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What to Do If You Need Medical Attention While Travelling Abroad

Last updated on October 3, 2018 Views: 1647 Comments: 1

I’ll be honest, one of the greatest fears I have is the idea that I’ll suddenly get sick or hurt while travelling, and I’ll have to seek medical attention in a foreign country. Depending on where I’m trekking, I could be contending with serious language barriers, limited access to medical professionals, and scariest of all: huge out-of-pocket costs.

The ugly truth is that getting medical attention while travelling abroad is fairly common. There’s no telling when you might twist your ankle while walking down the street, eat a local delicacy that really doesn’t agree with your stomach, or, on the more serious end of the spectrum, take a tumble while hiking in the Alps. No matter its degree of severity, a medical emergency abroad is always a scary prospect, which is why you should prepare yourself by taking preventative measures, planning for worst-case scenarios, and knowing what to do in advance of your trip.

Understand the Limitations of Your Provincial Healthcare

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Before we get to travelling abroad, let’s first make sure our bases are covered *within* Canada itself. Canadians are generally aware that our provincial healthcare isn’t valid overseas, but did you know that you’re also not even fully covered when travelling in Canada but outside your home province or territory of residence? Air and land ambulances, prescription drugs from pharmacies, some dental emergencies, and long-term care services are ‘optional’ expenses when you hop from one province or territory to the next.

In other words, if you’re planning on taking a glorious Canadian road trip for a few days, you should consider getting supplementary travel medical insurance just in case. Rather than buying a new policy every time you travel, the best route to take is using a travel credit card with a good insurance package, which keeps you covered as long as you’re an active cardholder. All you need to do for your policy to kick in is charge your travel expenses to your card, e.g. use it to fill up your tank of gas or purchase hotel rooms.

Prepare Yourself for Your Trip

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If you’re planning to travel overseas, it’s always a good idea to check to see if there are any common infectious diseases to be aware of in your destination (regardless of what country you’re visiting). The Government of Canada has a travel alerts and advisories website that lists any serious issues to be aware of, but you should also do some additional research on your own to see if you should get vaccinations before you depart.

Though you might cringe at the prospect of using up precious luggage space, it’s also a good idea to pack a basic medical kit. A few items I recommend bringing with you include pain and fever medicine, anti-motion sickness medication, anti-diarrhea medication, antacids, bandages, blister pads, hand sanitizer, location-specific medication (e.g. malaria pills), and any prescription medication you have. The idea is to have these things handy so you don’t need to go searching for a pharmacy or doctor when you’re away.

Make Sure You Have Enough Travel Insurance

I’ve mentioned travel insurance already, but only in the context of medical insurance. You might also consider a more comprehensive insurance policy that includes not only medical coverage, but trip cancellation / interruption clauses as well. That way you’ll be able to recoup some, if not all of your expenses in case a medical emergency forces you to cancel your trip or prematurely cut it short.

Scotiabank Gold American ExpressOne Canadian travel card with an all-encompassing travel insurance package is the Scotiabank Gold American Express. Aside from travel medical and trip cancellation / interruption insurance, the Scotiabank Gold Amex also includes delayed and lost baggage coverage, as well as rental car collision loss / damage insurance. The card’s medical coverage is good for 25 days for cardholders under the age of 65. Those aged 65 and older still get 10 days of consecutive coverage, which is quite generous and rare among Canadian credit cards.

Taking the above precautionary steps before you leave Canada will eliminate a number of potential snafus if you run into trouble abroad, but there are a few things to keep in mind once you’ve landed at your destination.

Err on the Side of Caution

If you’re feeling ill or have a more serious injury, it’s wise to seek medical attention sooner rather than later. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a medical professional by simply using Google, but if you’re staying in a hotel, ask the staff to give you a recommendation. In serious circumstances, head to the closest hospital as it will likely have a variety of medical professionals on site.

Canadians are accustomed to free healthcare, but remember that an uninsured trip to the doctor on foreign soil can cost us hundreds of dollars, while an emergency room visit can escalate into the thousands. The aforementioned Amex card is a great way to get the overseas medical coverage you need, but there are also non-Amex options out there for those that prefer a Mastercard or Visa in their wallets:

  • bmo world elite mastercardThe BMO World Elite Mastercard is a well-rounded travel rewards card, but it’s particularly known for its travel insurance coverage. When you charge your travel expenses (usually just flights) to your credit card, you’ll be covered for an unlimited number of trips a year up to 21 days in length at a time. This benefit is available free for those under the age of 65. If you’re between the ages of 65 – 74, optional travel medical insurance is available at an extra charge. Beyond its travel insurance package the card also offers a good introductory bonus for new cardholders: BMO gives cardholders $250 worth of bonus points plus a first year fee waiver ($150), provided the cardholder charges $3,000 to the card in the first 3 months of membership.


  • Scotia Passport Visa InfiniteIf you travel a lot outside of Canada, you might consider the Scotiabank Passport Visa Infinite card, since it not only has great travel medical coverage but also charges no foreign transaction fees. The card provides 25 days of travel emergency medical insurance for those aged 64 and under as a standard benefit. If you’re 65 or older, you still get coverage, but just for 10 days.

Inform Your Insurance Provider

Insurance providers expect you to notify them right away or as soon as you possibly can when you need to make a claim. This is perfectly reasonable since they’ll likely want to assess the situation to ensure that your policy covers the expense in question. This also benefits you as any charges will be billed directly to your insurer so nothing comes out of your pocket.

Be aware that not all incidents are covered by standard travel medical insurance. If you plan on bungee jumping or going scuba diving, you may need a separate policy. Also note that certain conditions can void your policy, such as if you were intoxicated when you were injured or if you have a pre-existing health condition that exacerbated the illness or injury. Read your insurance policy thoroughly so that you know exactly what you’re covered for.

Take Care of Yourself

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When we start to feel sick in our home environments, we (hopefully) try to rest, drink more water, and take preventative medication so that things don’t get worse. But going on vacation gives us this strange fear of missing out, so we might try to ‘push through’ illness or injury in an effort to maximize our precious time away from the grind. This of course only makes matters worse: ignoring symptoms is a great way to bring a vacation to a complete stop. If you’re showing signs of injury or illness, slow things down and take a break. A little bit of rest can go a long way, and you’ll probably be back on your feet before you know it.

Getting medical attention while abroad may sound scary, but it’s probably inevitable if you travel frequently enough. Prepare yourself as best you can and never travel without medical insurance. Your health is absolutely worth the extra expense and effort.

Article comments

1 comment
Stace says:

Manitoba provincial insurance does actually cover out of country medical expenses but only up to the value they would pay for the same service in Manitoba. You are required to submit all expenses to Manitoba Health before sending them to private travel insurance. In the case of the US the cost is much more than what Manitoba Health covers, but with regards to Peru, Mexico and Turkey, I have had all expenses covered by Manitoba Health without having to go send to my travel medical insurance.