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Safe Travels
12 ways to protect yourself on your next vacation

Erin Greene is lucky to be alive. An attacking polar bear in Churchill, Manitoba severed three of the Montreal woman's arteries, tore her scalp and ripped her ear.

But the 30-year-old traveler was airlifted to a Winnipeg hospital just in time for stitches, blood transfusions and 28 staples.

The $13,000 invoice came later.

Greene's provincial medical plan paid for her hospital stay. The air ambulance was extra. So was the ground ambulance.

The need for travel insurance is often discussed in the context of snowbirds who are heading south for the winter, but this invoice proves that every traveler can be exposed to unexpected costs -- even when heading to another province.

Polar bear attacks are admittedly rare. Stories of ill and injured travelers happen all the time. Consider these ways to protect yourself during your next vacation:

  1. Secure travel insurance - Many people continue to place themselves at financial risk. In a recent survey, the Travel Health Insurance Association found that 35% of Canadian travelers still do not buy supplementary health insurance and would have to reach into their own pockets to pay for medical care.
  2. Find out exactly what the policy covers - I've heard travel insurance compared to a hospital gown. You think you're covered when you head out into the world, but your backside may actually be exposed. Each policy is designed to offer a specific level of support. A quick review of the fine print will identify exactly which conditions and situations are covered.  
  3. Check the limits - Medical care always comes at a price. Some procedures simply cost more than others. While the $100,000 limit on a credit card's travel insurance would more than cover the care for something like a broken leg, it would fall well short of the price of care following a heart attack or massive head injury.
  4. Identify pre-existing medical conditions - Travel insurance covers illnesses and injuries sustained on a trip, but it tends to exclude many pre-existing problems. The challenge is that the definitions vary. Something as simple as a reduced or increased dose of blood pressure medication -- or even the prescription for a baby aspirin -- could be seen as proof of a pre-existing heart issue. Insurers can also exclude premature births or neonatal care if a traveler is more than 32 weeks pregnant.

    Even if your doctor says you are safe to travel, the insurance company will ultimately decide whether to write a cheque. Ask the insurer for written proof that your specific pre-existing medical condition is covered.
  5. Share the emergency number - Insurers will typically supply a wallet card which identifies a 24-hour hotline to call if you need support. They will track down an approved medical facility, coordinate your care, and inform everyone back home. Take a picture of the wallet card and send the image to family members and fellow travelers alike. That way everybody will know about the hotline when it is needed most.
  6. Look for limits on extended stays - The travel insurance offered through a group benefits plan is typically designed for the shorter trips of a business traveler. This could leave a semi-retired business owner exposed to extra costs if they spend winters in Florida or Arizona.
  7. Monitor travel warnings - Travel insurance may not apply at all if the Government of Canada issues a travel warning for factors ranging from security concerns to epidemics. The warnings are posted at www.travel.gc.ca.
  8. Don't forget the transportation - As the polar bear attack showed, ambulance services will come at a cost. Some travelers have also been surprised to learn that their insurance will not evacuate them from a cruise ship if they fall ill. A well-designed travel insurance policy will pay for a medical evacuation to Canada or the nearest location that can provide an appropriate level of medical care.
  9. Plan routine medical care at home - Travel insurance is designed for emergency care rather than routine checkups or dental cleanings.
  10. Watch for excluded activities - Few policies will allow extreme sporting activities such as base jumping, but many travelers are surprise to find that more common vacation activities such as parasailing or rock climbing are also excluded. A "drunk clause" can also be used to deny coverage if you're legally impaired at the time of an injury. In the latter case, a Nova Scotia man was billed $50,000 for medical care and a trip home after falling from a hotel balcony in Mexico in 2006.
  11. Ask for a detailed invoice - If you do receive medical care during a vacation, ask for a detailed invoice before you head home. It will always be easier to get these details in the healthcare facility than to track down the details from afar.
  12. Pack wisely - When packing a toothbrush and swim trunks, don't forget to include your proof of insurance coverage, the travel insurance emergency hotline, and contacts for your own doctor.

Safe travels!

Top Tips:

  • Read the fine print. Travel insurance policies can limit dollar amounts, risky activities, and the length of a stay.
  • Identify pre-existing medical conditions that are excluded. And ask the insurer for written proof that your condition is covered.
  • Pack wisely. Be sure to carry proof of insurance coverage, the number for the travel insurance emergency hotline, and contacts for your doctor.

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The Buzz Bits
Miscellaneous links to interesting benefits information

Erin Greene, polar bear attack victim, faces $13K in medical bills: CBC

Learn from the mistakes of an AOL executive when discussing any changes to your benefits plans by Bill Zolis: smallbizadvisor

Managing the impact of absenteeism: smallbizadvisor

Top 12 excuses workers have used for being late: Benefits Canada

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