How to be safe and smart when travelling abroad

There is no way to avoid every woe when travelling abroad, but there are many ways you can lessen the chances of running into trouble.
Palm trees grace the beach in San Diego, Calif. About seven per cent of Canadian snowbirds who spend six months out of the country stay in California, according to the Canadian Snowbird Association. (San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau/Associated Press)

Thousands of Canadians flock to sunnier southern climes for the winter, hoping for an escape from the cold and snow.

And while most snowbirds will enjoy a trouble-free time abroad, it is not always possible to avoid illness, accident, crime or just not knowing a few bureaucratic rules.

Michael MacKenzie, executive director of the Canadian Snowbird Association, says there's not one simple trick for staying safe in the south.

But there are many ways travellers can lessen their chances of running into trouble.

Get travel insurance

"I guess the biggest one that we tell people is that you need to get travel insurance before you go," MacKenzie says.

Different provinces have different rates at which they reimburse residents for out-of-province hospital stays. In Ontario, for example, it's up to $400 per day, while in B.C. that figure is $75 and in P.E.I. it's slightly more than $1,100.

"But even with all that in mind, you really do need to get travel medical insurance because regardless of what the reimbursement rates are, that will only cover a small fraction of whatever medical bill you'll get, particularly if you travel to the United States," says MacKenzie.

He mentions one instance when a 35-year-old man travelling with his family to Disney World ended up with a $13,000 medical bill for a broken leg.

Insurance can be tricky, though. Canadian travellers who have headed south expecting their insurance was adequate have still found that claims were rejected.

"When you're actually filling it out, it can be a little bit complicated," says MacKenzie. "It's really a good idea to probably talk to your doctor and see if they'll help out while you're doing it. There's all sorts of clauses that involve pre-existing conditions."

Use common sense

Insurance experts say that many vacationers don't actually know what they're covered for when they take out travel insurance. (Steve MacNaull/Kelowna Daily Courier/Canadian Press)

When it comes to personal safety, MacKenzie points to common sense — don't flash great amounts of cash around and be aware of your surroundings, for example.

He also suggests that you build a sense of community with other snowbirds who may be staying nearby.

"I think that really helps with personal safety, if you know your neighbours and have people looking out for you — not a lot different than how you conduct yourself in Canada."

About 200,000 Canadians leave the country for six months each year, according to the snowbird association.

Of those travellers, about 70 per cent go to Florida. Another 15 per cent head to Arizona. Another seven per cent go to each of California and southern Texas. The rest go to places such as Mexico.

Go where the tourists go

"Most of our members don't go to Mexico," says MacKenzie. "I think what we would say would just be that if you're going to go, stick to tourist resort areas."

Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade says Canadians travelling to Mexico "should exercise a high degree of caution due to a deteriorating security situation in many parts of the country."

The department notes that most major tourist areas have not been affected by the "extreme levels of violence in the northern border region," and advises any travel to Mexico be by plane, a suggestion echoed by MacKenzie.

In 201, B.C. resident Robin Wood was shot and killed during an apparent robbery attempt at a holiday home in the Mexican coastal town of Melaque, on the Pacific between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. Police have told CBC News that robberies in the area and associated murders are common.

"We don't know a lot about this situation. There have been some reports, though, that the individual was in a downtown core area. It doesn't sound like he was at a resort," says MacKenzie, who advises snowbirds to stick to places that have a lot a tourists.

"There's not a lot of violence reported at those types of places."

Know the rules around lengths of stay

MacKenzie also advises Canadians to be aware of the rules that exist for how long a person can be outside a home province before losing health coverage; also for how long visitors can stay in a host country as a tourist. 

Ontario, for example, allows residents to be out of province for up to seven months in any 12-month period and still maintain health coverage. But if someone is unaware of that rule — and is in Florida for six months and then goes somewhere else for a couple of months in the summer — they could find themselves without health coverage.

"It doesn't mean you lose your health care forever," says MacKenzie. "But you have to requalify and, in Ontario, that takes 90 days.

"Every province has different rules, but you could potentially be without health care when you're back in Canada and not even know it."

The United States only allows tourist visits of up to six months, and if Canadians overstay that limit, they could be in for a surprise when they attempt their next border crossing into the country.

"Typically they can bar you [from entering] for five years. It's up to the discretion of the officer," says MacKenzie.

Think about tax implications

Canadians considering longer U.S. stays should also take action to make sure the IRS doesn't consider them potential targets for tax collection.

"If you spend more than four months a year in the United States, you could be considered a resident for tax purposes," says MacKenzie.

But there are ways to avoid that, and the association recommends Canadians fill out an IRS 8840 form that should alleviate that problem.