The Perilous Search for the Best Travel Insurance for Canadians
Kim and I are really looking forward to heading to South Africa this winter aside from one job we’ve been dreading:
Finding travel insurance.
But since we travel so much, I finally decided to suck it up and do a deep dive into how to truly find the best travel insurance for Canadians.
And man did it suck.
The policies are insanely complicated, I couldn’t trust any affiliate-commission-hungry blogs, and there is no site where I can easily compare all possible policies.
So I went old-school.
I called up leaders in the travel insurance industry and asked them for the off-the-record advice they give to their best friends and children. They very generously obliged. (Thanks guys!)
I then combined their input with dozens of hours of my own research and comparisons to condense it into eight (relatively) simple steps to finding the best travel insurance for Canadians.
Then, at last, I made my choice.
Thanks to all this hard work, I’m confident I bought the right policy for Kim and I and I’m happy to have saved us a couple hundred bucks doing so.
If you follow these steps to finding the best travel insurance, you can do the same.
How to Find the Best Travel Insurance for Canadians:
Our Travel Insurance Choice
What We Chose and Why
The best travel insurance for Kim and I ended up being a combo.
For the first 31 days of our trip, we’re using my credit card insurance.
Then, for the remaining 192 days, we’re covering our asses (and the rest of our bodies) with Merit Travel Budget Plan D.
What may surprise you, and definitely surprise people who know me and make fun of my short arms as deep pockets, is that Merit wasn’t the cheapest option.
As you’ll see in my mega comparison spreadsheet below Azimuth, IMG, and Trawick—all of which we found through Squaremouth.com—were cheaper, but we weren’t comfortable with their low maximums. And they were no longer cheaper at higher maximums.
Merit’s $1 million maximum is plenty enough to ensure we’re covered no matter what, as I explain in Step 4 below. And, at $1.50 a day per person, the price was right. It’s extra cheap because it doesn’t include trip cancellation or interruption and baggage loss protection, which our credit card already covers.
The only downside of the Merit package is its zero deductible. As I’ll explain below, we’d take a higher deductible and save money on the policy, but it wasn’t an option with them.
Merit may not be the best travel insurance choice for you though.
Follow these 8 simple steps to find out, save money, and save your ass in case something goes wrong.
8 Steps to Finding the Best Travel Insurance
Step 0: Don’t jump straight into shopping
Buying travel insurance is like buying a used car.
Don’t dive right in and naively buy the first “deal” you find. If you do, you’re likely to pay way more than you should for a lemon you can’t make lemonade with.
Step 1: Check that you’re not an exception
✦ Are you covered by provincial health care?
Getting covered by provincial health care should be your first priority.
The bad news is provincial health care coverage barely covers you when abroad. At most, it’ll cover only $75 of the thousands of dollars of the daily emergency care costs you can expect to incur if you have an accident.
The good news is it makes your travel insurance substantially cheaper. This is because your travel insurer can, when appropriate, save on foreign medical costs by bringing you home to get treated.
✦ Are you traveling for more than 6 months?
If you’re traveling for more than 6 months, call your provincial health care provider to ensure you can still be covered. You may not be, in which case you’ll need to look for expat insurance, which isn’t covered in this guide.
- New Brunswick
- Newfoundland and Labrador
- North West Territories
- Nova Scotia
- Prince Edward Island
✦ Have you already left Canada?
Most travel insurers won’t sell you a package after you’ve left.
But not all.
SafetyWing, a fancy new startup that’s going to “disrupt” the travel insurance industry doesn’t care where you are or where you’re from.
They just want your money. And not too much of it either! Their base rate of $37 USD every 4 weeks is very reasonable for the coverage and flexibility they provide.
Read How to Find the Best Travel Insurance if You’re Already Traveling for more tips.
✦ Are you over 65 years old?
If so (be honest)…
The bad news is many travel insurance policies won’t cover you. There are still plenty options out there but you’ll have to look harder, apply harder (you’ll likely have to go the extra step of filling a medical questionnaire), and the cost will be a harder pill to swallow.
On the bright side, you might get senior discounts wherever you’re going!
Step 2: Determine if there’s anything wrong with you
✦ Are you 100% sure you’re 100% healthy?
Don’t skip this point unless you’re 110% certain.
Every travel insurance form will ask you if you have any pre-existing medical conditions. This seems like an easy question but, for some reason, way too many of us answer it wrong.
One exec I interviewed told me they found that 14% of people who bought travel insurance did not accurately report their pre-existing medical conditions.
That’s a very bad idea.
It’s fraud, even if it was an honest mistake. Your policy becomes void, the insurer keeps your money, and they have no obligation to cover you, so think carefully and be 100% transparent about your pre-existing medical conditions when buying travel insurance.
And, when in doubt, call the insurer.
✦ Do you likely have a pre-existing medical condition?
If you have a pre-existing condition, be extra careful to see whether or not it meets your travel insurer’s definition of “stable.”
✧ Has your condition has been stable for 90 days or more?
Most basic Canadian travel insurance plans will cover you. Continue with the following tips, but keep these extra things in mind:
- Call the insurer before you purchase. Clarify your condition to them, ensure your definition of “stable” is the same as theirs, and get them to confirm to you, in writing, that you will be covered.
- If your condition destabilizes after you purchase your travel insurance but before you leave on your trip, call your insurer to ensure you’re still covered or update your policy.
✧ Do you have an on-going medical condition (including pregnancy)?
If you’re pregnant or have another on-going medical condition, you will likely need a special travel insurance plan.
The rest of our tips for finding the best travel insurance still apply to you, but:
- You’ll need to look a bit harder to find the right policy.
- No matter what, call the insurer before you purchase to be 100% sure you will be covered. Get them to confirm to you in writing.
Step 3: Asses how risky your trip will be
If you’re just planning to sit on a beach, visit museums, or eat all day in “safe” countries, skip ahead to Step 4.
✦ Are you going somewhere the Canadian government maybe doesn’t want you to go?
If Trudeau advises you against going to a certain location, most insurance companies won’t cover you and you’ll have to look for special risk insurance.
✦ The United States is Risky?!?
Maybe not to you, but it is to your insurer.
Medical costs are so high in the US that most travel insurers charge higher rates for people traveling there.
If you’re not going to the US, make sure you get a rate for trips outside the US.
✦ Do you know what’s considered a “high-risk activity”?
The low-risk bet is to read this to make sure:
If your mom would be nervous to watch you do it, travel insurance companies will almost certainly agree it’s a high-risk activity and make you pay more to be covered for doing it.
Here’s the definition from one policy. I’ve bolded my favorite activities:
Adventure and/or extreme sports activities such as, but not limited to: abseiling, white water rafting, black water rafting, bouldering, bungee jumping, canopy, canyoning, caving, diving, fell-running, glacier crossing, hot- dogging, hydro-speeding, jet boating, jet-skiing, kamikaze, kite- surfing, kloofing, micro-lighting, mountain climbing, mountain- boarding, parachuting (other than to save your life), paragliding, parasailing, para-motoring, parascending, parkour, potholing, river-boarding, rock-climbing, scrambling, shark cage diving, shotover jet, trekking, via ferrata, zip climbing, zip wiring, skiing off-piste, ski-kiting; scuba diving (unless you hold a SCUBA designation from a certified school or a PADI, NAUI or SSI certification) or hang-gliding.
Who else is eager to try some kamikaze hot-dogging next trip?
✦ Are you only going to do a high-risk activity once or twice?
If there’s a chance…
You might be able to save money by looking for insurance for just those specific occasions instead of getting a policy that covers you for your entire trip. Your tour operator might provide insurance, or you can call your insurer to see about extending your basic travel insurance.
✦ Are you planning on frequently engaging in a high-risk activity or playing a professional sport?
It’ll cost you more, but finding travel insurance to cover you won’t be too difficult.
Most sites that provide travel insurance quotes will ask you if you plan on engaging in high-risk activity in their forms. And if they don’t ask, it’s not covered.
Whatever travel insurance plan you settle on, before you buy it, read the policy’s exclusions section very carefully to make sure your activity isn’t there. If you’re even the slightest bit unsure, call the insurer.
Step 4: Decide what you need and don’t need
Protect yourself from getting upsold on expensive extra coverages you don’t need by deciding what you want and, just as importantly, what you don’t want before you start shopping around.
✦ Do you really want zero deductible?
The deductible is the part you have to pay if an accident happens during your trip and you file a claim.
Obviously, you’d prefer to not have to pay a deductible—getting hurt sucks enough without there being a bill that comes along with it—but you pay a premium for avoiding one.
And you save by having one.
For example, I’ve taken about 20 trips. Each time, I saved about $100 on travel insurance by agreeing to a $500 deductible. Lucky for me, I’ve been injury free, so I’ve saved $2,000 that way. Even if I get hurt the next four trips in a row, I’d still be ahead (…fiscally, but maybe not physically).
Every insurance insider I interviewed told me they recommend their friends and family take the highest deductible they can comfortably afford.
And if you can afford to travel, you can afford a deductible too.
✦ Can you save with a multi-trip policy?
If you travel multiple times a year…
It can sometimes be cheaper to get a multi-trip policy. Get a quote or two to compare.
But don’t get too excited.
Multi-trip policies are the travel insurance version of the giant ketchup bottles from Costco. They suck you in with the promise of bulk savings but end up being more than what most people need and going to waste.
First, consider whether your credit card (see: Step 5) will cover you on some or most of your shorter trips.
If so, and you have only one long trip, a single trip policy is probably best for you. Otherwise, a multi-trip travel insurance policy might be your best bet.
For snowbirds and others who expect to go for one long trip and a bunch of shorter ones here’s one trick to consider that can save you money:
Get a shorter multi-trip plan, which will cover you for the first X number of days of each trip you go on. Then, for any trip longer than those X days you’re covered, buy a top-up.
✦ Do you want a refund and/or new trip home if something goes wrong?
Before you pay extra for this protection…
Trip cancellation and trip interruption insurance reimburses your otherwise non-refundable costs and gets you new tickets if something goes wrong during your trip.
Examples of “go wrong” are having to cut your trip short for a medical situation in yourself or someone in your immediate family back home, missed connections that cause you to miss tours, or urgent work-related crises back home.
Often, your credit card will cover a good chunk of this. For example, my credit card travel insurance reimburses up to $2,000 per person (and max $5,000 per trip) plus the cost to change flights or buy new ones.
If you want to be covered for larger amounts, ask to top off what you have already instead of wasting money on buying something you already have…
…But we advise against doing so.
Our recommendation is the same as for deductibles. You can afford to swallow the “loss” if something bad happens (if not, why’d you pay it the first place?), so be optimistic that your trip will go smoothly. Odds are it’ll save you a bunch of money in the long run.
✦ Is there a difference between $1 million, $5 million, and $10 million?
In real life, there is definitely a difference between $1 million and $10 million.
But, when it comes to travel insurance, there isn’t.
The companies that sell travel insurance for Canadians want to you to get the best possible medical care but at the lowest cost possible. This often means getting you back to Canada, where we have an excellent medical system (good for you!) and the government pays the cost (good for the insurer!).
The huge expense here is the emergency flight home.
But it’s not $10 million dollars huge. They don’t need to buy you a jet, just charter one.
At the very most, as one insider told me, a private patient transport from one far corner of the world back to Canada will cost $350,000, so as long as you’re covered up to $500,000 you will be fine.
Step 5: Max out your credit card (…’s benefits)
Before I got into my research, I suspected there had to be a catch with credit card travel insurance.
For any trip length up to a month, you can possibly get all the travel insurance you need for $0 by using your credit card.
Even the execs I interviewed admitted that the travel insurance provided by Canadian credit cards has gotten a lot better recently and is now quite competitive, so every smart traveler should take maximum advantage of it.
Be very careful, though.
First, understand what credit card travel insurance does and doesn’t cover. Then, consider getting a new card for maximum savings and coverage.
✦ Do you know what your current credit card covers?
Here’s what to look for:
Find yourself a copy of your credit card’s travel insurance policy (the banks make them frustratingly hard to find on their sites) and scan through it.
Pay extra attention to the following:
- How much you have to pay with your card to be covered. My HSBC card, for example, requires I pay for at least 75% of my flight, hotels, and tours with it to be covered. Some require 100%.
- The number of days you’re covered. This can be anywhere from three days to a month. If you’re traveling for longer than what your credit card covers, save money buy only paying for a separate travel insurance plan that only covers the days your card doesn’t.
- Age restrictions. Most cards don’t cover you if you’re over 65, or severely limit the coverage. Some restrictions are as low as 55.
- Pre-existing conditions. Credit cards are often much more restrictive on this.
- Who’s covered. See if the card covers just you or your spouse and family too.
- Maximum number of trips a year. Some cards limit this to one or two.
✦ Are you interested in getting a new credit card for even better insurance?
You probably should be…
If you’re like me, you didn’t pick your current credit card it for its travel insurance benefits.
You got it for the cash back benefits or simply because it’s the one your bank gave you. So it may not provide you with the best travel insurance coverage, if any at all.
Ideally, you can get a card with good travel insurance and zero annual fee, but there aren’t many. Here’s what I found:
- First, check with your bank to see if they waive the fee on a travel insurance credit card for account holders.
- The Rogers World Elite Mastercard is free and offers 31 days coverage, but you must have an annual income of $80,000 personally or $150,000 in your household.
- The Scotiabank Amex is the only Canadian credit card I’ve found for which you don’t need to have a bank account with them and still get travel insurance with no annual fee and no minimum income requirement. It covers 8 days of travel.
Check out this forum for reliable updates on other cards. Don’t trust the information on CreditCardGenius.ca, GreedyRates.ca, and HowtoSaveMoney.ca. I just wasted over an hour investigating their lists of “best travel credit cards.” The travel insurance information they claim each card has was entirely incorrect.
✦ And while you’re looking at credit cards…
Check out my research on the best Canadian credit card to use when traveling abroad.
For these cards, the focus is saving on foreign exchange fees and earning maximum cash back, but the one I chose still gives me a very solid 31 days of insurance.
Step 6: See what else you can get for free
In addition to insurance from your credit card, there’s a decent chance your employer or homeowners/renters insurance already provides some coverage for you.
✦ Does your employer cover you?
If, unlike us, you have a real job…
Ask, just in case.
Even your work doesn’t cover you with personal travel insurance, it may be worth asking if you can add it on top of whatever insurance they already provide. This can be cheaper than getting insured by another company.
✦ Do you have renters or homeowners insurance?
Your renters or homeowners insurance policies won’t provide you with travel medical insurance, but they may cover your luggage in case of loss or theft during your trip.
Tip: Double-check the deductible because sometimes it can higher than the value of your luggage itself, which makes the insurance useless. If you prefer to get rid of the deductible, it may be cheaper to pay a bigger premium to reduce your deductible than to buy separate coverage for your trip.
Step 7: Start shopping for your travel insurance plan
Now that you know exactly what you need (and don’t need), it’s time to start shopping.
You’ll have to shop around because there is no single site that consolidates every offer on the market. It’s time-consuming but the more quotes you get, the better your odds of finding the absolute best travel insurance policy.
Here are some tips and things to consider:
✦ If Traveling With Others, Buy Travel Insurance With Others
Be on the lookout for companion discounts and family rates. Better yet, ask for them.
✦ Don’t Bank on Banks
All the big Canadian banks offer travel insurance and they’re all overpriced. As one insider told me, they build their business on tradition. People are used to going to their bank for travel insurance instead of shopping around, and banks are happy to take advantage.
On the bright side, the policies the banks offer are comprehensive. For simplicity, they have broad packages that cover everything. But you probably don’t need everything, so you’re paying more than you need to for that simplicity.
✦ Go for Broke(rs)?
Insurance brokers can, but mostly can’t, help you.
The experts I interviewed all said travel insurance brokers are great… but only if you can find a good one.
A good broker will ask you all the right questions, deal with all the complexities of travel insurance for you, know every option out there, be on your side in case of emergency, and find you the cheapest and best policy possible.
Unfortunately, the insiders couldn’t recommend a single broker who meets these criteria. I couldn’t find one either.
Most brokers don’t specialize in travel insurance and only quote you on one or two alternatives from companies they work with. That’s not helpful.
But if you manage to find a perfect broker, congrats. Please share their contact with me so I can spread the word.
✦ Have Your Travel Agent Stick to What They Know Best
Buy travel, but not travel insurance, from travel agents.
Your travel agent may be the best at finding you great deals on flights, tours, hotels, cruises and more, but they’re almost certainly not the best at finding you travel insurance.
Most likely, your travel agent offers the same travel insurance product to all customers. And, almost certainly, this one-size-fits-all policy isn’t the best fit for you or your budget.
The same applies for your favorite online travel booking website.
✦ You Gotta be (No-)Mad
Be skeptical of bloggers’ recommendations.
Always question whether bloggers’ recommendations for the “best travel insurance” are in your best interests or in theirs.
It’s probably the latter.
This is a big reason why you’ll notice the travel insurance most bloggers recommend is World Nomads. World Nomads has the best and most generous commission program.
Their travel insurance, on the other hand, may not be the best. It’s flexible and has tons of bells and whistles, but you pay a premium for it.
SafetyWing is the new blogger’s favorite travel insurance company and…
It’s actually worth considering. With a base flat rate of $37 US per 4 weeks, it’s not much more expensive than the Merit plan we got and you can buy it even if you’ve already left.
What to watch out for with sites that compare multiple travel insurance plans.
Aggregators, sites that get you quotes from multiple different companies at once, can save you some time and their prices are indeed the same as you get if you go to the individual insurance companies (I checked), but they are far from comprehensive.
For example, when I searched on Kanetix.ca, I only got quotes from three companies: Tugo, Allianz, and Ingle. Kanetix also over-simplifies the policies to try to push you towards buying a plan quickly instead of smartly.
Another aggregator, SquareMouth, has a better selection and some less-expensive options. But they might be too cheap. The prices look great, but the $50,000 max they try to sell you defeats the purpose of travel insurance: to protect you from catastrophic expenses that come with a catastrophic injury. You can increase the max to $500,000, but then the cost becomes similar or higher than that of other Canadian policies, especially keeping in mind that Squaremouth’s prices are in US dollars.
Long story short, I, and the experts I interviewed recommend you use aggregators in your search for the best travel insurance. Just use them wisely.
Which leads us to the best approach to finding the best travel insurance for Canadians…
Best Least Bad Approach to finding the best travel insurance for Canadians
This approach to picking the best travel insurance for Canadians is far from ideal, but it’s really the only way to ensure you get the lowest possible price while still being fully covered.
- Go through the previous six steps of this guide to know exactly what you’re looking for. There are no shortcuts.
- Click here to get a copy of the mega policy comparison I made (see below).
- Look through the “Example Full” sheet, which has the info from my own search. Pick out 5-10 policies that might have what you’re looking for.
- If you have special circumstances, you might have to do a Google search for other travel insurers to add to the list.
- For the companies you picked, click the links in column A of every row to go to their websites and get quotes for your trip.
- Fill out the “Empty Template” tab with as many quotes as you have time to get.
- Pick the plan that looks best to you then continue on the final step, Step 8.
Step 8: Read the Policy and Call Before Buying
Before buying your travel insurance, read through the policy details then call the company to confirm your understanding. Ask as many questions as you can think of.
It doesn’t hurt to ask, but it might really hurt you (and your wallet) if you don’t.
✦ What else to look to for in your policy?
In addition to what we’ve covered in the previous steps, here’s what to look for when reading through a policy:
- Does it cover your province of residence?
- What are the exclusions? Alcohol, scooter rental, natural disasters, etc.
- Do they have a 24/7 emergency hotline with someone who speaks the language of the country you’re visiting?
- If you’re unsure how long you’ll be traveling, does it allow you to extend while you’re on your trip?
- If you’re traveling by yourself, how much allowance does it provide to bring a companion from home to your bedside?
- Does your insurer pay your expenses up front, or do you have to pay them all and they’ll reimburse you?
✦ Don’t be too paranoid
Why you can trust your travel insurance company.
Every expert I spoke to was adamant that Canadian travel insurance is among the best in the world, regardless of which company you decide on.
There are strict regulations that protect consumers and the government works closely with travel insurance companies to ensure its citizens are protected. They pay out 97% of claims, and those that aren’t are because people took shortcuts on one or more of the steps outlined above.
If you’re honest and do your due diligence, you can rest assured you’ll be in good hands if something bad happens.
Tools and Tips
Mega Policy Comparison
As I mentioned in the intro, I dove deep into my search for the best travel insurance policy. This spreadsheet is proof.
I went to almost thirty travel insurance websites to get quotes for our trip, downloaded the policy terms, read the details, then summarized my findings in this spreadsheet. Click here to open up a copy.
But you don’t have to do the same as me!
At least not to the same extent.
One Final Tip
Carry your insurance contact on you.
If an accident happens, you need to contact your insurer ASAP so they can guide you to the appropriate medical care. Some insurers work with preferred hospitals, so if you go to one that’s not on their list (especially in the U.S.) you may be liable for 20% or more of the medical fees.
Depending on your accident, you may not be able to communicate with anyone. In that case, your caretaker will need to know who to talk to. Keep a card for your insurer in your wallet so they can find that contact fast.
Hopefully, all the time you spent on finding the best travel insurance and the money you paid for your coverage is completely wasted because you have zero problems on your trip.
If you have any questions or concerns, please let us know in the comments below.