Look before you leave

December 20 2009 by Ellen Roseman

When planning for a trip, what if you have to cancel before you go? What if you have to return early because of illness? Travel insurance can help get your get money back, depending on the policy you buy and what it says.

Many travel insurance policies have skimpy coverage, full of exclusions and limitations. Moreover, the travel agents and tour companies selling these products don’t explain them properly. I see a big consumer revolt on the horizon.

In a recent column I wrote about a couple who had bought trip cancellation insurance through Expedia. They were denied coverage because the wife had a pre-existing condition (Crohn’s disease) and her medication had changed. Luckily for them, Expedia decided to overrule the insurer’s decision and try to improve the disclosure.

Also, my blog recently featured a travel insurance horror story told by KP (the first comment). She, too, had a fight with an insurer over a claim denied because of an unstable condition, which she resolved in her favour by going to small claims court. Here’s what she told me:

I am happy to report that after a case conference where the lawyer for Manulife was literally speechless, they have agreed to reimburse the airfare for me and my husband, as well as my sister and her husband, together with the costs I incurred as a result of being forced to bring the claim against them in the first place.

We considered proceeding to trial in order to get compensation for the emotional stress inflicted upon my sister; however, her condtiion has deteriorated to the point where it is unlikely she will live to see the trial.

People should be informed when purchasing travel insurance that Manulife is interpreting their own policy so strictly that anyone who has so much as seen a doctor for a sniffle will be denied coverage if their trip is cancelled.

Our portion of the lawsuit (mine and my husband’s) was settled the moment Manulife received the claim. They said it was “always their intention to pay our claim,” although they waited until they were sued to do so. If that doesn’t prove that this company denies everyone in the hopes that they won’t or can’t sue, I don’t know what is. These practises really need to stop. The time and energy my sister wasted fighting this is nothing short of criminal.

Milan Korcok, a medical journalist, specializes in helping people understand travel insurance at his helpful website. He advises giving it the same attention as selecting a hotel for your trip: Does the room overlook the park or the dumpster? You need to know your policy inside out and the best way to do that is to buy from a company that specializes in travel insurance, not someone who sells it as a sideline.

I’m posting some emails I received from readers about their own experiences, along with Korcok’s comments. He seems to be saying two things (1) Most policies cover less than you think they do. (2) If you have a medical issue, don’t rely on verbal assurances that you’re covered. Get everything in writing.


  1. GP

    Dec 20 2009

    My husband and I share your readers’ frustration and anger with insurance companies.

    We were under the impression that if we had to cancel a flight due to an ailment, we would get our money back from our insurance company, Mondial Assistance. We were wrong!!

    Let me explain. My husband’s cousin in California planned a two-week road trip for us from Oct. 14 to Oct. 28, 2009. Two days before we were to leave, I came down with a very painful eye infection. Since daylight exacerbated the pain, I knew there was no way I could tolerate a two-week road trip.

    We phoned Air Canada and cancelled the trip the day before we were to leave.

    After I got a note from my doctor, we applied to get our money back from Mondial Assistance. They declared that since Air Canada would keep our tickets for us to use within the next 12 months, they could not reimburse us for the cost of the tickets.

    We responded that our cousins already went on the holiday we had planned together and we would not be travelling out of the country until February 2012.

    We had planned a trip up the Rio Negro River into the Amazon for February 2011, but the small expedition vessel was already booked and therefore we would not be able to go until 2012.

    We explained that we would like our money back so we could use it for our 2012 trip, but they kept insisting they couldn’t do so, since our Air Canada tickets were available for a year.

    What is the point of paying for travel insurance if Air Canada holds the ticket for a year and they refuse to give us a refund if we can’t use the ticket within the year?

    Our travel agent came right out and stated that Mondial Assistance was “screwing” us. She had been in the business for many years and had never heard of such a situation.


    Milan Korcok:

    Sounds lousy, but Mondial can plead that technically there has been no loss so long as Air Canada offers its credit.

    The insurer will cover only loss on the prepaid, non-reimbursable portion. Pretty well all insurers have the same stipulation.

    This couple might talk to Air Canada to cancel the ticket outright and pay a cancellation fee, then go back to Mondial for whatever they have lost.

    In a case like this, it seems Air Canada is just as much a villain as is the insurer.

  2. GD

    Dec 20 2009

    As retired seniors, my wife and I had a three month vacation rental in Florida last January, February and March.

    We had 62 days of out of the country travel coverage through Johnson Inc. (Mondial). To cover our remaining 30 odd days, we bought top-up travel coverage at CAA.

    We’ve been following this routine every winter for 12 years, (luckily) without any problems.

    This past winter while in Florida, on day 57 of our Mondial coverage, I had to visit a local hospital for medical tests, which resulted in a referral to a local specialist. There was every likelihood that I would subsequently require further medical care while in Florida.

    Straightaway, I initiated a claim with Mondial. Because I was nearing the end of my initial 62 days with Mondial, and being certain that I’d be seeking more medical attention, I also tried to initiate a claim with CAA, thus providing me with medical coverage immediately following the expiration of my 62 days with Mondial.

    Hindsight is 20/20. If only I had known, I would have been better off to hold off with Mondial, and initiate a claim with CAA to take effect on day 63.

    My wife and I were absolutely shocked when CAA told me they would not accept a claim because it was for a pre-existing condition. As a result, we had to pack up and head for home (forfeiting a third of our rental cost).

    At the time, I was under considerable duress. By the time we departed Florida, our initial 62 days of medical coverage had expired.

    Because of the situation, our drive home took twice as long and resulted in having 5 days without any coverage for my medical condition until we arrived back home in Ontario. That part was most unnerving. Once at home, I did require further medical attention.

    When we eventually visited CAA (to request a refund), the counter clerks were totally unaware that their CAA top-up travel insurance has this medical coverage limitation.

    It’s interesting to note that we purchased the CAA top-up coverage back in December 2008 before we departed for Florida. I was quite healthy at the time.

    We still have a great deal of difficulty accepting CAA’s position (Manulife Insurance) that my medical situation, which started towards the end of February, was a pre-existing condition.

    Thanks for listening. Your column brought back our trials and tribulations from last winter. We agree that the policy fine print means everything.


    Milan Korcok:

    This happens a lot with top-ups and illustrates why anyone topping up should always do so with the same company.

    CAA is perfectly right in denying the claim on pre-existing grounds. To them, this was a new policy and any condition that was unstable prior to the effective date of its coverage is deniable.

    The fact he bought his insurance a couple of months ahead, when he was healthy, makes no difference.

    The Manulife policy (like all others) states that if his health status changes prior to the effective date of insurance, he is obligated to tell the insurer and have his application re-evaluated as of that date.

    This prevents somebody buying six months ahead of time and expecting that if they arrive at death’s door before travel, they will still be covered.

    The key trigger is: What was the state of health before the effective date of coverage? And in this case, the effective date was Day 1 of the Manulife policy, not day 57 or whatever of the Mondial policy.

    Also, his comment that he initiated two claims — as if he might get double the coverage — is most naive. All insurers coordinate their coverages and usually shove off liability to the one that was the primary insurer — the one on the scene first.

    That’s why all Canadian insurers pay only what is left over after their provincial plan pays its share — which is bloody little.

  3. BC

    Dec 20 2009

    I am with Mondial and was expecting a move to insulin after
    13 years as a diabetic.

    I had my trip booked and called Mondial. I was told
    a change in medication does not mean that the condition is unstable and a doctor’s letter of support would be OK if I moved to insulin.

    When there is a change in your medical condition, your coverage is lost. But is this the case when there’s a change of medication?


    Milan Korcok:

    I would not take Mondial’s word on the change of medication. I would accept it only if the application was underwritten and the client had an endorsement from Mondial, stating that his coverage was issued in full knowledge that he was taking insulin.

    An insurer will do this if the client asks. If not, stay away.

    The background is this: Some policies may accept a change of medication if it is a change in type (brand vs. generic) or one brand to another — so long as the dosage is the same.

    Some will accept a change to a lesser dosage (though not all). They say a lesser dosage may open up the client to unknown risk.

    Policies are not uniform on this point, so it is essential for the client to go to the contract and read it carefully (Exclusions section).

    Most policies will cover diabetes that is non-insulin dependent and is controlled by other medication and diet and has been stable (meaning no change) for a given period.

    But once it becomes insulin dependent, that suggests more serious need for control and many insurers will consider that an unstable pre-existing condition. They will certainly hike the premium. Insulin dependent diabetes is a step up on the risk scale.

    That is why I do not believe Mondial on this point unless the client gets a written verification that his recent move to insulin is covered.

    As for a doctor’s letter, it may not hurt, but it won’t help if he runs a claim.

  4. LM

    Dec 20 2009

    I have an elderly friend (Bev),who went on a 15 day tour to Germany and Vienna this past September.

    On her 11th day there, while in Vienna, she was robbed of some money, travel documents and her passport. These items were inside her suitcase, which was in her hotel room.

    She was unable to find anyone at the hotel that could speak English fluently. The tour director got her an interpreter, whom she had to hire in order to get her passport replaced.

    She lost 2 days of being with the tour, as she and the interpreter had to travel to another city by train in order to get a temporary passport.

    She was insured by Trafalgar Protection Plan, which has paid her only the equivalent of one night’s stay at the hotel.

    She feels she should be reimbursed for the cost of the temporary passport (144 euros), as well as for the interpreter and the replacement of her passport. She has receipts for all the costs she incurred to get her passport replaced in time to leave the country on schedule.


    Milan Korcok:

    The Trafalgar Travel Protection plan is a tour-related product run by The Berkely Group, a US company. It’s benefits are low by Canadian standards, but I doubt Bev would have received more payback from anyone else.

    Baggage coverage is usually restricted to contents and there is a dollar (or euro) limit, so traipsing around Europe looking for a replacement passport would not be part of the deal, no matter what Bev thinks is fair.

    I also wonder about Bev’s wisdom in leaving her passport in her suitcase — the first thing to be searched by a hotel burglar. I think she got all she’s going to get.

  5. MS

    Dec 20 2009

    The U.S. is about to ease restrictions for people with HIV (like me) to visit there for vacations.

    I wonder about travel insurance for people with HIV to go to the U.S. or to my preferred destination, Australia.

    Say, for example, can a person with diabetes get travel insurance if their medical condition has been stable? Same question with HIV. What, if something changes (which can happen) when vacationing outside of Canada?

    What kind of coverage is available to get us back to Canada, or meet the costs incurred while in a hospital outside of Canada?


    Milan Korcok:

    All Canadian travel policies disqualify anyone who has AIDS or HIV. Bold face. Right at the top of the policy.

    Doesn’t matter what the US says about relaxing restrictions on HIV carriers.

    Personally, I think this is unfair and unwise, as HIV can be well managed these days and most people who are HIV carriers die of something else anyway.

    Insurers rationalize their decision by saying that HIV people are usually on a complicated regimen of medications that require constant monitoring and change, thereby falling into the “unstable” pre-existing condition category.

    But many are also quite stable, otherwise, for long periods of time and they constitute a big enough segment of the population to represent quite a market.

    As for diabetes: If there has been no change in medication, no treatment as insurers define treatment, and nothing other than glucose monitoring, they can get coverage from almost all insurers. They will pay more than non-diabetics though’

  6. IM

    Dec 20 2009

    I booked a trip for my wife and me to Aruba, scheduled to depart on March 22 of this year. The cost of the trip with all taxes was $3,480.

    I paid $2,400 with my TD Visa Infinite card and the balance (some $,1200) with my Air Miles points.

    My wife got severe stomach pains two days before the flight and we spent two days in the hospital. The TD Visa Infinite card carries trip cancellation insurance, so we filed a claim with all the medical documents when we had to cancel the trip (my wife was medically unfit to travel).

    Four weeks after the claim was submitted, TD notified us that our claim was denied because the full cost of the covered trip was not charged to a TD Visa Infinite card.

    We have made a couple of attempts to argue that this was small print and unfair, but to no avail.

    Of course, Air Miles did want to make a refund either, so we lost all of the $3,480.


    Milan Korcok:

    I have just been looking over the TD travel insurance plan (administered by World Travel Protection) and I think in this case the customer might have gotten his $2,400 back, but not his Air Miles.

    However, he chose to take the insurance offered by the TD credit card, which is not the same, and he lost out.

    That’s the difference between the credit card coverage and the dedicated travel insurance. Credit cards ain’t what they used to be, even those cards for which you pay $120 a year.

  7. Shannon

    Dec 22 2009

    MG, did your son bring a copy of his prescription with him? A 5 second Google search brought me to the Cuba Tourist Board website, GoCuba.ca, which states clearly that bringing narcotic drugs (and Percocet is a narcotic) is prohibited “except for those of personal use accompanied by the corresponding doctor prescription letter.”

  8. Ace82

    Dec 22 2009

    I am not in love with the airlines, especially Air Canada, but I don’t think MG has this one right. It is up to the traveller and not the airlines to understand the rules of the country to which they are travelling.

    If you don’t understand or don’t agree with the rules/laws of a country, then get clarification prior to visiting or find some other place to travel.

    Having 60 Percocet tablets in a bag could be enough reason to detain a person in Canada, let alone Cuba. There is no need to do any investigation prior to travel for a situation like this.

    Common sense should tell you to have documentation for even 1 narcotic tablet when you are travelling to any country. This not some obscure, rarely enforced law as it is clearly posted. It sounds like he’s lucky he wasn’t arrested.

    Perhaps the Canadian government may also be a good resource, but to put “responsibility” on the airlines is certainly not my recommendation.