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Figuring out personal insurance needs for what-if vacation scenarios can be a tall task. And filling those needs can be costly if you're not looking in the right places.

A peripatetic friend recently purchased travel insurance that will cover her for all one-week trips to the United States throughout 2012. She found a deal through BCAA (the British Columbia Automobile Association) that ran her more than $200.

After a discussion with a colleague, though, she discovered that her extended workplace benefits cover much of what she had just paid for. It's likely that her credit card would have also provided some basic health insurance.

Story continues below advertisement

A call to her workplace human-resources office and her card company, and a full read of her card issuer's fine print, could have saved her some unnecessary fees.

Not all workplaces and credit cards are quite so generous, meaning that private health insurance is often the way to go. That's because provincial health plans cover only a fraction of medical costs incurred abroad. To determine what your province covers, visit its health ministry's website. Ontario's, for instance, notes right off the top that "you are entitled to very limited funding for a limited range of medical services when you are travelling outside of Canada."

If you do want to purchase a comprehensive private policy, sites such as Kanetix.ca and TravelInsuranceQuotes.ca are good places to start research. Each provides quotes from a range of insurance companies, along with suggested questions to ask before signing up, as well as information on such topics as single-trip versus multi-trip plans, and on the effect of pre-existing conditions on eligibility.

Whatever route you take, clarity of coverage, before jetting off, is key – both to enjoying your holiday worry-free and to ensuring you don't return home to medical debts you'd rather leave behind.

Angela Self is one of the founders of the Smart Cookies money group. Read her weekly column on managing debt and saving money at the Globe's personal finance site.

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