Know the Players When Shopping for Travel Insurance

Shopping for travel insurance is a lot easier if you know a few of the ground rules.

First, though there may be thousands of brokers and vendors selling insurance, most plans are underwritten or administered by a relatively small number of companies. And though you may think your insurer is the Canadian Snowbird Association, CIBC, the British Columbia Automobile Association, or your own credit union, the companies actually backing up those policies may be Manulife Financial, The Co-operators Life insurance, ETFS, Travel Underwriters, or other large insurers or plan administrators and wholesalers.

So if you fall ill in a foreign country and you call your insurer’s 24/7 emergency number, you’re not talking to your insurance company—and certainly not your broker—but to an international emergency assistance company such as World Travel Protection, World Access, GlobalExcel, OneWorld Assist, or one of a dozen others.

When you buy travel insurance, you become part of a worldwide network that should be able to cover you and provide assistance no matter where you are. This is made possible through representatives who have global reach, local expertise, and who can ensure you get the best of care. At the same time, these representatives should be savvy enough about local conditions to make sure neither you nor your insurer is getting ripped off. One insurance plan can have many players. So it’s worthwhile reading through that plan to find out who those players are, and who you are dealing with.

I know of one tough-shopping snowbird who swore he would never again deal with XXX Insurance Company who, he says, screwed him up several years ago. So he went to a new broker who offered him a brand new plan with all the bells and whistles he was looking for. And it wasn’t until he was lounging in a pool chair in South Texas that he realized who the insurer of that new plan really was. Yup, the one he swore never to patronize again.

Second, when you travel, take your insurance documents with you and keep your emergency hotline number where you and your travelling companions can immediately locate them. Be absolutely sure you know your own obligations should an emergency come up.

Most Canadian insurers require that you contact them ahead of time for a discretionary non-urgent referral. If your emergency was of the 911 variety, you are required to call within 24 hours if you had to get to the closest hospital without delay. If you don’t contact your insurer immediately, they might reduce payments for service, or deny them altogether. That’s an obligation you need to be aware of.

Third, while assistance companies usually defer to the clinical decisions of your attending physician on the ground, there are times when they will disagree and will tell you to get home, send an air ambulance for you, or arrange for transfer by commercial aircraft. And that decision is binding on you. The emergency assistance medical director ultimately calls the shots. You may think it makes more sense to have your cardiac bypass done at the Texas hospital that diagnosed you rather than fly home and wait two or three months for the same drill. But the insurer doesn’t see it that way. And if the medical director sends you home to wait for your bypass, you have only one other option: to stay there and pay for it yourself.

Travel insurance is no free ride. Know your rights. But know your limitations too.

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