. And there is no reimbursement for the lost enjoyment of a long-planned dream trip.

Also understand that what you’re buying with trip cancellation is protection OVER TIME, and you’re expected to buy that protection when you buy your trip—or within a few days of your purchase. And then expect diminishing returns as time goes by. The closer you get to your scheduled departure, the smaller the payout you can expect. And if you get to a certain threshold—like 14 days before your cruise—the benefit will have expired. You can’t expect a cruise ship or hotel, operating in high season, to take a loss for your “no-show.”

Trip cancellation benefits can give you great peace of mind. But you need to understand the rules.  

In the next article, we’ll get into understanding how pre-existing medical conditions may be covered in your travel insurance policy.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

To find out more about how MSH Americas can help you, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

 +1 416 730 8488 (or toll-free at +1 800 360 3234)

International Travel Insurers Urge Better Defenses against Pandemics

As international travel reopens, don’t expect to flip a switch and find it all comes back as you left it. Even a short trip across the border to watch a ballgame or concert will require a few extra steps and a little more time to arrange.

Canada has gone through an exceedingly strict lockdown—one of the most stringent in the developed world. Believe it or not, there are groups who track such things, among them the highly respected Oxford (University) COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT), which governments around the world look to for guidance in dealing with civil or natural upheavals. OxCGRT looks at indices such as workplace closures, travel bans, stay-at-home restrictions, school closures, public events, and social gatherings and rates them for comparable severity and effects on normal life. It found that on a scale of zero to 100 (with 100 being the most severe), Canada’s lockdown was among the most stringent, scoring 73.61 at the beginning of June 2021, along with India at 87.96, Cuba at 78.24, and Venezuela at 87.96. At the other end of the scale, the US scored 52.31, France 54.63, Australia 44.91, and Israel 43.52—all of them finding it easier to lift restraints and get back to some normalcy.

Is “going green” the answer?

Many nations, particularly in Europe, see their path to normalcy in the adoption of “green certificates” for fully vaccinated people. Some are already up and running. Whether Canadian and US government authorities ultimately adopt variations of such programs remains a contentious issue given concerns about protecting personal health information and maintaining societal freedom and fairness: there are many people who cannot, or choose not to, be vaccinated for their own valid reasons. Culling them out from travel opportunities is a delicate issue. Interestingly, Israel, which led the world in vaccinating its population (over 80 per cent) by the beginning of June 2021 also had the most effective “digital green pass” program for its vaccinated population. But it virtually controlled entry to most businesses, shopping, attendance at concerts, movies, even synagogues.

Israel’s “green regime” was so successful that it was rescinded just three months after it began as it had become redundant, with the government dropping all pandemic restrictions within the country and returning to life as normal—still watchful at its boundaries, but in a state of confident control.

Travel insurers urge more than “green” programs

Can we expect much larger, more diverse nations to reflect similar successes? Many in the travel industry believe so. And in a recent survey of global travel insurers I conducted for the International Travel Insurance Journal, I found strong support for temporary green pass programs. But more than that, insurers expressed a need to reshape travel coverage to conform to individual consumer requirements; to be creative in providing more extensive coverage for cancellations and interruptions due to quarantine requirements of individual nations; to free consumers from confusing, complex wording in polices; to clarify, simplify, and ease the burden on the purchaser; to offer more precisely crafted coverage for individual needs and health circumstances; to help consumers more accurately assess safety risks in their travel itineraries; to get them home safely and efficiently; and to help them get their money back when things went wrong through no fault of their own.

They also felt an urgency to get on with the job. Because if we have learned anything from this pandemic, it is that it is not the last. And waiting until it’s here to start planning our defenses is simply to repeat history and not learn from it.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

A COVID-19 Success Story. We Need One

Let’s look on the bright side—at a post-COVID success story—and realize that a new dawn is possible.

Israel, a country of 9.3 million people, has freed itself of most pandemic restrictions after its daily new case rate dropped to less than 20, and more than 80 per cent of its citizens have been fully vaccinated in perhaps the most efficiently run vaccination program of all nations.

At one point, as recently as this past January, Israel’s daily new COVID case numbers were peaking at 10,000 per day, proportionately the same as rates in the United States, which was among the hardest hit of all nations. And overall, this small nation, less than half the size of Nova Scotia in square kilometres, sustained close to 840,000 cases and over 6,400 COVID-related deaths (a rate of 71 deaths per 100,000 population—slightly more than Canada’s current death rate of 68 per 100,00).

But by June 1, Israel’s health ministry could declare a stunning victory against the pandemic, releasing most distancing and closure sanctions, requiring only limited indoor masking at close quarters, and—most dramatic of all—dispensing with its vaunted Green Pass program which it began only three months ago.

The Green Pass allowed fully vaccinated (primarily with Pfizer BioNTech) and fully recovered citizens virtual freedom to any activities that in most other nations remained either closed or tightly restricted—gyms, theatres, concerts, restaurants, shopping centres, even synagogues. In fact, the response to the Green Pass was so enthusiastic, these same venues quickly required it for entry. It became, in effect, a pass to normalcy—and created some antagonism from the shrinking non-vaccinated holdouts.

But you can’t argue with success. The Green Pass had done its job. It was time to be retired—happily.

In announcing cessation of the Green Pass, Israeli authorities have emphasized that vigilance against COVID will remain and that Israel’s borders will stay closed to countries where variants are troublesome. Returning citizens will be given priority, and there may be certain quarantine requirements, but quarantine hotels will not be among them. Such a suggestion was firmly nixed by several sources as impractical, unworkable, and punitive.

In getting to this better place, Israel placed its bets on its high-tech workforce and environment, highly organized medical triage, a digitized medical record-keeping that allowed vaccinations to be channelled to the most vulnerable populations first, a national network of vaccine clinics, clear and unified messaging from the top down, and efficient, proactive negotiating and procurement of vaccines from multiple sources even while they were being developed.

In fact, vaccine procurement was so effective that Israel’s health ministry and several non-governmental organizations are now sending vaccines to COVID-embattled India, along with medical equipment and supplies, respirators, technological logistical support, and medical personnel.

“We can’t just stand by,” an Israeli spokesman on his way to India told media.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

EU Bids Summer Welcome—But Not Just Yet

News that the European Union is “allowing” fully vaccinated Americans to vacation within its confines this summer (date yet to be determined) should NOT be taken by Canadians as a “given” that trans-Atlantic travel will be returning to normal anytime soon.

Earlier this month, the US State Department, following advice from the CDC, upgraded 80 per cent of the world’s nations to “Level 4: Do Not Travel” status. That included Canada, Mexico, the UK, and much of Europe. The nations not upgraded to Level 4 are largely in East Asia, Oceania, and parts of Africa and the Caribbean. Canada too maintains its “Avoid all non-essential travel” advisory to all foreign countries, warning that any air passengers returning from “non-essential travel” will trigger the now infamous hotel-quarantine response.

In addition, most Canadian private travel insurance plans warn they may not cover all benefits for travel to countries on the “Avoid non-essential travel” list. So anyone risking foreign travel should thoroughly examine their insurance policy, and preferably discuss it with their travel advisor.

How do you show proof?

The means of showing “proof” of vaccination also remains elusive at this point. The EU is hoping to release a Digital Green Certificate (DGC) model in June for use by all member countries. It would not require that holders of the DGC be vaccinated so long as they could provide proof of a negative COVID test just prior to travel or proof they had COVID and have since recovered. But if vaccinated, the actual vaccine must be on the list approved by the European Medicines Agency. Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and Astra Zeneca are all on the list.

However, vaccination certificates or passes—digital or paper—are not common currency. Official government-issued proofs of vaccination don’t appear to be imminent in either Canada or the US despite reports by some EU agencies that “discussions about such mechanisms” are ongoing.

Not all EU countries are on board with the DGC plan as individual countries retain the right to impose tougher border measures if they wish. Greece—critically dependent on summer tourism—will allow visitors as of May 1 with proof of vaccination as will Spain effective July 1. But the mode of proof is up to Greece and Spain.

The formalization of digital passes, or vaccine passports, will remain an issue for travellers from Canada or the US as leaders in both countries have shown little enthusiasm for requiring mandatory vaccine certification of their citizens.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Don’t Give up on Cruising in 2021… Canadians Can Still Hope

Given up hope of taking that late summer or fall cruise? Starved for some Caribbean sun?

Hang on. The battle to reopen cruising out of South Florida—the world’s largest cruise market—has moved into high gear.

Under intensifying pressure from American political, travel, and cruise industry heavyweights, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is being forced to explain and justify the continuation of its ban on cruises out of US ports now that vaccination efforts are far outpacing the spread of COVID transmission and the cruise industry has itself committed to stringent new protocols designed to mitigate future spread onboard its ships.

Leading the charge to reopen cruising, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has threatened to sue the CDC to lift its Conditional Sailing Order (issued almost five months ago) banning cruise vessels with capacities exceeding 250 passengers from sailing in US waters, and to do so this summer. “This has a kind of ripple effect throughout all businesses… it affects a lot of jobs. What we need is a way forward,” says DeSantis, adding rhetorically: “Is it OK for government to idle an industry for a year with no end in sight?”

Kelly Craighead, CEO of Cruise Lines International Association, which represents more than 90 per cent of the world’s cruise ship companies, has charged that “The outdated CSO, which was issued almost five months ago, does not reflect the industry’s proven advancements and success in operating in other parts of the world, nor the advent of vaccines, and unfairly treats cruises differently from other… travel, tourism, hospitality and entertainment sectors.”

The American Society of Travel Advisors has also called for the CDC to “immediately lift its restrictions…  and set July 1 as the date that cruising can resume from US ports.”

The barrage of demands for reopening cruising has rocked the CDC back on its heels. When Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski asked about the process for lifting the ban, CDC director Rochelle Walensky admitted that the decision to apply the CSO five months ago was not solely up to the CDC, but she was unsure which other federal agencies were involved. As it stands, the CSO remains in effect until Nov. 1, 2021. But given the broadsides from increasing sources, it may not hold up much longer.

Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, summarized the cruise industry’s position simply: “The CSO was a very positive step at the time… But that time has passed.”

Repositioning ports is a short-term solution—at best

Within the past few weeks several cruise lines have repositioned vessels to ports outside of US waters, taking business away from ports in Canaveral, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami—among the world’s largest cruise centres. But flying to offshore ports such as Bermuda, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, Barbados, St. Lucia, or other ports to connect to your cruise of choice is an expensive supplement to the actual cruise cost. Not quite as easy as boarding in familiar “home” ports of South Florida, Texas, California, or British Columbia.

In addition, there still remains Canada’s own restrictions on out-of-country travel (or the ordeal for returning from international travel) that necessitates additional protection if you’re planning a cruise. You need to be especially diligent in selecting travel insurance that not only covers you for medical emergencies on board the ship or while in port stops along the way, but also protects you in case of itinerary changes, transfer delays, and especially cancellation or interruption occurrences.

Though most cruise lines now offer cash-back options (as well as future cruise credits) in their cancellation coverage, make sure you know the contract details. Many insurance packages offered by cruise lines are tailored for Americans and they don’t normally offer the extensive medical and emergency repatriation or cancellation benefits that are available in travel insurance products available in the Canadian market.  

If and when cruising returns to some degree of normalcy, there are bound to be special deals, hard-to- believe prices, and a plethora of choices. But cruising is an expensive proposition. And you’ll need to do your homework.

Dream about the cruise. But navigate your contract.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Where are the Canadians? America Misses You

Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, misses seeing Canadians…a lot.

Dow lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, and he says every night he looks out at the condos in his neighbourhood and they’re dark. Because they’re owned by Canadians.

Speaking to his trade constituents via Zoom recently, he said, “A billion dollars a day goes across that border…We need to get the Canadian traveller back. It’s the largest country for travel to the US and over 20 million Canadians come here, and it goes back and forth.

“We have to get that going,” he said, adding that though the USTA is lobbying to get all markets open for travel to the US, ”the Canadian [market] should be one of the easiest to get open based on protocols both countries are doing and it would make…the most sense to start stepping out in Canada fairly quickly.”

Congress concurs

Susan Collins, US Senator from Maine, is of the same mind, calling for an immediate easing of the restrictions that keep Canadians and Americans apart.

Collins has advocated “implementing procedures such as requiring proof of a recent negative test or vaccination to begin safely loosening the restrictions, which would be beneficial to families, the economy, and small businesses that rely on Canadian customers.”

In addition to Senator Collins, a caucus of 26 US members of Congress, mostly from northern border states, has pressed President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to start a reopening process to restore cross-border travel, to help reunite families, and to develop a clear policy for cross-border property owners.

Their petition to the president warns that “the continued ritual of monthly extensions without substantive signs of collaboration or progress only increases uncertainty and amplifies hardship for the border communities we represent.”

Partly in response to that Congressional initiative, President Biden has issued an Executive Order directing Homeland Security and other related agencies to develop a plan for stabilizing and re-opening the border. He has also further projected that any American who wants a vaccine could have it by May 1. Prime Minister Trudeau, however, does not see Canada reaching that marker until at least September.

PM not hot on vaccine passports

And though much of the world is engaged in developing some form of “vaccine passport,” PM Trudeau remains adamant that going the way of certification is “fraught with challenges.” Specifically, he has cited concerns about individual health privacy issues encoded in any form of visa or certificate, and he is also worried that while high-priority groups for vaccination (such as seniors) might be in line for certificates allowing them to travel, others who can’t be vaccinated because of health issues, or young people who are lower priority for vaccination, might not have equal access. In essence, it’s an issue of fairness.

In the meantime, need for some type of vaccine passport is gaining traction world-wide.

The European Union is pressing ahead with development of a “digital green pass” that shows if the holder has been vaccinated, has tested negative, or has developed immunity as the result of previous COVID infection. The EU hopes to have a workable credential model ready for the summer holiday season (which for Europeans is a hallowed period). Portugal, for example, is now working on its own simplified version specifically for UK travellers, whether they are vaccinated or not. The certificate would be available to unvaccinated young travellers (a low-risk group) and older age groups who have recently tested negative for COVID. Portuguese tourism officials hope to have their certificates ready from May 17 onwards.

Meanwhile, PM Trudeau has continued to wave off any suggestions that he is prepared to open the border any time soon, asserting that if and when the US/Canada border opens depends on vaccinations in Canada, not the US. (According to Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, as of March 17, 2021, the UK has administered 40.47 vaccine doses per 100 people; the US 34.05; and Canada 8.98.)

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Restoring Confidence in International Travel

While we wait patiently for international travel to reopen, there are important things we can do to restore confidence that we can travel safely and be well prepared to meet the challenges of a post-pandemic world. We’ll need to learn some new rules and brush up on some we may have forgotten.

For example: when was the last time you reviewed your passport to check out its expiration date?

Ten years can fly by more quickly than you realize and increasingly, border control agents are requiring at least six months of remaining passport eligibility before granting you visiting rights. And “granting” is the key word, because you have no inherent right to be allowed into any foreign country. You’re only granted that privilege by your hosts.

Some passports have more benefits than others

Fortunately, Canadian passports are among the most highly valued* in the world, allowing their holders visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 183 countries worldwide. (*According to Henley Passport Index 2021, a leading passport analysis service which bases its ratings on data from the International Air Transport Association, Japanese passport holders have the top ranking at 191 countries, with UK and US passport holders at 185 countries. This data does not factor in COVID-related border restrictions or other short-term temporary border closures.)

More countries—particularly in Europe—are also requiring visitors to have proof of medical coverage consistent with EU standards (a minimum of €40,000 euros) and for the foreseeable future to also have COVID-related coverage in their travel insurance. In addition, the EU is working to develop a “vaccine passport” regimen that would allow people who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID, and who are demonstrably “safe” from further infection or risk of transmission, to cross borders more freely. They’re hoping to have some workable mechanism—perhaps even digital proof of immunity—ready for Europe’s summer tourism season.

According to The Times newspaper (UK), authorities in the Mediterranean country of Cyprus announced that as of May 1, vacationers who have had two doses of vaccine will be allowed entry without the need to quarantine or be tested on arrival.

Keep your documents safe—they’re valuable

If you’re planning travel and have been vaccinated, keep your vaccination certificate available with your passport when you travel, but store photocopies of it and your passport photo page in a safe place in case your originals are lost or stolen. That’s one of the downsides of having such valuable property.

Don’t expect the expected

Given the precipitous drop in leisure travel throughout 2020, don’t expect to re-enter the world of international travel—be it to London, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Singapore, or Cancun—quite the way you left it the last time you were there.

With a year’s worth of travel vanquished, it will take time for hotels, tourism sites, open-air markets, restaurants, beach vendors, and other travel suppliers to re-stock, re-supply, re-hire, and re-emerge in top form. From a new survey of international travel produced by the Conference Board of Canada we can see how deeply those dependent on tourism worldwide have suffered.

Throughout 2020, Canadian arrivals in the UK and Europe dropped 86 per cent from 2019, and 65 per cent of those arrivals occurred in the first three months of the year, before the full impact of COVID hit. The story was repeated in Asia, Oceania, and the South Pacific—down 82 per cent. To the US: overnight auto trips were down 80 per cent (again, most of those in the first quarter). And to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America: the first two months of the current winter season (November and December 2020) saw just 103,000 trips, compared to 1.1 million arrivals in the comparable 2019 season.

The effect has been draining not only on travel suppliers (hotels, staff, ancillary services) but on Canadian consumers’ confidence in making future spending decisions—which, according to CBoC, still remains 25 per cent below its pre-pandemic level.

But confidence is built by performance. And given the light we see at the end of the tunnel now, perhaps it’s time to rebuild.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Post-COVID: Summer Travel Is Not Impossible

As economies begin to open up—some timorously, others robustly—summer vacation travel is no longer an impossible dream… so long as you stay flexible, able to moderate your plans even up to the last minute if need be, and are prepared to compromise.

Many travel insurers as well as suppliers such as air and cruise lines, hotels, and tour operators have modified their rules to allow for late-term cancellations, cash-back rebates in lieu of travel credits, and      other pandemic-related disruptions. This bodes well for travel-deprived Canadians who have learned the value of preparing for the unknown, balancing risks and rewards, and daring to make choices. As Forrest Gump wisely said: “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Because of variations in COVID prevalence internationally, it’s unlikely that all borders will open synchronously. Even among European countries there is little harmony about inviting summer tourism. Nonetheless, we may well see more travel “corridors” between countries with similar confidence levels; more “favoured nations” travel allowances, and certainly more requirements for proof of health status and medical coverage—i.e., Spain’s health ministry has announced that it hopes to introduce vaccine or test result certificate allowances to citizens of certain countries for inbound travel this summer. So have some countries in the Caribbean.

There are also hopeful signs that the UK, which suffered especially heavy COVID losses throughout 2020, has rebounded as it has vaccinated 15 million adults in its highest-risk groups as of mid-February. It expects to have all over-50s fully vaccinated by May 2021.

In the US, Canada’s most favoured leisure travel destination, the signs of achieving immunity from COVID are also encouraging. As of February 17, 2021, Bloomberg Vaccine Tracking reports 57.4 million Americans (mostly in the higher-risk groups) have been vaccinated (in Florida at least 11.6 per cent of the population has received at least one dose and 5.5 per cent, both). With the expansion of administration sites to pharmacies, clinics, and even supermarkets, Bloomberg projects that the Moderna and Pfizer companies are on track to deliver enough doses to fully vaccinate 110 million Americans by the end of March 2021.

Given the concurrent decline in daily rates of COVID infections and deaths, there is increasing hope of soon achieving acceptable rates of immunity, and perhaps with it, a gradual freeing-up of travel restraints—at least between countries that achieve certain criteria. But that is a matter for individual nations to decide.

It’s a start—or, more precisely, a restart—of travel, a freedom Canadians dearly cherish. But that freedom does not abide negligence. Travel for the foreseeable future will require more diligence and greater attention to detail (such as that in your travel reservations’ conditions); knowledge of customs and border requirements of the countries you’re visiting or transiting through, as well as travel advisories (and restrictions) from your own government; and knowledge of the travel insurance policy you’re purchasing and how those conditions apply to your trip or destination of choice.

We also have to be realistic about our expectations. Achieving 100 per cent immunity from COVID or any other communicable disease or aiming for zero transmission is an unreasonable and unreachable goal. We have to settle for less, and we have to live in the meantime. And for many Canadians, travel is a part of living.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Can Vaccines Be the Game Changer in Opening up Travel?

As two of Canada’s closest neighbours (UK and US) lead the world in vaccinating their citizens against COVID, we’re seeing clear indications that getting those jabs might be the game changer in getting confinement-weary citizens back on the road again.

For the record, among the 92 countries being tracked by the Bloomberg (news service) Vaccine Tracker, the UK and the US are among the world’s top four vaccine jabbers: (1) Israel, with over 82 vaccinated per 100 population; (2) United Arab Emirates, 52 per 100; (3) UK, 27 per 100; (4) US, 19 per 100. These figures are mostly based on vaccine recipients having received at least one jab—although many have received both. (These figures were effective as of Feb. 22, 2021.)

According to the Guardian newspaper, since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his plans for a May 17 easing of lockdown rules, three of Britain’s top charter carriers reported major increases in international air vacation bookings. Easy Jet bookings surged 630 per cent compared to the week before the announcement—with Spain, Portugal, and the Greek island of Crete among the top destinations.

A similar story with Thomas Cook reporting website traffic up 75 per cent the day after the PM’s announcement, with Turkey the top destination followed by Greece and Cyprus, followed also by significant bookings to the Dominican Republic and Mexico. A Cook spokesperson told media: it “felt like the cork had popped on all that pent-up demand for holidays.”

Meanwhile, in the US, one of the largest aggregators of travel insurance plans reported that in the two months since vaccination efforts truly geared up (the US is now administering 1.39 million doses per day on average), there has been a distinct bounce-back toward pre-pandemic sales levels among all age groups—but particularly among seniors 60 or older.

In addition, travellers are buying their travel policies (which in the US are predominantly geared to cancellation and interruption benefits) an average of 74 days before planned departures. Prior to the initiation of the vaccine rollout, they were buying their polices an average of 42 days ahead of time.

Though much of the cruise industry is still dependent on the US Centers for Disease Control to lift its “No Sail” order before they can resume operations in and out of US waters, most cruise lines are reporting increased interest in advance bookings, as well as customer confidence that cruise ships have gone a long way to ensuring health/safety protocols on board.

Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Line, claims that the new coronavirus safety protocols will “make sailing safer than a walk down main street.”

Our own informal surveys of Canadian travel insurers reveal a growing confidence that there is a pent-up demand for international travel later in 2021, certainly by 2022—and that traveller vaccinations may play a key role in that reinstatement.

Emphasized one long-established broker: “Canadians really need to get vaccinated and the federal government must ease travel restrictions before Canadians feel confident to travel abroad.”

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All Rights Reserved.

There May Be a Cruise in Your Future. Be Patient

If you feel the need to lift your spirits, plan ahead, “break free,” you could do worse than start scouring the Internet for deeply discounted cruise packages now being offered by the world’s leading cruise lines in anticipation of a post-COVID pent-up demand for leisure travel.

You may have to wait until late 2021 to board—that appears to be the most realistic projection anticipated by cruise professionals at this point—but there aren’t that many travel options in the meantime. And cruise companies have loaded up their packages with plenty of safeguards to protect your investment should it be delayed further or should your plans change, for whatever reason—and you may not even have to give a reason. Full cash refunds on-demand are now standard throughout the industry. If not, 125 or 150 per cent credits for changes, cruise delays, or cancellations remain an option. It’s a buyers’ market as it’s never been.

And Canadians are big cruise buyers. According to the Conference Board of Canada, they were projected to have taken more than one million cruises in 2019, and had accounted for 3.4 per cent of all global cruise activity every year since 2016 

Even dry-docked, cruise ships sell

While much of the world’s fleet of almost 300 ships has been moored in ports around the world, some cruise agents report that they have taken in more reservations for future cruises than they have processed cancellations. 

However, until the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) drops or seriously modifies its No Sail Order, there won’t be any cruises out of US ports of vessels carrying more than 250 passengers. The CDC has jurisdiction for all cruise ships sailing in US waters or docking at US ports. Though most ships sail under foreign flags, they are not exempted from that jurisdiction. Moreover, the world’s three biggest cruise lines, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Carnival Corporation (which also controls Princess, Holland America, Costa, Cunard, and several other major lines), are all headquartered in South Florida.

The CDC has imposed tough standards that ships will have to meet when they return to sea, but so have the cruise lines themselves. The cruise industry concurs with most of CDC’s standards, and a Health Standards Panel convened by Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line (including third-party scientists and other disease prevention and health specialists) has published a 64-page guide of specific actions and standards they recommend for all cruise carriers. What they presage is a far leaner style of cruising: fewer passengers per vessel to allow for appropriate distancing; shorter cruises (maximum 7 nights); tighter controls on port stop visits; on-board testing capabilities for passengers showing symptoms, including daily temperature checks for all passengers and crew; more medical staffing and resources; and on-board quarantining cabins or isolation units should an outbreak occur.

The standards also rule out self-serve buffets (reason enough for gourmands to book and rebook), and retain routine masking in situations where distancing is not feasible, while allowing maskless indoor or outdoor dining where distancing is sufficient. But no more poolside dance parties—not in the immediate future anyway.

One special caution we must highlight

At present, Travel Canada still advises against all cruise travel and warns that anyone returning to Canada from a cruise is subject to quarantine. If that advisory is still in force by your embarkation date and you choose to follow it, make sure you understand your cruise line cancellation options. Many now offer cancellation benefits up to 48 hours prior to travel, but you need to read the fine print.

Also, before you make any final arrangements for your cruise, consult with your travel insurance advisor to make sure your plan covers COVID-related disruptions (which many in Canada do), and that it provides coverage for trip cancellations or interruptions (which may be necessary if your cruise vessel is forced to change or shorten its itinerary). Insurance sold by cruise lines does not have the extensive medical/repatriation benefits that Canadian travel insurance provides.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

The Snowbird Conundrum: Paying to Go Home?

Feeling stranded? Confused? Uncertain if and when you can return to Canada and what you’ll have to do to get back to the northern side of the border?

It hasn’t been made any easier by Ottawa’s new plan to require Canadians flying home to quarantine in selected hotels for up to three days (at an estimated cost of $2000) while their PCR COVID tests are assessed, then complete the remainder of the 14-day quarantine period at home. At this point the hotel quarantine option is still being developed so it may be some weeks before it is operational, but it does not presage an easing of border rules any time soon.

How long can you stay?

You can stay out of Canada indefinitely and still retain your citizenship. But US law allows Canadian passport holders to remain in the country only up to 182 days per every rolling 12-month period—so long as the visit is for leisure purposes: no work, no doing business. That 182 days can be an accumulation of short trips or one long, uninterrupted one. So if you went down to your condo in September and haven’t returned home since, you’re getting close to the mark. To make sure of your status, count back 12 months (365 days) and tally up all the days you have been on US soil. Count even part-days when you crossed the border for just a few hours.

And bear in mind that Canadian and US border agencies share entry/exit crossing data, so they know more about your travels than you think they do.

If you’re close to the mark, and you’re sure you want to delay your return to Canada, you can file a 1-539 for an extension with the USCIS. Certain contingencies have been added to allow people who can’t get back home because of COVID restrictions to have an extension, but that will be judged on a case-by-case basis so be prepared for some paperwork. You’re also expected to apply at least 45 days before the extension is to begin, so this is no sure thing. There will likely be quite a lineup.

Out-of-province restrictions

There may also be a provincial issue to consider. All provinces require you to be physically present for at least a given period (most specify five months in a year, some six) to remain eligible for your provincial health insurance. And physical presence means just that. This may be a little harder for provincial agencies to track, unless you have a particularly prying neighbour, or you have filed too many out-of-province medical bills over the past few months.

Remember too that “out-of-province” does not refer only to visits to the US—it also means visits to other provinces or other countries. So that too is a calculation to keep in mind. Loss of provincial residency status carries a heavy penalty as it takes three months (without coverage) to regain eligibility for your government health insurance. Fortunately, there are private insurance plans designed specifically to fill those gaps.

Can you extend your travel insurance while you are out of the country?

In most cases you can extend your insurance to cover your additional days of travel so long as you have made no claims, or your medical condition hasn’t changed since you applied. But you must call your insurer and have that done as soon as you know how much of an extension you’ll need. There may be consequent adjustments to your policy so make sure you understand what your extension entails. You should also be aware that since you left for your trip the conditions of coverage may have changed as coverage for COVID-related issues has been added to many policies. Have a thorough discussion with your insurer on these points.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

New US Rules Require COVID Test Results—Even if You Have Been Vaccinated

Effective January 26, 2021, all international travellers (including Canadians) flying to the US are required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of departure, or validation from their physician that they have sufficiently recovered from infection by the coronavirus.

The rule, issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in effect reciprocates a similar one effective January 7, issued by the Canadian government for international travellers flying into Canada. But an important adjunct to the CDC rule that is causing some confusion among seniors already vaccinated against the coronavirus insists that their vaccination doesn’t exempt them from the negative test requirement.

It’s a head-scratcher, but it’s true. Even though you may have recently received your two jabs—either of the Pfizer/ BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine—you will still have to show proof of a negative test taken within three days of boarding your flight.

Says the CDC: “Before departure to the United States, a required test, combined with the CDC recommendations to get tested again 3–5 days after arrival and stay home for 7 days post-travel, will help slow the spread of COVID-19 within US communities from travel-related infections. Pre-departure testing with results known and acted upon before travel begins will help identify infected travellers before they board airplanes.

“Air passengers are required to get a viral test (a test for current infection) within the 3 days before their flight to the U.S. departs, and provide written documentation of their laboratory test result (paper or electronic copy) to the airline or provide documentation of having recovered from COVID-19. Airlines must confirm the negative test result for all passengers or documentation of recovery before they board. If a passenger does not provide documentation of a negative test or recovery, or chooses not to take a test, the airline must deny boarding to the passenger.”

Why no exemption for proof of vaccination?

The CDC explains that though the vaccines are expected to offer 90 to 95 per cent protection against getting symptoms of COVID or becoming ill, it is not yet totally clear that vaccinated persons are incapable of transmitting the virus to others. Trials to establish such proof are underway or planned, but their outcome still needs to be determined.

Dr. Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, stated in a recent TV interview, “I think we need to be careful, as we get vaccinated, not to over-interpret the results… Do I believe that it reduces transmission? Absolutely yes, and I say this because of the science… But absent proof, I think it’s important that we don’t change behaviors solely on the basis of vaccination.”

In the meantime, those are the rules. And don’t expect masking and social distancing protocols to become redundant any time soon, although there are enough variations in the rules from place to place that no matter where you intend to travel, you need to do your homework. The rules as they apply to a trip to Arizona or the UK may vary considerably from those for Jamaica, Mexico, or Costa Rica. Each location has its own variation of such rules. That’s where you need to focus your attention.

And above all, don’t forget the rules for coming back home.

© Copyright 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Vaccine Arrival Sparks Traveller Hopes, But Canadians Remain Cautious

Though arrivals of COVID-19 vaccines may give us hope that travel restrictions might soon be relaxed, Canadians remain cautious about planning international—or even, to some extent, domestic—trips any time soon.

According to a new survey by the Conference Board of Canada, while 87 per cent of Canadians say they miss travelling, three quarters insist they won’t travel out of the country until a vaccine is available, and 53 per cent say the same about domestic travel. Meanwhile, one quarter of respondents to the survey do not plan to get vaccinated.

Furthermore, if and when airline travellers decide to pack up and go, 66 per cent want mandatory face masks used by all ground and in-air staff and 57 per cent want distancing space retained—to some degree. Survey respondents also revealed that their fears about exposure to COVID were most pronounced about the modes of transportation—more than half were “extremely or very concerned” about exposure to COVID while on the aircraft, in taxis, or in car shares; 47 per cent “extremely or very concerned” about potential exposure at a theme park; 29 per cent at their accommodation property; but only 19 per cent were very worried about exposure while on the beach or outdoors.

Resistance to US travel still high, but lessening

CBoC reports that a few months ago, 83 per cent of Canadians responding to an earlier survey said they were “extremely or very concerned” about being exposed to COVID while travelling in the US. In the current survey, this share had dropped to 69 per cent, even though 80 per cent still felt the border with the US should remain closed. 

As for making their travel plans, 91 per cent of respondents to the CBoC survey insisted they would check infection rates at their destination of choice before firming up their reservations.

Though vaccine distribution has already begun, it appears that widespread vaccination of the general population is still a relatively distant prospect. Thus, making travel plans remains a hit-and-miss affair, for the time being.

Canadians encouraged by COVID insurance coverage

Generally, potential travellers have been encouraged by the development of access to COVID vaccinations and the availability of COVID-specific travel insurance coverage. More than half of travellers (52 per cent) reported that the inclusion of COVID coverage in travel insurance plans increases their willingness to travel as soon as possible and they also feel that if rapid testing could replace quarantine protocols, their willingness to travel would be strengthened.

Despite guarded optimism about the arrival of a vaccine against COVID, CBoC still anticipates little trans-border traffic until vaccinations are widely available. And it emphasizes that travel to the US (Canada’s most favoured travel destination) is projected to fall by 91 per cent this winter season (that’s a reduction of 6.5 million trips). In addition, travel to other destinations is expected to fall by 88 per cent (5.1 million trips).

The CBoC report also revealed that 47 per cent of Canadians who prepaid (in whole or part) for their travel services (such as cruises or tours) outside of Canada before the onset of the pandemic settled for “credits” for future travel (e.g., cruise or airline ticket vouchers); 12 per cent settled for rebooking at later dates; and only 35 per cent for cash refunds. How all of these accounts will be resolved when the dust settles remains to be seen, as regulators and governments continue to press for cash refunds being mandatory.

Overall, CBoC forecasts that with just 36 per cent of Canadians intending to take an overnight leisure trip this winter, and with only one in 10 planning to leave the country overall, outbound leisure travel will fall to just 1.2 million trips between November and April—less than 10 per cent of the activity recorded last winter.

That’s perhaps a dreary forecast for travellers accustomed to basking under sunny skies during Canada’s coldest months, but with a New Year about to dawn, let’s hope the worst is past and 2021 brings relief and a return to normalcy.

© Copyright 2020, 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Update on European Travel Authorizations: Deferred to 2022

Early in 2019 we alerted you to the European Union’s forthcoming travel authorization scheme requiring Canadians and Americans (as well as citizens of 60 other nations who do not normally require visas for European travel) to file for pre-authorization to visit any of its member countries as of January 2021. 

The scheme, the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS), has been deferred to late 2022 to allow all member countries to better coordinate and come into compliance with each other. Nothing comes easily or without glitches in the EU’s multinational operations. That start date is also tentative as there is likely to be an official launch toward the end of 2022 but it will not be mandatory until 2023. Additionally, a 6-month grace period is planned to allow eligible travellers to become familiarized with the new regulations. So all we can say today is “for now you can relax,” but “stay tuned and be prepared,” because the ease of international travel to which you have become accustomed is a thing of the past. This is especially so as individual countries impose varying border rules to protect themselves from COVID-19, and growing numbers require incoming visitors to have supplemental travel insurance to cover any emergency medical costs during their visits.

The quality of European health care is high. So are its costs. And though European citizens have some reciprocal agreements to cover medical emergencies while visiting neighbouring countries, they extend only to EU citizens—not to Canadians or Americans. As well, until the COVID-19 threat is over, individual countries in Europe have the power to unilaterally impose their own border controls to guard against spread of the pandemic. So before you anticipate travel to Europe, make sure you know the rules for your final destination as well as any countries through which you’ll be transiting. And make sure your travel insurance conforms to those rules.

Let’s review ETIAS

In effect, Europe’s ETIAS is similar to Canada’s eTA (electronic Travel Authorization) or the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) in the US. Its purpose is to tighten the management of EU- country borders, decrease crime and terrorism, and control undocumented migration—all the while reducing procedures and application times for travellers.

The applications, designed to take about 10 minutes, must be done online and will cost €7, payable by debit or credit card. They will ask the applicant’s name, date and place of birth, education and work experience, prior travel, medical status, and other background questions such as records of deportations, rejected visa applications, or criminal records. Applicants under 18 will not be charged fees.

Applications that are completed correctly and don’t ring any alarms on ETIAS’s watch list (which is connected to other international databases and Interpol) will likely be approved in a few minutes. An “Alert” may require a more complete manual application and take from four days to two weeks to pass muster. Successfully completed authorizations will be valid for three years and will allow an unlimited number of entries to Schengen Area countries. Once in the area, travel to other Schengen countries will be “borderless.”

What is the Schengen Area?

In 1985, five member states of the European Union signed an agreement in the town of Schengen, Luxembourg, to abolish internal border checks between their countries. Since then, the Schengen Area has expanded to include most EU countries except Ireland and a few others soon expected to be part of the Area—Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Cyprus. Although Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein are not EU members, they are part of the Schengen zone. The UK, which withdrew from the EU in January 2020, has never been a member of Schengen and so far is exempt from the ETIAS requirement.

The key thing to remember is that Schengen and the EU are two separate entities even though their interests are often intertwined. And the EU is simply appropriating the Schengen structure to craft ETIAS for its own protection.

If you really need more on this moving target you can keep up with Schengen rules on this website.

© Copyright 2020, 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

It’s Your Policy. Take Responsibility. Take Your Time

More than ever, travel insurance products are giving customers in less-than-perfect health opportunities to leave home, visit friends and relatives in distant countries, and even indulge themselves in leisure activities that would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago.

Even for the elderly, given their normal range of chronic conditions (e.g., high blood pressure, heart flutters, diabetes, artery or vein disorders), coverage may be available so long as their health has remained stable for specified periods (three months, perhaps six) and they have completed their medical questionnaires accurately and haven’t “shaded” the truth to gain a slight reduction in premiums.

Such attempts at “savings” can turn into financial catastrophes if the insurer is forced to deny a claim for emergency medical services because you failed to fully or accurately disclose that you had been “checked out” for a respiratory condition within the past three months, or that your medication for diabetes was recently changed, or that you were referred for a heart murmur that your cardiologist said was OK for now but should be rechecked when you returned from Florida.

Such “minor imperfections” may seem routine and unworthy of mention on a questionnaire, but they can be vital signs to medical underwriters that further information about your health is needed. Underwriters have no information available to them when gauging a patient’s health but what they see on the questionnaire. And they have no other way to determine the risk of offering coverage, or if you are ineligible for the plan level you are seeking but might be better placed in a different level.

Claim denials are rare, but take your application seriously

Though claim denials for Canadian travellers are extremely rare, when they do occur they can be devastating to a family’s finances. And non-disclosure of pertinent information on one’s medical questionnaire is one of the most frequent reasons for claim denials.

It’s one thing to say you answered the questions as best you knew how and “in good faith.” It’s quite another to say your answers were accurate. And though questionnaires tend to be loaded up with medical terminology, you should take the time to look up the definitions of terms used. If they’re not included with the questionnaire or in your policy—demand them. Example: the definition of “Internal condition” may include gallbladder disease, kidney disorders (including stones), liver or pancreatic disorders, prostate or urinary disease, and so on. If you’re being asked if you have been diagnosed or treated for an internal condition in the past 24 months, you need to know what the insurer considers an internal condition.

And if you’re completing an application with the assistance of an agent, perhaps over the phone, have the agent read the questions one by one as they are printed on the questionnaire, and have any pertinent definitions explained to you. Take your time… it’s your policy and it’s your money. And when you receive your Confirmation of Coverage (which explains the details of coverage, the price paid, the dates and conditions of coverage)—read it all, especially the completed questionnaire, to make sure your Yes or No answers are correctly recorded and consistent with your medical record.

If there’s any doubt in your mind about your medical record, or why you underwent certain tests a few months ago, or why you’re taking certain drugs, ask you physician for help—perhaps even to look over your application.

Remember: The agent is there only to assist. If there are any losses resulting from faulty information, they will be yours. Not the agent’s—“good faith” notwithstanding.

Insurers want your business. They don’t want to deny a claim any more than you want to see it denied. They are constantly looking for ways to design products for their varying markets in all age groups and with all health profiles. But it requires some effort from you.

Do not consider travel insurance a casual, routine purchase. And though you have seen many entreaties to “sign up… it just takes 30 seconds,” unless you are in perfect health and can leap tall buildings in a single bound, take your time. Don’t wait for the day before your departure. And if your application is medically underwritten, allow for any additional time it may take for your physician to review it.

It’s your application. It’s your time. And it’s your money.

© Copyright 2020, 2021 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Simple Tools for Avoiding US Taxes for Canadian Snowbirds

Canadians spending long periods in the US on B2 visitor’s visas (see our previous article) often ask at what point their presence becomes taxable to Uncle Sam. It’s a good question because paying taxes at home is irritating enough. You don’t want to get tangled up with tax demands from two governments.

And the good news is that the great majority of snowbirds won’t have to pay US taxes. But they need to follow some not-too-complicated rules.

Let’s take it from the top

The demands of the IRS, which governs tax collection, and the requirements of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency, which controls who enters the country and for how long, are separate. CBP agents are not tax collectors.

The IRS, however, is. And it wants to know if you spend enough time in the US to be considered a resident for tax purposes. Don’t read that as being a shortcut to residency. It is not. You can’t become a legal US resident just by agreeing to pay taxes. The IRS simply wants to identify your tax status and for that it uses what it calls the Substantial Presence Test.

Here’s how it works, and let’s use the tax year 2020 as an example. According to the IRS, if you were in the US at least 31 days during calendar year 2020, count the total number of days you were there, then count 1/3rd of the days you were present in 2019, and 1/6th the number in 2018. If that adds up to 183 days, you meet the Substantial Presence threshold and you are a resident for tax purposes. If you were present for fewer than 183 for the three years in question, you’re not. But caution: The IRS counts in calendar years—not 12 rolling months, as does Homeland Security. Two different systems for different purposes. Don’t confuse them. Many do. So, we emphasize: The IRS has nothing to do with the rules about how long you can stay in the US.

Now the good part: IRS form 8840 is the Closer Connection Exception Statement for Aliens. Completing this is how youexempt yourself from paying taxes to the US. The form is free and easily available from the IRS website. This form also explains the Substantial Presence rules we have just alluded to.

In completing the form, you will verify that Canada is your primary home, it’s where you live most of the year, where you do your primary banking, where you pay your taxes, where you are registered to vote, have your cars licensed, have your primary social and family connections, etc. It also asks when you entered the country on your most recent trip, your passport number, and some questions about out-of-country income sources. But don’t let those questions about income sources intimidate you as they would be relevant only if you were a questionable candidate for exemption. And make sure you file with the IRS by June 15 for the tax year in which you did your last trip. If your last trip was in 2020, file by June 15, 2021.

The main purpose of the form is simply to verify you are who you say you are. And once you file, you’ll likely never hear from the IRS—even to confirm that they got your form. It’s not their highest priority.

But if you normally spend about four months a year in the US, we advise strongly that you file, keep a copy, and carry it with you when you cross over into the US as it’s evidence of your status and it shows you know the rules and are adhering to them—even if you’re slightly under the Substantial Presence threshold.

© Copyright 2020 Milan Korcok. All Rights Reserved.

Will Canadians Return to Cuba after COVID-19?

Now that vacation flights have resumed to Cuba, albeit on a limited scale, can we expect Canadians to maintain their position as that Caribbean country’s most favoured source of tourism?

It seems so: with Canadians accounting for one-fourth of all tourists to Cuba (1.1 million of 4.4 million in 2019), that lead is likely untouchable, for now at least. The runner-up USA, which provided 650,000 tourists (mostly on special group and family-connection programs) in 2019, will continue to lessen its numbers as the long-standing trade embargo is strengthened. But there is no shortage of tourists from Europe and Asia applying for Cuban tourist visas, and high among them are Russian tourists, who have already started chartered flights into Cuba this month (along with German tourists). In 2019, approximately 178,000 Russians visited Cuba—up 30 per cent from the previous year.

According to Cuban authorities, Russians have submitted the fourth-highest number of tourist applications of all countries so far and Cuban authorities estimate Russia will be sending over some 200,000 tourists annually very, very soon. (It’s noteworthy that as of this writing, Russian President Vladimir Putin is meeting with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Moscow to strengthen diplomatic and trade and relations between the two countries).

What can Canadians expect in Cuba now?

To date, the few Canadian flights to Cuba, mostly from Montreal and Toronto, have gone without a hitch—all passengers testing negative for the COVID-19 virus on arrival. At present, all foreign visitors, including Canadians, must have private medical insurance that specifically covers COVID-19. If not, they’ll have to buy it from Cuban companies on arrival. It’s a stipulation that is being required by increasing numbers of Caribbean nations.

Cuba is also testing all arriving passengers (it’s free) and requiring them to shelter at their designated hotels for 24 hours until their tests are cleared. After that, they are required to confine their movements to specified areas within their designated “tourist corridors.” Each of the designated areas—e.g., Varadero, the Cayo areas, as well as other areas throughout this, the largest nation by area in the Caribbean—have plenty of quality hotels and restaurants, shopping plazas, golf sources, and marinas available for visitors, so the services are not spartan.

Havana, however, is still off-limits to any tourism, although a reopening is in the planning stages for early 2021—maybe sooner. But don’t put Havana on your bucket list just yet. Check first if that’s your primary goal.

In addition, to avoid cash handling, visitors can now pay for most services by credit or debit cards from Canadian banks outside of their hotels—that includes approved taxis, car rentals, and tours. Lessner Gomez, director of the Cuba Tourist Board, says: “this measure has been applauded by Canadians since it’s not only more convenient and safe, it also gives them a chance to avoid currency exchange into Convertible pesos (CUC), now tourists can pay directly with credit cards and with their own currency.”

So, when making your arrangements, be very clear you understand the restraints within the tourist corridors and your own responsibilities once you arrive. The Cuban government’s emphasis is on limiting your exposure to health risk. And understand that while at your resorts or on side-trips, you will still have to adhere to the local health and safety rules: wearing masks, keeping safe distances, all of the measures you have been holding to at home.

© Copyright 2020 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Still Hope for the 240-Day Visa? Patience is a Virtue

For more than a decade, Canadian snowbirds hoping for permission to spend more time in warm-weather states south of the border have pegged their hopes on passage of US federal legislation amending the Immigration and Nationality Act to authorize their admission for up to 240 days—eight months per year. 

That’s two months more than is currently available through the standard B2 tourist visa, which is what Canadians use when hopping the border for a one-day sports event—or for a 183-day winter vacation in Florida or Arizona.

Known generically as the “Snowbird Visa,” the amended visa would allow Canadian citizens aged 50 or older to reside in the US for up to eight months per year contingent on their retaining homes in Canada, owning or leasing long-term residences in the US, waiving all rights to welfare or public assistance funding, and refraining from any employment or other work for hire. In effect: tourism only, no business.

To date, there have been several variations of such bills floated in Congress by legislators warm to the idea of having affluent Canadians spending money in their states for three quarters of the year.

And there has been little opposition to these legislative initiatives in either political circles or local economies. Yet, the chance of seeing such visas enacted remains as slim as ever thanks to the tortuosity of America’s legislative gauntlet.

Death and resurrection

Most recently, high-profile senators Marco Rubio (R), acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and former Florida Governor Rick Scott (R), serving his first term as US senator, sponsored the Canadian Snowbird Act S 2507 in 2019. These are so far the highest-ranking political figures to have endorsed the 240-day visa model. They are also among the few political powers who are not up for re-election this November, so though the current Snowbird Act (bill) dies with the extinction of the 116th Congress, we can expect it to be resurrected (with a different S number) when the new 117th Congress convenes on January 3, 2021. Ditto three other related House bills that were introduced in 2019 (some of them dating back several years). Some of them sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans.

Despite the misleading nomenclature, an act is not an act until it has been approved by the House, the Senate, and has finally been signed into law by the president. Until then it is just a bill, and so far none have ever worked their way out of the committees to which they were originally assigned. And the committee stage, where they are worked over by opposing parties and their picky staff, are only Step One of the forbidding legislative process.

It’s going to be a tough slog

Skopos Labs, a tracker of legislative bills, gave S 2507 a 3 per cent chance of enactment in 2019. That’s par for the course. Over 13,000 bills were introduced in the 116th Congress.

Given other immediate measures that the next highly divided Congress is likely to face, a bill to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to authorize admission of Canadian retirees as long-term visitors for pleasure is not a headline-grabber in the DC bubble.

So, if you’re one of those fortunate Canadians who might fit the profile of a 240-day sun-state visitor—stay tuned and we’ll update you as these various measures work through the jungle of DC politics. But don’t hold your breath. And for now, be content with the 183-day limit—which isn’t all that bad… so long as you are allowed to leave home to enjoy it.

© Copyright 2020 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Can’t Wait to Get Back to Cruising? Expect Changes

In 2019, Canadians took almost one million cruises, sailing oceans, lakes, and rivers around the world.

And a large majority of them say they would do it again. Cruisers are a committed lot—all surveys confirm it.

Then came COVID, and though it took some time, cruisers returned home, wondering when or if they would get another chance to sail. Now, almost nine months later, the question remains. When will cruising resume? And how will the experience be changed?

Since the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) first issued its “no sail” order for ships in US waters (March 14, 2020), there have been a few isolated attempts at cruise resumptions—primarily in the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe. But outbreaks of COVID on some of these voyages have cut them short as well. Since then, extensions of the “no sail” order have been continued through to the end of October. Actually, the CDC proposed extending the order through to February 2021, but the Trump White House nixed that order and compromised on ending the ban November 1—with the proviso that it could be extended if conditions warranted. (Cruising is a worldwide industry extending far beyond US ports, but the world’s three biggest lines* are headquartered in Florida, and their vessels at some time or other sail in US-controlled waters patrolled by the US Coast Guard. Thus, CDC jurisdiction is quite clear. *Carnival Cruises, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Holdings account for 60 per cent of all cruise traffic).

Where does that leave potential cruisers who would like to nail down reservations for winter Caribbean sailings—the most popular cruise destination among Canadians?

Make an exit plan

At this point, we can only urge caution. Keep your options open. Don’t lock yourself into a distant commitment without an exit plan. If you’re about to make a substantial investment in a cruise booking, how long are you prepared to keep your deposits or payments locked in? What if the cruise line changes the itinerary you booked? What if it substitutes a vessel you particularly wanted to one less attractive to you? What if your health or economic situation changes and you need to back out?

And if you do want to change or cancel, will you be offered future cruise credits or the cash you have put in minus any “non-refundable” charges? 

At present, there are still many thousands of cruise hopefuls waiting for cash rebates from cruise lines that are burning through millions of dollars per day as their ships sail in circles, empty except for skeleton crews—like modern-day Flying Dutchmen.

Cruise lines have very aggressively marketed fare upgrades of up to 150 per cent as well as on-board cash credits just to keep passengers booked. And the majority of them originally accepted those “bargains” in lieu of cash. But as time wears on and the uncertainty of cruise resumption continues, the future cruise credits are losing their lure. Cash is still king.

Private travel insurance can help

Can travel insurance from the brokers you normally buy your out-of-country coverage from protect you from the future-cruise-credit dilemma? Yes, to a degree, but you need to understand what trip cancellation offers and what its limitations are. There are limits on coverage. We’ve written about this widely in past articles and will again. Know the terms.

Also, check with your insurer if your coverage will be restricted if Canada still maintains its blanket warning to “avoid all travel on cruise ships.” That restriction is a reminder only that insurers may limit your benefits related to cruise travel. That decision remains up to the insurer.

Expect a different cruise lifestyle

You should be prepared for a very difference cruise experience once the “no sail” orders are lifted.

According to new CDC rules (accepted by the Cruise Lines International Association—the organization representing the interests of 90 per cent of the world’s cruise lines), for the foreseeable future you will have to be tested for COVID before embarking and have your temperature checked frequently while on board, perhaps daily. You’ll also have to wear your mask while in public areas, keep to distancing requirements, and there will be limitations on port stops. It’s going to be a stripped-down regimen. 

Still, cruise lines are betting that their alumni passengers will understand and be prepared to put up with the restraints. Many will, as virtually all customer satisfaction surveys show that those who have taken cruises have enjoyed their experience enough to want to do it again, and again. As we said, this is a committed lot.

If that’s your “cuppa,” great. But before you put any money down, ask a lot of questions and make sure to have an exit plan if you change your mind anywhere along the process. You’ll want to keep your investment safe—in one form or another.

© Copyright 2020 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

You’ve Covered “Medical” Insurance—Now What About “Cancellation”?

If there is anything positive to be said about how travellers have been impacted by COVID, it’s that trip cancellation insurance has become a “top of the mind” issue.

For Canadians that’s critical, because though more than 70 per cent of travellers normally buy emergency out-of-country medical coverage, fewer than a third have, up to now, considered trip cancellation/interruption insurance a necessity.

No longer. With millions of the world’s travellers now lining up for refunds or rebates for cancelled air travel, cruises, or tour packages due to COVID, the focus has shifted to gaining some assurance that family finances are also protected in case of unexpected disruption.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of trip cancellation/interruption products in the travel insurance marketplace, but understanding the conditions of coverage, the limitations and exclusions, and how and when one goes about getting a “refund” when travel plans go awry is part of the purchase process. It means reading the policy.

For example, virtually all cancellation plans offered in Canada (and there are many comprehensive plans that blend medical and cancellation coverage together) list the conditions or situations that are covered by the cancellation benefit (e.g., sudden illness of the traveller or traveller’s companion, death in the family, loss of job, call to jury duty, etc.). These are usually clearly stated in the policy. Not all cancellations qualify for a benefit. But if the cancellation is the result of some unspecified cause—such as a pandemic—then the travel supplier (airline, cruise ship, tour operator) who has already been paid a deposit or full fare is responsible for the rebate. The insurer still remains responsible for covering other listed benefits such as the costs of returning home if the passenger has already started their trip, trip delays, missed connections, or other associated incidentals like stay-over hotels or meals, but not fees already sitting in the providers’ accounts that are recoverable by either refunds or travel vouchers. The point is to avoid double dipping.

As one insurer explains in its trip cancellation policy:The benefits payable, as described in this Certificate, are in excess of all other potential sources of recovery, including alternative or replacement travel options offered by airlines, tour operators, cruise lines and other travel suppliers and other insurance coverage (even where such other coverage is described as excess) and will only become available after all other sources are exhausted.”

So when is a refund not a refund?

COVID has put this issue into focus. Both airlines and cruise operators affected by COVID cancellations initially offered vouchers for future travel, which are generally considered payment in kind. Cruise lines upped the ante by offering hefty bonuses—some up to 150 per cent of the original ticket value—to keep their passengers locked in for cruise itineraries well into 2021 even 2022. But under pressure by the US and EU governments, most lines have relented and are now offering passengers their choice of cash rebates or enhanced travel voucher packages. Interestingly, many cruisers are opting for the voucher packages. Cruisers are a very committed lot.

US and EU governments have also ordered airlines to issue cash rebates to cancelled-out travellers, though there are widespread reports that some airlines—under intense cash flow pressures—are dragging their feet in processing the refunds. The Canadian government has not yet taken that step but Air Canada is offering refunds for trips cancelled because of COVID, but only for itineraries originating in the European Union, not for flights originating in Canada.

Trip cancellation/interruption insurance is becoming increasingly important as the costs of travel become more expensive and as travel itself becomes more integral to our lives. And as with any policy, it should be carefully read, understood, and preferably discussed with the agent selling the product—not filed away to be thought about another day.

© Copyright 2020 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Travel Demands Determination—Don’t Give Up

Though the Canadian government continues to warn against all international travel because of ongoing COVID-19 prevalence, the US State Department has begun easing its warnings for most countries down to Level 3 (Reconsider travel) from the highest Level 4 (Do not travel). Canada is now listed in the Level 3 range even though the border with the US remains shut to non-essential travel. Still on the US “Do Not Travel” list are such major destinations as Mexico, Russia, China, Brazil, India, Egypt, and several countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

However, despite the warning level easing for outbound travel, there are still some European countries that do not allow Americans entry for leisure purposes, or that at least demand certain health checks or other clearance conditions. Canadians, however, are welcome in more countries—even though your government would prefer you to stay home.

How do you plan ahead?

So how do you plan your winter break? In effect, it’s a crapshoot. You can fly from Calgary to Las Vegas without incident, but getting into your car and driving down to Nevada may be a little more intimidating. If you’re looking for a simple, easy-to-follow formula as to who can travel, where and when, you won’t find it. So if you really are determined to get to your niece’s wedding in Italy or California this fall or winter—don’t give up. Do your research first by checking the host country’s official travel website and see how the details apply to you as a Canadian citizen traveller. In most cases, Canadians will be welcome, but you may have to jump through a few hoops first.

See what documentation you need—evidence of a recent COVID test? Proof of travel insurance? More and more countries are demanding such evidence. Make sure your other travel documents are also in order  (e.g., passport, visa if necessary, planned itinerary, and evidence of ability to pay your travel expenses). 

The Canadian government can’t keep you from travelling out of the country. But it doesn’t have to help you get back if you run into problems it warned you against. So be prepared and make sure your credit card has plenty of “room” on it in case you run into delays or detours. Canadian consulates are not ATMs.

Lower your expectations

And once you’re at your destination, don’t expect the same environment you experienced last time you were there. For Canadians and Americans, the Caribbean is a very welcoming place. But expect some unpleasant restrictions. For example, the Jamaican government has just re-imposed a “stay in place” rule that requires hotel guests to remain on their specified property while in the country. No moving from place to place, no sightseeing, no dining out. It lifted such a rule just a few weeks ago but clamped back down as its COVID numbers started to surge here and there—much to the dismay of the hotel industry.

You can expect similar day-to-day exigencies throughout the fall, maybe longer, anywhere in the Caribbean.

Whatever your travel plans this winter, remain agile. Keep your reservations as restriction-free as possible. Keep your deposits as low as you can. Insist on full refunds with no—or very few—restrictions: from your airline, your host resort, your cruise ship, any entity you have paid with cash or credit card. And if you’re counting on your travel insurance to protect you in case you change your mind at the last minute and decide to cancel, read the fine print and talk to your travel advisor so you know the coverage exclusions as well as the benefits. Even though you might buy a “Cancel for any Reason” plan, don’t expect to get 100 per cent of your deposits back if you do cancel. And the closer your cancellation is to your date of departure, the lower your rebate. Know what you’re buying.

Don’t stifle your dreams of travel. Just put more effort into preparations.

© Copyright 2020 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Time to Shake the Pandemic Blues? Maybe Soon

Tired of sitting in your backyard—alone? Bored by bureaucratic admonitions to wear your mask, stand apart, wash your hands, and sneeze into your elbow?

Hang in there. More and more countries are prepared to welcome you but you still need to be selective.

At this point much of Europe is open to Canadians (if you can find flights that fit your schedule and budget). All airlines are flying greatly reduced schedules and you may have to provide proof of a recent negative COVID test, but that’s a small price to pay for salvaging something out of the dwindling summer and upcoming fall.

The Caribbean too is welcoming Canadians—albeit doing the limbo with a mask may be a little challenging—but mainland guests are highly prized and prices are quite reasonable.

Also, as you may have read in the mainstream media, some Canadian insurers are now offering coverage for COVID-related medical services (including limited cancellation/interruption coverage), so talk to your travel advisor about getting the most appropriate plan for your needs. Make sure you know what your insurance covers.

Sure, it’s still annoying to have to jump through these hoops, but it’s easing up and that’s the right direction. Just think back a few months and be grateful for our progress.

Consider this: according to the Conference Board of Canada, travel restrictions and border closures dropped 97 per cent in May 2020 compared to May 2019. That’s just 56,000 outbound trips compared to 2.7 million last year.

In the first five months of 2020 (that’s including pre-COVID January and February), Canadians made 4.3 million trips to the US—compared to 8.2 million for the same period last year. The same trends follow for Europe and Great Britain, Asia and the Pacific, the Caribbean and Mexico: visits to the UK are down 55 per cent, the same as France; visits to Spain are down 64 per cent; to Greece, down 76 per cent; to Germany, down 60 per cent—and it doesn’t get any better.

But things are looking up, as CBoC projects improving Consumer Confidence levels that were in the pits in May but are looking much better now. Consumer Confidence is measured by survey respondents’ beliefs that this is a good time to make a major purchase.

For Canada as a whole, the national CC index rose from 58 in May to 83 in July. That’s a healthy jump but still 70 per cent lower than pre-pandemic levels.

And where was the CC most robust? Quebec, by a long shot—up to 113 in both June and July. Where was it puny? Alberta—55 in July. Ontario was only so-so at 71 in July—similar to the Prairie provinces, and less than BC at a healthy 97. Remember these are index numbers, not percentages. So they’re best read as levels relative to each other.

Maybe you can actually start making travel plans. That’s a good part too.

© Copyright 2020 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Canadian Travel Insurers Prepared to Offer COVID Coverage

Media announcements that major insurers are prepared to start covering COVID-related medical emergencies for Canadian out-of-country travelers will clearly put pressure on the federal government to ease its restrictions on international travel.

At present, Travel Canada maintains its “Avoid all non-essential “ warning for all foreign travel, even though European nations have opened up their borders to several countries—among them Canada—which they consider has adequately controlled the spread of COVID. The advisory warns that if travelers choose to defy the advisory “your insurance may not cover your travel or medical expenses.”

That of course, is a decision to be made by individual insurers not by government, and Manulife, Allianz and TUGO, Canada’s largest travel insurers have confirmed that as soon as the feds drop their advisory, they are prepared to offer COVID cover in most of their policies, under the existing limitations in their policies.

And Medipac International, the designated insurer for the Canadian Snowbird Association has gone one step further offering to provide COVID cover effective immediately, whether the government maintains its advisory or not. A spokesman for Medipac was quoted in the media as saying that snowbirds who own residences in the US are able to physically-distance just as effectively abroad as they can in Canada, and they are very “aware of the virus and the preventative measures that should be taken while travelling.”

The move by Canada’s insurers come several months after they announced that as COVID had become a widely-known event, they would not cover it in their medical policies and they gave Canadians out of the country at the time, several days to return to Canada before expiration of their benefits.

Since that time, insurance premium sales (estimated by the Conference Board of Canada as surpassing $990 million in 2018) have been stalled as the federal government maintained its blanket embargo on all out-of-country travel. It has also proven a serious impediment to Canadians making winter warm-weather travel plans as they are very committed to travel insurance. According to the CBoC, 76.6 percent of Canadians surveyed in 2018 had some form of travel insurance on their last trip out of the country.

The move by Canadian insurers follows similar steps by several of the larger American travel insurers to offer COVID cover for both medical and trip cancellation interruption cover for residents of the US.

© Copyright 2020 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Is Florida In Your Sights This Winter? A Ground Level Report.

As the Canadian/US border shutdown moves towards autumn, snowbirds and short- term winter vacationers are being left with little time to plan their next moves or commit to travel plans that many have considered their God-given right during inconsiderate winter weather.

Though many Caribbean countries and Mexico have sent a hearty welcome to their northern neighbours, (see our previous  article on this issue) there are some caveats that go with the invitation—masks, distancing, virus test verifications, stripped-down luxuries, even beach and surf patrols to ensure proper behaviour. Not great, but perhaps tolerable considering the alternative.

Florida at ground level.

Despite these offerings by other warm weather destinations, Florida remains Canada’s pre-eminent winter vacation destination, and given the recent reports of COVID surges throughout the state, many of them somewhat overblown, let’s take a ground level look everyday life in the Sunshine State today and what Canadians might expect to see and experience, should the border be freed of its current restraints.

Normalcy has not returned to Florida, but it has begun and is gaining momentum day by day.

Traffic is heavy and annoying. But that’s normal. Publix, Walmart and Costco are fully-stocked and doing big business—but masks and six-foot distancing are mandatory indoors. Most restaurants are open with spacing limitations. Open air venues are especially popular, and most are allowed to serve alcohol in its various formats.  Malls are humming, and barbers, nail salons, gyms are for the most part open and operating quite well with mask and distancing requirements.

Hotels and resorts are open and doing a fair business from local travelers, with all of the health precautions in place—masks and distancing required until further notice. Generally, the rules are set locally, more stringent application in high density areas.

Most public beaches are being regulated and patrolled. The sand and sea is where it used to be, although the scenes of rowdy, alcohol-lubricated 20 and 30 year-old “students” and hangers-on cavorting mask-less throughout the July 4th weekend  have precipitated tighter beach access—particularly in urban areas like Miami Beach.

As for the continuing presence of COVID, troublesome surges have generated unwelcome headlines for local businesses although Governor Ron DeSantis has vowed to keep the opening going and to have schools operational on schedule in mid-August.

COVID data as of July 21, 2020.

Florida’s Department of Health, which issues detailed daily reports from all counties and all testing sites

throughout the state has confirmed spiking of COVID transmissions,  primarily in metropolitan areas: Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties accounting for about 48 percent of Florida’s new cases—and Miami Dade for more than half of all cases in this three county area. These data refer to individuals newly testing “positive” with the COVID virus, as opposed to those testing “negative.”

Since last weekend ending July 19, when as many as 156 deaths were reported over the previous 24- hour period, the daily death count has dropped to 90. But I note that COVID daily death counts are not necessarily accurate indicators of the spread or severity of infections at any given time as deaths may occur long after the initial diagnosis or infection—weeks or even months.

With well over 100,000 tests being conducted per day throughout Florida it was expected the detection of positives would rise, and it was until July 19. Perhaps a moderation is now setting in.

Hospitalizations have consequently risen, particularly iin Miami Dade, but Florida health authorities claim that statewide, there is sufficient hospital capacity to deal with the current numbers of new cases.

How do these rates compare to Canada’s experience with COVID? According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center,  Florida’s COVID- related death rate is 23 per 100,000 population, which compares very nearly to Canada’s COVID mortality rate of 24 deaths per 100,000 population. And despite the high media profile, Florida’s Covid -related death rate is at the mid-point of all other states, 24th out of 50.

We can all hope that deeper into the fall and certainly into the winter season, these data will be less intimidating and more normal travel conditions (with many fewer imposed restrictions) will prevail.

Regardless, you’ll have to be especially diligent in choosing your health insurance—both for cancellation as well as for medical benefits. Forget about the way you have buying insurance in the past. Looking for “cheap” insurance or waiting until the day before departure to make this important purchase is not healthy. Ask questions, read your policy thoroughly, consult with your doctor if you have the slightest questions about your health status, and demand clear and straightforward answers from your broker or travel advisor. Know what you’re buying.

© Copyright 2020 Milan Korcok.  All rights reserved.

EU Welcomes “Safe” Canadian Travellers. But Are You Ready?

Now that Canadians have earned a spot on the European Union’s safe travellers list, does that mean you are free and clear to book summer vacations or family visits wherever you like throughout the EU?

The short answer is Maybe, and there are many contingencies to consider before you set your sights on spending part of the summer in Britain, France, Germany, Finland, Italy or any of the other EU member countries.

The UK, for example has taken the biggest step forward in welcoming foreign visitors by dropping the 14-day quarantine requirement for those from “safe” countries (US is not included) as well for returning Brits.

Ironically, the biggest problem for Canadians planning overseas travel is not their destination country, but Ottawa, which requires (as of this date) that Canadians returning from abroad may still be subject to 14-day self-quarantines. Sort of “Welcome Home. But…”

Specifically, Travel Canada warns: “While some countries are partially opening their borders, we continue to advise against non-essential travel outside of Canada. We also continue to advise that you avoid all cruise ship travel until further notice.

“The governments of those destinations that have opened their borders to tourists could impose strict travel restrictions suddenly, should they experience an increase in cases of COVID-19. International transportation options could be reduced significantly, making it difficult for you to return to Canada. There are no plans to offer additional repatriation flights. Should you decide to travel despite our advisories, know that you might have to remain abroad longer than you expected.”

The government also notes that if you choose to travel despite these advisories: “your travel insurance may not cover your travel or medical expenses,” which is a huge risk factor in these uncertain times.

Travel policies vary: Know what you’re buying

At present, Canadian travel insurers do not have a unified policy re coverage of medical emergencies to countries affected by the pandemic. So if you’re contemplating foreign travel you need to do your due diligence (homework).

Some policies may cover non-COVID-related medical expenses in areas the government has warned against “non-essential” travel if you’re stricken with a sudden medical emergency such as, for example, appendicitis or gallbladder attack. Other policies may exclude coverage for any medical expenses (related or not to COVID) in “non-essential” travel zones. But none, at this point, will cover COVID-related medical services, as the coronavirus pandemic is a known event against which global travel warnings have been issued.

Clearly, you need to have a very clear understanding of what your policy covers or does not cover.

This is not a “fine print” issue. This is fundamental to your understanding of your own health coverage.

Your provincial health care will not bail you out on this point.

Canada’s exposure more modest than most.

What makes this situation so ironic is that Canada’s exposure to COVID-19, when measured by diagnosed positive cases and death rates, has been far more modest than many of the countries now opening up for tourism.

Example: as of July 5, 2020, Belgium has recorded 855 COVID-related deaths per/million inhabitants; UK 666; Spain 607; Italy 578; France 446 per million; while Canada has recorded a modest 236 COVID-related deaths per million inhabitants. Germany has shown the best record among European nations at 108 deaths per million, and the US has recorded 396 per million—considerably less than most European countries.

Again. The Canadian government is not forbidding you to travel abroad—or even to your second home in Florida or Arizona. But know the conditions, and when it comes to travel insurance, don’t rely on your long history of cross-border experiences. The world has changed and you need to discuss your travel insurance options with travel advisors you can trust to be up-to-date and knowledgeable.

© Copyright 2020 Milan Korcok. All rights reserved.

Canada Accommodates International Students: Even Through the Pandemic

As America prepares to pare down its recruitment of international students—citing tighter immigration controls, job protection for homegrown graduates, concerns about China’s infiltration of intellectual properties, and the lingering consequences of COVID —Canada’s colleges and universities are polishing the welcome mat, beefing up online alternatives, extending post-graduate work guarantees, and ultimately strengthening Canada’s position as the world’s third most favoured destination for international students.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), international students to Canada have more than trebled their numbers since 2009, peaking at 642,000 in 2019—behind only the US and Australia. Of these, 48 percent have chosen to study in Ontario, 23 percent in British Columbia, 14 percent in Quebec and the remainder have spread across all of Canada’s other provinces.

Clearly, the onset of COVID will impact those numbers going into 2020/2021. But in May, IRCC announced accommodations to shield international students from major disruptions by expanding their options for distance learning, allowing them to complete up to 50 percent of their programs abroad while waiting for clearances and documentation to fly to Canada, easing other entry requirements for those who have already been approved for study permits, and also allowing them to retain their eligibility for the highly-sought Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWP) even if they were absent from Canada for some of their allotted time.

The PGWP program allows eligible international graduates to work in Canada after their studies for a period of up to three years as part of the government’s efforts to retain them as skilled workers, and ultimately tax-paying citizens.

The following links provide detailed updates from the Canadian government and the Canadian Bureau for International Education for international students already enrolled, as well as those interested in applying to post-secondary educational institutions.

Different provinces, different rules

Navigating the Canadian post-secondary educational landscape can be challenging as the individual provinces have their own rules, admissions requirements, fee structures, and not to be overlooked–health insurance options that can’t be ignored. Though the quality of Canada’s health care is regarded highly, it’s not a single unitary system, but a consortium of individual provincially-administered plans—only some of which are available to foreign students.

In the western provinces–British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan and Yukon territory, as well as Prince Edward island and Newfoundland and Labrador on the east coast, international students may be eligible for or buy into the publicly-funded provincial health insurance available to Canadian residents. These plans provide comprehensive medical and hospital coverage and doctors’ services. But even in some of these provinces, students might need private insurance to cover initial residency requirements—perhaps 90 days—before the provincial coverage kick in. Again, it differs from province to province.

In Quebec, international students are not eligible for publicly-funded provincial insurance unless they normally reside in one of 10 countries* that have reciprocal social security agreements with Quebec. If they do, their health coverage is free. *Belgium, France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Portugal, Finland Luxembourg, Romania. If they don’t, they will have to enroll in the private group health plans offered by their chosen schools.

In the remaining provinces, including Ontario, international students must sign up for private group plans available through their schools of choice and pay the designated fees.

Out of country travel coverage is a priority.

Though the publicly–funded provincial plans are quite comprehensive, many Canadians buy supplementary plans to cover dental, vision, drugs and ancillary services not covered by their basic provincial coverage. The great majority of Canadians in all age groups also buy private travel health insurance for out-of-country trips as provincial plans cover less than five percent of hospital or medical bills generated in other countries, including the United States, where bills of five to ten thousand dollars per day or more are routine. The province of Ontario, in fact, pays zero dollars for any foreign medical bill, so even a short half-day shopping trip across the border needs to be covered.

Fortunately, private travel insurance is widely available from brokers, banks, credit unions, travel agencies, even organizations catering to students—foreign or domestic.

International students have a broad range of choice in selecting health insurance to fit their educational and social needs in Canada. But it takes planning at the earliest stages and possibly with the assistance of Canada’s health insurance vendors to make sure they get it right. The securing of health insurance should not be considered a last-minute item or add-on.

© Copyright 2020. Milan Korcok.  All rights reserved.