What is travel insurance? A detailed guide

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Have you ever wondered what is travel insurance and how does it work? Ever since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, travel insurance has been getting a lot of attention. In the past, many people would travel without travel insurance (or didn’t know about it), but these days, it’s highly unlikely anyone would consider flying without the right coverage.

Travel insurance, often referred to as trip insurance, covers you for unexpected events (such as a hurricane) when you’re travelling (or about to travel). What some people don’t realize is that travel insurance isn’t just for your health. A comprehensive travel insurance package will cover you for other things, including if your luggage is lost, if you need to return home due to an emergency, and more. Trip insurance could even cover you if you fall while hiking and need a helicopter to take you to a hospital.

To be clear, it doesn’t matter if you’re travelling overseas, taking a cruise, or crossing the border for some last-minute shopping. Having travel insurance is a must.

The benefits of travel insurance are obvious, and the cost is relatively low. Yet, many people don’t bother getting it for one reason or another. Travelling without insurance is a huge risk that’s just not worth taking (unless you like paying things out of your own pockets). Here’s everything you need to know about what is travel insurance.

What is travel insurance

What does travel insurance cover?

The first thing to understand is that travel insurance plans covers many different things. There can easily be about ten different things that fall under travel insurance, but not every policy covers everything. The more coverage you get, the more it’ll cost you, but overall, trip insurance does not cost that much. Here are the types of travel insurance you need to know about.

Travel medical

Travel medical emergency insurance is an absolute must-have when travelling since it covers the basics, such as a visit to the doctor or hospital for an illness or sickness. It also covers emergency services such as ambulance rides and emergency evacuations. Never travel without travel medical coverage since medical expenses can add up fast. Note that your provincial health insurance does not cover you for much when you travel outside of Canada.

Trip cancellation/interruption (trip delay)

Unfortunately, sometimes things happen that leave us with no choice but to cancel our travel plans. Assuming it’s for a qualifying reason (such as jury duty), trip cancellation insurance will reimburse your travel costs. To clarify, trip cancellation coverage refers to before you depart, while interruption applies if you need to end your trip early. With trip interruption coverage, you can get some money back if you need to return home due to a qualifying reason.

Flight delay

If your flight is delayed, you’ll usually get up to a certain amount to spend on things to keep you comfortable. For example, if your travel delay was for 4 hours, you could get up to $1,000 to spend on food, hotels, and even entertainment.

Baggage insurance

Delayed baggage insurance is often overlooked, but you’ll be glad you have it if yours is ever delayed, lost, or stolen. Every policy is different, but if your luggage is delayed for a certain amount of time (usually 4-6 hours), you’ll qualify for a set amount of money that you can use to make purchases. Baggage loss is one of the most frustrating things. That’s why you need to have insurance.

Rental car 

If you rent a car, you’re going to need insurance. Many travel insurance policies or even your regular auto insurance policy already include this coverage. Be aware that to qualify for this insurance, you usually need to decline the optional insurance that the rental car company offers.

Hotel/motel burglary 

This one is pretty straightforward. If your personal belongings are stolen from your hotel, you’ll be entitled to make a claim if you’re insured. Keep in mind that your regular home insurance often covers any lost or stolen personal items while you travel.

Accidental death & dismemberment

AD&D (sometimes known as travel accident) gives you (or your next of kin) a set amount if you lose one of your limbs or pass away while travelling. Obviously, this is something you would prefer not to make a claim on.

What does travel insurance coverage not cover?

Every travel insurance policy is different, so don’t assume you’re covered for all of the above when purchasing a plan. There are always exclusions and restrictions. You’ll need to read the formal paperwork so you’ll know exactly what you’re covered for. There are also limits to how much you can claim. For example, trip cancellation might only cover up to $10,000 in total. Or, lost luggage is only good, up to $500 per person. In other words, it’s possible that travel insurance won’t cover your trip.

Keep in mind that having a policy doesn’t guarantee you coverage. For example, most travel insurance policies are void if you travel to a country with a travel advisory from the Canadian government, such as Afghanistan. It may also not cover you if you do something extreme such as bungee jumping or skydiving.

It’s also worth noting that if you’re relying on credit card travel insurance, it usually has strict conditions such as the length of the travel, the age of passengers, and what you’re entitled to. You may also have to charge a certain amount of your trip expenses to your card to be insured. For example, some credit cards require you to charge 100% of your trip expenses for your policy to be valid. Again, always read the paperwork so you know what you’re entitled to.

Other things that may not be covered include the following:

  • Pre-existing medical conditions
  • Travel assistance services that have a fee
  • Amounts paid out by refund policies
  • Exotic vehicles and trucks
  • Coronavirus (depends on the insurance provider)
  • Any extended family member (brother, parents)
  • Acts of war or terrorism

Evaluating your needs

At the very least, you need to have travel medical insurance whenever you travel. Basically, if you ever leave your home province, travel insurance is a must. Your provincial healthcare will cover you for some basic medical attention, but only up to the amount that’s approved in your home province. It won’t cover any emergency services, so if you need a helicopter medical evacuation, you’re out of luck.

Even if you’re going to the U.S. for a weekend trip or a day trip for shopping, you’ll need proper insurance. A trip to the doctor will easily cost you $100. If you need more serious medical attention, you could end up spending thousands.

Trip Cancellation/Interruption is technically optional, but it’s something I prefer to have. With most policies, if you’re delayed for 4 hours, you’ll be entitled to a hotel and possibly some spending money. As weird as it sounds, insurance companies are a lot easier to deal with than airlines when there are delays, so I prefer to have peace of mind.

Baggage insurance is another optional insurance that is often hotly debated. Technically speaking, your home insurance covers any valuables that are damaged or lost in your luggage, but that doesn’t help you at the moment. I personally like having baggage insurance since it’s pretty cheap, but I can see why some people would not bother with it.

Can I cancel for any reason?

In most cases, travel insurance can only be claimed when you meet specific conditions. Let’s say you’re set to travel in a week, but you’re suddenly laid off. Most travel insurance policies would allow you to cancel your trip and get your money back (up to the limits outlined in your policy). Now let’s say a day before the trip, you’re just feeling nervous and don’t want to go. You couldn’t just cancel your trip and expect all your money back.

That said, there are cancel for any reason (CFAR) policies available from some insurance providers. They’re rare, and they often cost 50% – 75% of your trip cost. For most people, if you can afford the cost of a CFAR policy, you can likely afford to lose the entire cost of your trip.

Even if you need to cancel your trip and your trip insurance won’t cover you, you may not be completely out of luck. Many airlines will give you a credit, and some hotels don’t charge you until you arrive. You might have to pay some cancellation fees, but it’s unlikely you’d lose everything.

COVID-19 Travel insurance

COVID-19 travel insurance is something that’s still not very common. Not many insurance providers are covering COVID-19. That said, some airlines and hotels have their own insurance policies that would cover you. Of course, this policy only applies when flying specific airlines or staying at specific hotels.

Eventually, the world will be vaccinated, but I wouldn’t be surprised if COVID-19 is not included in future policies. I’m guessing many insurance providers would expect people to get the vaccine, but some people may not get it before they have to travel.

How much does travel insurance cost?

Generally speaking, travel medical insurance only costs a few dollars a day. If you want a comprehensive package that covers all the extras, such as trip cancellation and lost luggage, it’ll cost you a bit more. Keep in mind that your age and medical history could affect the cost.

Instead of buying travel insurance for a single trip, you can just buy an annual multi-trip insurance plan. The cost is about the same as buying two 14-day insurance plans, so if you travel a lot, it could be of good value. Generally speaking, the premiums for a yearly plan will cost you less than $200. You should always shop around and get multiple quotes.

Another advantage of buying a yearly plan is the underwriting process. With yearly plans, your medical condition is assessed at the time of purchase. That means you’ll know what you’re covered for until the policy expires.

If you’re relying on credit card insurance, the underwriting process happens at the time of the claim. Let’s say you have a heart attack while travelling, and you get rushed to the hospital. When the insurance companies do their underwriting, they find out you visited your doctor about chest pains 3 months prior. They could potentially deny your insurance claim and call it a preexisting condition. It may sound extreme, but it can happen.

You might already have travel insurance

The great thing about travel insurance is the fact that you might already have a policy. If you have benefits through your employer, take a look to see if you have travel medical insurance included. Most major employers will have travel medical insurance as a standard policy, but it’s rare that they’ll offer trip cancellation/interruption or anything else.

There are also quite a few credit cards with travel insurance that will usually include travel medical insurance, trip cancellation/interruption, baggage insurance, and accidental death & dismemberment. Travel medical insurance always applies, but to qualify for the other types of insurance. You usually need to charge a certain amount of your travel expenses to your credit card for the policy to be valid.

Keep in mind that credit card travel insurance usually only covers a set period of time, e.g. 10 to 21 days, and it may only cover those under the age of 65. If you’re travelling longer or you’re older than 65, you may need to extend your coverage or purchase a separate policy. Remember, every insurance policy is different. Always read the fine print to find out exactly what you’re covered for.

Making a claim

Every insurer has different requirements when making a claim, so do read the details of your policy to figure out the proper steps. Generally speaking, you should do the following:

Travel medical insurance

  • Call your insurance provider as soon as possible, preferably before any procedure is done (this may not be possible)
  • Get any documentation possible, e.g. medical records, procedures done, receipts
  • If your insurance provider didn’t make the payments directly for your medical care, submit your receipts as soon as possible

Trip cancellation

  • Contact your insurance provider and provide evidence that your reason for cancelling your trip falls under your policy details

Trip interruption / baggage insurance

  • Contact your insurance provider
  • Get documentation from your airline about the delay or lost luggage
  • Make your purchases and save all your receipts
  • Submit receipts as soon as you can

Rental car insurance insurance

  • Decline any insurance from the car rental company
  • If you’re in an accident, get the insurance information from the other party involved
  • Contact your insurance provider as soon as possible
  • Collect anything that will help with your claim, e.g. photos of the accident, police report, witness contact information

Generally speaking, every travel insurance company will have their own method of processing claims. These days, you can usually do things online. Just submit your receipts or medical bills and your travel details (departure dates, flight numbers, etc.), and your claim will be processed. Once your claim has been approved, reimbursement will usually be done by direct deposit, e-transfer, or cheque.

Final thoughts

Now you know what is travel insurance. It’s pretty straightforward once you understand how it works. Look at your employee and credit card benefits first before buying a policy. If you still require coverage, speak to an insurance broker, travel agent or tour operator, as they may be able to find the right travel insurance policy for you. Travel insurance is a must; never travel without it.

Check out other parts of the series below

Part 1: Budgeting for a trip
Part 2How to pick a vacation destination
Part 3How to find cheap flights
Part 4: How to save money on hotels
Part 5: How to eat cheap when travelling
Part 6The best way to exchange money
Part 7: The basics of travel insurance
Part 8: Sticking to your travel budget

About Barry Choi

Barry Choi is a Toronto-based personal finance and travel expert who frequently makes media appearances. His blog Money We Have is one of Canada’s most trusted sources when it comes to money and travel. You can find him on Twitter:@barrychoi


  1. Investor Tuition on November 14, 2016 at 1:23 AM

    Hi Barry, one other very important aspect of travel insurance is to make sure the policy will cover pre -existing conditions. Insurance companies don’t automatically cover you should you suffer a medical condition whilst overseas that was pre- existing. You will need to notify the insurance company of what pre existing conditions are to be covered and they will subject these to their underwriting conditions, which also means a bigger premium.

    I am writing this from Australia but I am almost certain that all insurers operate the same, so best advice if you have any medical conditions is to contact your insurer and ask them what is and isn’t covered.

    I have enjoyed reading your posts



    • Barry Choi on November 14, 2016 at 1:26 AM

      Hey Adrian,

      Very good point. I was under the impression that pre-existing conditions only applied to those who were above the age of 60 but it makes sense that it applies to anyone of any age.

      • athletickatKC on November 17, 2016 at 11:42 AM

        No, it definitely applies to anyone. For example, in my case, since I already have bad eyesight and hearing loss, they will not cover any claims relating to that (unless I had total blindness as a result of accident).

        Another thing to note, they will almost certainly not cover any pregnancy related claims if you have a baby early since it was a pre-existing condition. I’ll be keeping my travels to Canada only if I get pregnant! LOL

        • Barry Choi on November 17, 2016 at 11:46 AM


          Yes, I knew about the pregnancy thing. Not sure why I never thought about any other pre-existing condition.

          Note that even if you travel within Canada, you may still need insurance. In many situations, your provincial health care only covers you up to a certain amount within your home province. So if you live in Ontario and a procedure costs $1K, but you’re stuck in Manitoba and it costs $2K – you would have to cover the difference.

  2. Dennis Spackman on February 27, 2018 at 10:24 AM

    As Mentioned by Barry, make sure that your travel insurance includes the activities and other elements of your travel. For example I scuba dive and some policies do not cover diving or a number of other activities that they consider “Risky Activities”.

    • Barry Choi on February 27, 2018 at 11:28 AM


      Yes! you always need to read the policy details. Insurance companies will do anything to not pay up.

  3. Deborah S. on August 20, 2021 at 5:29 PM

    It pays to compare quotes for travel medical insurance. Lots of folks just go with the coverage offered by their bank or the auto club. I’ve consistently found the rates at costco.ca to be the best for us (healthy seniors, long trips). The coverage is underwritten by Manulife but the premiums are less expensive than contacting Manulife directly. Plus Executive members receive an additional 5% discount! I haven’t had to make a claim yet, so can’t speak to claims handling.

  4. Nick on May 7, 2023 at 6:49 PM

    Very few annual travel insurance for BC residents without medical for purchase include flight delays protection?

    I’m looking to buy an annual travel insurance without medical insurance, but with a flight delays and missed connections (FDMC) coverage. Emergency medical will be covered by HSBC WE, so looking for a policy without it.

    I checked with many companies, only bcaa meets these criteria. Any other companies I should try other than listed below?

    Tugo and Amex didn’t seem to include FDMC. Tugo doesn’t even offer any coverage for bags.

    Manulife/Scotia/Costco, HSBC, RBC don’t sell annual plans without medical.

    Johnson does, but I need to be an affiliate with an organization, which I’m not.

    I forgot what it was missing but Goose didn’t offer what I’m looking for.

    • Barry Choi on May 7, 2023 at 7:12 PM


      You’ve honestly done more research than me. Clearly your options are limited.

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