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COVID-19 travel insurance: costs, coverage and the fine print

Click to play video: 'AMA Travel: Keeping insurance in mind when booking 2022 vacations'
AMA Travel: Keeping insurance in mind when booking 2022 vacations
Roland van Meurs with AMA Travel stresses the importance of travel insurance as people look to the possibility of vacationing in 2022. (Sponsored by AMA) – Nov 5, 2021

The federal government has lifted its blanket advisory against all non-essential travel. The U.S. land border is once again open and growing numbers of Canadians are ready to travel.

While bookings aren’t expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until sometime well into 2022 or even 2023, travel agents are receiving a growing number of inquiries, especially from clients eyeing sunny getaways in February or March of next year, says Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA).

Read more: Pricey COVID-19 test awaits travellers as lanes open Monday at Canada-U.S. land border

But for every trip they’re helping to plan, travel agents these days are having an average of seven to eight calls with clients, twice the number they’d normally field before COVID-19, according to Paradis. The number one question, she says, is about travel insurance.

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The good news is that COVID-19 coverage is no longer hard to find. More than half of travel insurance providers in Canada now offer options to protect yourself in case of medical emergencies or trip disruptions linked to the virus, estimates Will McAleer, executive director of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada (THIA).

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Everything Canadian snowbirds need to know this year

And the pandemic hasn’t had much of an impact on travel insurance costs, he adds.

“If you’re vaccinated, most plans aren’t going to charge you extra to receive coverage for COVID-19,” he says.

For example, Medipac Travel Insurance, which is endorsed by the Canadian Snowbird Association, said most of the rate adjustments it has made over the past couple of years reflect medical inflation and aren’t directly related to the pandemic.

Read more: Canada looking ‘quite carefully’ at PCR testing rules as U.S. land border reopens

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Still, the tricky part is ensuring you have the coverage you need, Paradis says.

“Not all travel policies are created equal,” she warns. “If there’s any time that you’re going to read the fine print in your insurance policy, now’s the time.”

If you’re ready to pack your bags, here are a few things to know.

If you get sick just before leaving

If you’re getting ready to board an international flight, chances are, you’ll have to take a COVID-19 test. What happens if you test positive?

That’s when trip cancellation and interruption insurance comes into play, McAleer says. This kind of coverage, which helps you recover some expenses if your travel plans are derailed, usually kicks in from the time you purchase the policy, not your departure date, he notes.

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That’s why it’s a good idea to get coverage as soon as you’ve made your booking, he adds.

Keep in mind, though, that some COVID-19 plans only cover medical emergencies and not trip cancellation and interruption. Global News also reviewed plans that offer coverage for trip interruptions after the departure date but not disruptions that occur prior to the start of the trip.

Click to play video: 'Land border with USA opening, what Canadian travellers need to know'
Land border with USA opening, what Canadian travellers need to know

How much coverage do you need for a COVID-19 related medical emergency?

If you’re considering an all-inclusive deal, you may find that some COVID-19 insurance coverage comes standard with your booking.

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Several large resorts and vacation packages promise peace of mind with complimentary coverage that often includes emergency medical costs, trip interruption coverage and even quarantine expenses. Some of the plans reviewed by Global News, though, have maximum coverage of $100,000 or $200,000.

Read more: Canadians crossing U.S. land border met with lineups spanning several kilometres

Standalone travel insurance policies, by contrast, cap coverage at $2 million, $5 million or $10 million, according to McAleer.

“While that number seems high, that will just provide you peace of mind,” he says.

The average cost of COVID-19 hospital stays that require ICU beds or access to ventilators tops $400,000 in some U.S. states, according to research from Fair Health, an independent non-profit organization.

If you need to quarantine and extend your stay

Another detail to watch for: does your policy include quarantine costs?

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Travellers need a negative COVID-19 test to enter Canada, so if you test positive before your return home, you may have to wait out the virus in a hotel, short-term rental or government facility.

The real must-have when it comes to COVID-19 insurance is coverage for emergency medical expenses, McAleer says. But a policy that will also foot part of the bill for the expenses of an unexpected quarantine stay is a nice-to-have, he adds.

Read more: Sunwing cancels flights, travelers left without holiday packages

Typically, your insurer will chip in up to a maximum amount per day to help pay for costs like an extra-long stay until you’re cleared to go back home.

If it’s any comfort, many resorts and large hotels will let you quarantine on their premises, says Richard Vanderlubbe, president at Tripcentral.ca.

“They’re nowhere close to running full occupancy. So they have empty rooms and they just created sort of a wing,” he says.

Still, in the Caribbean, the positive test rate among tourists has been extremely low so far, he adds.

Click to play video: 'Budgeting for tests and travel insurance'
Budgeting for tests and travel insurance

Who pays for PCR tests?

One cost you’ll likely be saddled with is that of molecular polymerase chain reaction tests, or PCR tests. Right now, anyone travelling to Canada by air or arriving by car, bus, boat, ferry, or train from the U.S. must show a negative molecular test taken within 72 hours of boarding or arrival at the border.

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The cost of the test can easily reach $200 per person, according to Paradis.

“For a family of four, you’re looking at quite a considerable cost added to the trip,” she says.

Travel insurance, however, is meant for unforeseen expenses and won’t cover those routine costs.

Still, in an effort to make vacationing during COVID-19 as painless as possible, several resorts say they now offer molecular tests administered by medical professionals free of charge or at a reduced cost.

Read more: False positive COVID-19 test halts B.C. man’s Vegas vacation

'Cancel for any reason' coverage is coming back

Even without a formal travel advisory, you may decide to cancel your trip before it starts. What would happen if you decided to pull the plug on an expensive vacation because COVID-19 counts in Canada or your destination country have risen beyond your comfort level?

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This is a scenario in which so-called cancel for any reason (CFAR) coverage comes in handy. That’s the only kind of policy that will let you backtrack on your travel plans simply because you’re worried.

CFAR policies are coming back onto the market in Canada after virtually disappearing earlier in the pandemic, says McAleer, but they’re no panacea. They typically come at a price premium and will only cover a portion of any non-refundable costs, he warns.

In general, if you’re arranging your next trip, you may want to consider getting trip cancellation and interruption insurance as well as signing up for whatever flexible travel options are on offer, Vanderlubbe says.

“We’re recommending that people consider buying both,” he says.

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