“I’ve stopped drinking coffee,” my dad told me in an email from his Florida condo a couple of years ago. “I think it’s making me dizzy.”

At the time, I didn’t think much of it. After all, my dad had recently turned 70: Wasn’t this the kind of thing that happened with age? I just felt bad for him: For as long as I could remember, he’d enjoyed his morning caffeine hit, black, with sweetener.

But the dizzy spells didn’t go away. They began to get worse, and my dad began to experience weakness in his legs that left him unable to walk at times. After a few scary incidents, he went to see a doctor in Florida.

“The doctor didn’t know what was going on but he did know that I needed an MRI and a complete neurological exam,” recalls my dad. “When I contacted my insurance company, they told me that staying in Florida was not an option. My insurance coverage ended that day, but they would give me a week’s grace to leave.”

And that was that: My dad and my stepmother’s snowbird sojourn in the Sunshine State was cut short. Travel insurance is designed to cover emergency situations, such as a broken arm or an appendectomy, but not intensive diagnostic procedures or ongoing treatment. In those situations, the insurer’s priority is to get the insured back home and into the Canadian medical system.

In the immediate aftermath, no one worried too much about details – we were all too preoccupied with possible diagnoses: a brain tumour? Parkinson’s? ALS? We all wanted my dad back on Canadian soil and in to see his doctors as soon as possible. “It was a very high anxiety situation,” recalls my dad.


My dad’s travel insurance policy covered his flight home (but not my stepmother’s), and paid for someone to drive their vehicle back up the I-90 to Toronto.

Those are common features of travel insurance policies, says Alex Bittner, president of the Travel Health Insurance Agency of Canada (THiA). Travel insurance can also pay to bring a family member to a policyholder’s hospital bedside, as well as cover the costs for a family member to accompany a policyholder on his travels home. Where possible and necessary, it may cover the cost of an air ambulance – the $25,000 USD price tag to get a heart patient home to Vancouver from Arizona is well worth it compared to the half-million dollars it might cost for bypass surgery in the United States.

Fortunately, my parents managed to sublet their condo for the winter, but they could have also bought a policy that would have reimbursed their forfeited rental costs, explains Bittner, noting that travel insurance policies can be designed to cover a wide range of options and eventualities, from simplified plans that cover less complex medical needs to highly personalized policies that take into account the client’s specific medical profile. Of course, the premiums may be higher for more personalized coverage, but they may well be worth it.

What’s important, Bittner says, is to ensure that clients know their needs, their health and exactly what their policies cover. Snowbirds, he says, tend to be well educated when it comes to travel insurance, but a recent THiA survey found that nearly half of policyholders don’t read their policy to find out its exclusions and limitations. For example, a person injured while scuba diving or even hiking may not be covered.


For snowbirds, a key concern is stability. Most policies require that any pre-existing medical conditions be stable for a period of time (usually 90 to 180 days) for coverage. What many people don’t realize, though, says Bittner, is that something as seemingly innocent as changing a medication or ordering a blood test can invalidate coverage for a pre-existing condition. He calls the phenomenon “Doctor Disconnect”: “Your doctor may clear you to travel but, because she wants to monitor or further investigate an ongoing condition, she orders a few tests before your trip. Those tests can be taken as an indicator of instability, and would render that condition excluded when travelling. It’s really unfortunate when a doctor unwittingly invalidates insurance coverage.”

Many snowbirds purchase two forms of insurance, says Bittner: a multi-trip plan that covers several international trips within a set period, usually 30 days, and then a longer-term policy for the additional months they spend in a warmer locale. What they need to realize, though, is that medical conditions need to be stable before every individual trip during their multi-trip plan.

“Say I have a medical emergency while at a wedding in New York, then I come home. I would need to be stable again – usually for three months – before I could be covered for that condition on another trip. So, I couldn’t simply slip away to Las Vegas a couple of weeks later and be covered for that condition under my multi-trip plan.”

In the end, my dad’s ailment turned out to be – mercifully – a benign inner ear condition. After getting through the requisite 60 days with no change (for the worse), he was eligible for travel insurance coverage (not to mention coffee) once more.


Source: - Susan Goldberg / October 13, 2016 - Susan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her work has appeared in the: Globe and Mail, the National Post, and magazines including Advisor’s EdgeMs.National50-Plus,Today’s ParentCorporate Knights and CCCA Magazine. She is co-author of The Facts of Life: How to Build Wealth and Protect Your Assets with Life Insurance.