Off to Kenya on a "volunteer adventure" to build schools and clean-water systems, Kristina Boyce has stocked up on malaria pills and has been inoculated against yellow fever, typhoid and hepatitis A.
Ms. Boyce has also protected herself financially by scanning – and e-mailing to herself – copies of her passport, itinerary, credit cards and travel insurance – for quick access in case of loss, theft, travel disruptions or medical emergency.
"That way, wherever you are, you can prove who you are and where you are going and get access to all that information" in the event that credit cards have to be cancelled, insurance carriers notified, flights rearranged or documents replaced, Ms. Boyce said in an interview from Ottawa prior to her departure.
As general manager of the Adventure Travel Company, Ms. Boyce knows better than most how even the most carefully planned summer vacation can go awry and how to protect against unexpected financial hits.
"We had a client from Vancouver who was very reluctant to buy travel insurance while travelling to Asia since he had never used it before. He ended up buying it, and the last couple of days before returning home a dog ran in front of his rented motorcycle, he had to be hospitalized and needed a medical chaperone to escort him back to Canada. Total bills were around $20,000 [which his insurance covered]."
There was also the tragic situation of a client who died – uninsured – while on vacation outside of Canada, leaving the grief-stricken family with final bills totalling $200,000, Ms. Boyce related.
Better to invest in comprehensive travel insurance upfront – even if age and pre-existing medical conditions add to the cost – than take the chance that nothing will go wrong, Ms. Boyce and other travel agents advise.
But this is where it can get tricky. "Far too many Canadians have no idea what coverage they have, which I find alarming," said Vancouver lawyer Scott Stanley, who handles a heavy caseload of clients who thought they were covered but have had their claims denied – with the costs of uncovered medical expenses sometimes running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Not to be killjoys, but with a view to minimizing the risk, here's what the pros suggest to protect against financial shocks stemming from accidents and illness, stolen wallets, horrendous cellphone roaming charges, missed flights, unavoidable changes in plans and all those other unforeseeable events:
Scrutinize the fine print on your travel medical insurance policies
This is where many unsuspecting voyagers come to grief when something goes wrong, said Mr. Stanley of the Vancouver law firm Murphy Battista.
"You have to look to see if there are any exclusions that would apply to you – the common exclusion would be prior health – and if there are limits on what they'll pay.
"For example, they might say we'll pay $1,000 for ambulance. But if you are in Washington and you need to be air-vaced back to here [British Columbia], it's going to cost you about thirty grand."
The most prudent course for consumers is to have a licensed insurance broker look over the terms of their travel credit cards and any existing policies they might have as part of their homeowners' plans to determine whether additional coverage is needed. It might cost more, but it's better than plunking down $300 for an inadequate travel insurance package purchased online and heading off with a false sense of security, he said.
If there is a medical questionnaire involved in the insurance application, don't leave anything out, Mr. Stanley said. "People have to understand that a mistake, even an innocent mistake, can void coverage."
Most emergency medical insurance policies also require that stricken travellers notify them immediately of any accidents or sudden illnesses – before they rack up astronomical medical bills that may, or may not, be covered.
Inform your credit card issuers that you are planning a trip
"They will deny purchases" due to unusual activity if they have not been advised in advance that you will be travelling and using the card for some big purchases en route, said Beverly Polley, travel director with Oakville, Ont.-based Bob's Cruises & Tours.
"This is a five-minute phone call that can save you lots of headaches while you are away. Just call the 1-800 number on the back of your credit card," Ms. Boyce added.
Protect yourself from exorbitant cellphone roaming charges
Call your cellphone provider before departing to gain a clear understanding of what charges you can expect from using your phone while travelling, Ms. Boyce said.
"All providers are different, but all of them offer data/roaming packages for international travel."
This can prevent nasty shocks when the cellphone bill arrives.
Lock up your valuable travel documents
"Always have copies of passports kept separately from the originals, and do not carry passports around while touring if they can be kept in a hotel safe," Bob Kerby, owner of Bob's Cruises & Tours, said in an e-mail from Istanbul.
Ms. Polley advises travellers to keep at least one credit card locked up for safekeeping as well, so if the one they are carrying is lost or stolen they have a backup to tide them over.
They should also keep receipts for all debit transactions made at automated bank machines or point-of-sale terminals, compare them against the statements from their financial institutions and report irregularities as soon as they are aware of any problems, travel experts advise. Otherwise they could be on the hook for purchases and withdrawals they did not make.
In addition to scanning and e-mailing all the important documents, credit cards and emergency contact numbers to themselves, "to be extra safe, leave a copy with family and friends at home," Ms. Boyce tells her clients.
Cancellation insurance for contingencies
Something as seemingly minor as a child's ear infection can be costly if pre-booked travel or accommodation arrangements have to be cancelled or delayed, travel experts say.
And missed connections are a big issue, said Ms. Boyce, who recently had some flights cancelled by a U.S. air carrier when she was returning to Canada from Florida. "Luckily I had insurance, which paid for my hotel overnight and some of my meals." She also called her own travel agent to help arrange another flight home because, in such situations, it can be difficult to get through to the airline "which typically has a queue that lasts for hours."
Some policies also cover pre-departure developments such as a call to jury duty, a cancelled vacation due to pressing work issues, or – for university students – rescheduled exams or dissertations, Ms. Boyce said.
"Cancellation insurance protects the value of the trip and return costs if you have to return early," said Mr. Kerby, who added this final bit of advice: "Take half the clothes and twice the money you think you need."