Canadians yearning to travel abroad — despite the COVID-19 pandemic — can now get medical insurance to cover costs if they get sick with the coronavirus while travelling.
In March, when the virus began its global spread and Canada advised against non-essential travel abroad, travel insurance providers stopped selling COVID-19 medical coverage.
Now, several insurance providers have resumed offering the coverage along with their regular travel insurance plans.
Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing and travel agency Flight Centre have also joined in, offering free COVID-19 medical coverage to passengers booking certain international flights and vacation packages.
Travel insurance broker Martin Firestone said he’s surprised by the spate of offers — considering Canada’s advisory against international travel remains intact due to the ongoing pandemic.
“Your country is now currently under a Level 3 travel advisory, and you’ve got airlines enticing people with free medical coverage,” said Firestone with Travel Secure in Toronto.
“Whether you have coverage or not, you may be in a very precarious position with [available] hospital beds and treatment and the ability to be flown back to Canada.”
Many companies providing COVID-19 coverage told CBC News they’re responding to consumer demand.
“People are looking to travel,” said Richard Job, Flight Centre’s vice-president of commercial partnership. “They are able to travel if they want to, and we just want to enable that to take place as safely as we can.”
International travellers returning to Canada must self-isolate for 14 days.
Who’s offering coverage?
At least three insurance providers, Medipac, Tour+Med and Blue Cross (in Ontario and Quebec) now offer COVID-19 medical coverage as part of their regular travel insurance plans — or as a top-up.
Manulife announced this week it will start offering the coverage in October.
The plans vary. For example, not all providers cover daily expenses if an infected traveller is forced to quarantine abroad.
Each company said it offers medical coverage for all ailments, including COVID-19, for up to $5 million — with the exception of Manulife, which has capped COVID-19 coverage at $200,000.
Manulife declined to comment on the cap.
Airline industry offering free coverage
Flight Centre and the airlines are providing free coverage only for COVID-19 illnesses and related expenses, such as quarantine costs. The offers are available for a limited time — ranging from the next seven months to a year.
Customers booking vacation packages with Flight Centre, Air Canada Vacations and WestJet to select destinations — which exclude the United States — are covered for up to $100,000 in medical bills. WestJet provides the same coverage for international flights, excluding the U.S.
Sunwing will cover up to $200,000 in COVID-19 medical expenses for passengers booking any of its vacation packages and flights departing on or after Oct. 16. Air Canada (which is separate from Air Canada Vacations) currently provides the same $200,000 coverage for customers purchasing international fights, including to the U.S.
Although the Canada-U.S. land border is closed to non-essential traffic, Canadians can still fly to the U.S.
Firestone questions if $200,000 would be enough to cover a severe case of COVID-19 in the U.S., where medical costs can run high.
“What if the bill is $500,000?” he said. “Then it becomes your problem.”
Manulife, which is partnering with Air Canada to provide the coverage, declined to comment.
Air Canada said that passengers wanting extra protection can consider purchasing an extensive travel insurance plan.
What about snowbirds?
Medipac’s main customers are snowbirds heading to the southern U.S. where the COVID-19 infection rate remains high. But the insurance provider said it’s confident it won’t be bombarded with COVID-19 claims, because Medipac’s clientele will likely play it safe.
“The people that we’re tailoring our product to are going to do what they’ve always done, travel down as a couple, go to their winter residence,” said Medipac spokesperson Christopher Davidge.
“We’re not talking about cramming into a discount airline … and staying at a resort hotel and going to a theme park.”
Snowbird Perry Cohen said he and his wife, Rose, plan to take all necessary precautions when they likely head to their condo this winter in Deerfield Beach, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale.
“Our community is pretty safe,” said Cohen, who lives in Toronto. “We’re not going to look for large crowds. We’re not running to the bars and the restaurants.”
Even so, Cohen said COVID-19 coverage is a game changer because he and his wife would never consider heading south if they couldn’t purchase it.
“Why take the risk?” he said. “I like a complete package to know I’m looked after.”
Cases ‘going up again’
But not all eager travellers will be swayed by COVID-19 coverage.
Avid international traveller Suzanne Chojnacki said she and her husband will stay put for now because they still have many concerns — such as getting stuck abroad if the country they’re visiting suddenly closes its borders.
“The [COVID-19 case] numbers are going up again,” said Chojnacki who lives in Richmond Hill, Ont. “So it’s really not a good time to think about going away — for us.”
Current plans offering travellers COVID-19 coverage don’t include compensation if a customer cancels a trip due to the pandemic. Firestone said that’s because cancellation insurance typically covers unexpected mishaps, not a “known” issue such as the coronavirus.
“It’s just so known, it’s not even funny.”