Travel Tips for Going South

Fall 2009 CSANews Issue 72  |  Posted date : Sep 22, 2009.Back to list

As many of us prepare for some winter months in the sunny south, it is helpful to review the many considerations, especially relating to our health issues, that are necessary before we leave, during our trip and upon arrival at our winter destination. The Canadian Snowbird Association has published the "CSA Travellers' Checklist" which provides a list of important things to do before departing and while travelling. It is available in hard copy upon request from the CSA or can be downloaded here: CSA Travellers' Checklist.

The following information particularly addresses those important aspects related to maintaining good health and safety while away from home.

Before Leaving

Proper planning starts well in advance of your departure. One such issue is the stability of your health. This is important not only for your own personal well-being while away from home, it is also mandatory for most travel health insurance policies. Most insurers require that your health status remains stable during the 90 days prior to your departure. This means that no new medical condition presents itself, no new symptoms, investigation or medication changes occur for existing conditions, and no tests or procedures are planned for your return. Travellers should read their policies or ask their insurer, if there is any doubt about the "stability" requirements of their policies.

Some policies preclude the entire coverage if there is failure to comply with this provision, but a few insurers, such as Medipac, would deny coverage of medical services required while away for just the condition which had been unstable. Medipac has an Individual Underwritten Plan which can provide complete coverage to most applicants who have had the misfortune of an unstable condition as defined by insurance policies. In addition, about 80% of applicants for this plan who are excluded from buying any policy from any company due to their more serious health conditions, are offered a policy under this special program.

Choosing your destination if your health is fragile is another important consideration. Most snowbirds go to the Sunbelt states, where quality medical attention is readily available if needed. This includes ready access to tertiary medical centres in which very specialized medical and surgical services can be provided on an emergency basis. Those who choose countries or locales in which such services are not easily accessed should be in good health. The same applies to those who choose a cruise for their holiday, because ships have only limited medical services and emergency tertiary care may be hours away and may require an air evacuation. Those with cardiac and respiratory disease should avoid holidays at high altitudes.

Be sure and take a record of your health conditions when you travel. Keep one sheet of paper recording important past conditions and surgeries, present conditions, medications, immunizations and any allergies. The CSA has a "Personal Health Record" which you can complete online. In addition, when having your next ECG (electrocardiogram), ask your doctor for a copy. If ever you should have unexplained chest pain while away and have to be evaluated in an emergency department, a copy of a previous ECG is very helpful for a new physician trying to assess whether or not the pain is from your heart.

Record all of your current medications, including the exact names, strength and dosage. Be sure to take enough meds to last for your entire trip and keep the drugs in their original containers as dispensed, to satisfy border agents.

Plan to have your annual medical examination in the spring or early summer. That way, if your physician changes medications, orders major new tests or recommends any procedures, you will be less likely to have to worry about the stability clause of your insurance policy.

In addition to your physician monitoring your health and treating your conditions, remember the important health promotion initiatives for you to do at home, as well as when you're away. Proper nutrition, exercise and weight control, along with not smoking, maintaining normal blood pressure, restricting cholesterol and salt intake for many and avoiding excess alcohol are important in helping ensure your good health. Immunizations, as presented in a recent article in CSANews, are especially important and now we face the H1N1 flu epidemic. In addition to our annual fall shot for seasonal flu prevention, we anticipate the availability of H1N1 vaccination to protect us from this infection.

Procuring reliable travel health insurance is mandatory for all Canadian travellers. On average, government provincial health insurance covers only about 7-9% of the costs incurred for medical services in the U.S. Be sure and choose wisely. Choose a company with a long track record of reliability, a medically staffed in-house assistance service when medical help is required and a claims service which provides prompt payment directly to providers or clients. Endorsement by an affinity group, such as the Canadian Snowbird Association, is an important consideration when buying your policy. While price is important too, these other factors are more important if services are needed.

Accurate completion of your insurance questionnaire is extremely important. Most applications can be completed by the applicant but, in some cases, assistance from a family member or personal physician may be necessary. Most questions are general and do not go into detail, but insurers require accuracy and in the event of a claim, a review of one's medical records at home and away often occurs.

A passport is now required for all travel to the U.S. In addition to this requirement, snowbirds should be aware that other documents can be very important in satisfying border agents. Driver's licence, credit card(s), birth certificate, next-of-kin addresses and phone numbers, travel health insurance, provincial health cards and special documents for long-term travellers should be readily available. Be sure that you have scanned or photocopied all of these items and leave the copies with a relative at home in case of loss or theft. See details in the CSA Travellers' Checklist.


While Travelling

If travelling by car, there are both safety and health considerations. Plan your departure when good weather is forecast and be prepared to wait a day or two if storms are likely. Be well rested and leave in good time, stopping at least every two hours for rest and exercise. Leg clots from long periods of immobility are more common as we age and are best prevented by short walks. Fatigue is more common as well and driving time should be limited, leaving ample time for snacks, rest and a meal or two. Get a good night's rest for your journey the next day.

Drive in daylight and pull off the road if weather is bad. At your motel, be careful of curbs, ditches and obstacles which could lead to falls. Try and get your room on the first floor. Carry a motion sensor portable battery LED light which you can place on the dresser. Getting up in the dark will activate the light and could prevent a fall. These lights can be purchased at most large chain stores.

Other safety issues include those relating to your vehicle and personal property. Park your car in a lighted area overnight and lock all doors. Do not leave contents in the vehicle that can be readily seen. When in a foreign country, it is always best to try and "blend in" with the local population. Don't wear clothes with "Canada" logos. Don't pull out maps in public or do any other thing which immediately labels you as a tourist.

If travelling by air, remember the need to exercise those limbs frequently on long flights. Keep important medication in your carry-on bag in case your checked luggage is lost. Ask for wheelchair assistance in advance of your trip if you have mobility problems.

At Your Destination

Upon arrival, do a safety check of your surroundings. Be sure that lighting is adequate and that there are no obstacles which might result in a fall.

You may already be aware of local medical services but, if not, make some inquires as to the location of a nearby family doctor and hospital. Ask your neighbours. Family doctors or walk-in clinics are plentiful in the U.S. It is always best, except in the case of an emergency, to call the assistance line of your insurer when medical services are needed. In some cases, the assistance personnel are able to refer you to a specific family physician, specialist or hospital.

If you require regular monthly blood testing for diabetes or because you are on Coumadin (warfarin), you will want to establish contact with a local laboratory that will do your tests as ordered by your own doctor. In that way, you will save the personal cost of a physician's services locally. If you have a signed request from your Canadian doctor stating the specific test, the diagnosis and the frequency of testing, the laboratory can fax the result to your Canadian physician and you can communicate with that office for directions with respect to your medication dosage.

While away from home and your own doctor, do not procrastinate if new symptoms arise or you suspect that your medical condition is deteriorating. Calling an assistance line such as Medipac's ensures that you are able to talk to a nurse or doctor and get advice regarding what options you have. In the case of sudden chest pain, symptoms of a stroke or other emergency, it is always safest to call 911 for immediate care. For non-emergencies, a call to the insurer's "hotline" will often result in direction to an appropriate community service, avoiding unnecessary waits in a hospital emergency department.

Your trip and your holiday should be a safe and enjoyable experience. A lot of this depends on the safety and health-promotion initiatives that you take yourself. Be aware of the importance of your choices in making that happen.