International travel promises to be extra challenging this winter

The official Canadian government travel advisory is clear: “Avoid non-essential travel outside Canada until further notice.”

Yet many Canadians are either making plans or thinking about a winter vacation in warmer climes. Most face a mind-boggling array of constantly changing regulations as to where they are allowed to go, where it might be safe to go, and whether they will have valid insurance if something goes wrong.

Under normal circumstances, travelling anywhere with an “avoid non-essential travel” advisory is enough for most insurance companies to deny coverage.

These are not normal times, however. Some insurance companies have amended their out-of-country travel policies so that travellers will still be insured as long as the only reason for the advisory is COVID-19. We checked with Saskatchewan Blue Cross where we get our travel insurance, and they confirmed that they changed some of their plans to allow for this. Not all insurers have altered their coverage, so it is important to check for updates.

To bolster slow sales, airlines such as Air Canada and Westjet are offering COVID-19 insurance at no additional cost. Each offers up to $200,000 coverage if you test positive for COVID-19 while on your trip. Both cover return trips up to 21 days, although Westjet also offers seven-day coverage on a one-way ticket. As with most insurance policies, there are numerous exclusions and plenty of “ifs and buts.” The policies are available on each airline’s website. Some health experts indicate that $200,000 coverage likely won’t be sufficient if you are hospitalized and on a ventilator for weeks.

Entry regulations around the world vary widely and change quickly. Until recently, the European community considered Canada a “safe country” whose citizens were allowed to travel to most of their member nations. Not only has that changed dramatically over the past few weeks, but some European countries have shut down again and imposed drastic measures, such as curfews and restricted movement.

Many countries are simply closed to tourists, while others restrict visitors from only high-risk countries. Some require isolation on arrival or proof of a negative COVID-19 test that was administered from 10 days ahead of your arrival to as little as 72 hours ahead. Even with a negative test, many countries might require you to isolate if you show any symptoms on arrival.

Some countries, such as Costa Rica, require written verification from your insurance company that you are covered if you contract COVID-19 while there. Starting in November, Jamaica is implementing a mandatory insurance policy costing US$40 that all non-Jamaicans must buy.

The easiest countries to visit, the United States and Mexico, are unfortunately among the hardest hit by the pandemic. While the border with the U.S. is closed to non-essential traffic, Canadians can still fly to several U.S. destinations.

Mexico has some of the world’s least stringent entry requirements. As long as visitors don’t show health symptoms on arrival, they are free to go without isolating or showing test results. Unlike many countries, Mexico does not restrict entry for tourists from high-risk countries, such as the U.S.

While Mexico has a little more than three times the population of Canada, it has nine times the COVID-19 deaths according to the World Health Organization. It also has one of the lowest testing rates among countries hardest hit by the pandemic.

Regulations to deal with the pandemic in Mexico vary from state to state. Face masks are mandatory in many places. If you don’t wear a mask in Nuevo Leon, for example, you could be arrested and jailed for 36 hours.

No matter where you go, you have to quarantine for 14 days upon return to Canada. A pilot project recently started in Alberta gives travellers arriving at Calgary airport the option of getting a COVID test upon entry to Canada. A negative result could reduce isolation time. It is too early to say if this process will be adopted permanently or rolled out to other parts of the country.

The biggest challenge is dealing with uncertainty. Rules today could be completely changed next week.

Travellers not only have to be concerned about the virus itself but also complications in the event of shutdowns, curfews, or flight cancellations.

If a European country with an advanced health-care system can become overwhelmed, what could happen in less-developed countries?

The Canadian government indicates there are no plans to offer additional repatriation flights, so you could be stuck somewhere indefinitely if things go from bad to worse. The decision to travel internationally this winter should not be taken lightly.

Arlene and Robin Karpan are well-travelled writers based in Saskatoon. Contact: travel@producer.com

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