Going Cruising? Be Prepared if the Seas Get Rough

Despite nightmarish tales about cruise ships running aground, losing power (and toilet facilities), playing host to new strains of norovirus infestations, and undergoing the public relations fallout of being renamed “the poop cruise” or the “cruise from hell” by the media, the world’s major cruise lines continue reporting good profits and solid repeat business.

Last year, at least 21.3 million passengers embarked on cruises worldwide. This year, there will surely be more, and in the vast majority of cases they will be repeaters. That’s what the world’s 60 major cruise lines with their fleet of 400-plus ships count on. For the most part, your cruise will be smooth sailing. But that doesn’t mean you can let your guard down and remain undefended should something go wrong.

When the Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas returned early to its home port in New Jersey on January 29, with 630 passengers (out of a total complement of 3,071 guests) having reported symptoms of a presumed norovirus infection, it was just one of many similar incidents that have plagued cruise passengers in recent years. Just before Christmas, Carnival lines’ behemoth Triumph, carrying more than 4,000 passengers and crew, had to be towed into Mobile, Alabama, after its power was knocked out by a fire and it lost all air conditioning, lights, water, and food services—and, oh yes, working toilets—thus the moniker, “poop cruise.”

Related: Playing It Safe on a Cruise Vacation

When a catastrophe such as this hits, the cruise lines switch into defense mode and begin offering partial refunds, usually commensurate with the undelivered portion of the cruise—two days without power, two days reduced from the fare already paid—but sometimes paid out in the form of vouchers for future cruise tickets. Cruise lines don’t like handing out cash if they can bring the customer back for another try. And, as seasoned cruisers know, returning passengers are likely to spend more on the “extras” such as more personal and intimate meal seatings, pizzas, midafternoon ice cream, casino gambling, booze, and even health care.

All cruise ships offer health insurance as part of a ticket or as an ancillary add-on provided by American insurance companies. That is fine for Americans who already have their own private health insurance plan from their workplace or as part of a pension benefit, or even those who use the cruise’s insurance as a supplement for their Medicare. But the supplemental plans offered to American customers are totally inadequate for Canadians. They have very low coverage limits ($10,000 to $25,000 medical/hospital benefits), some evacuation benefits—but only to the closest health care provider, which may be in the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, or St. Lucia. And they have these low limits because their customers’ primary domestic insurers will cover their accidents or illnesses, even pre-existing conditions. But they won’t necessarily fly them home, though they may offer coverage of some incidentals if customers are stranded on an island in the Caribbean.

Canadian travel insurance will, however, cover over $1 million in hospital or doctors’ fees, will pay foreign hospitals and doctors directly, and will repatriate the cruise patient home, if medically necessary. They can also take care of medical bills paid on board to the medical staff—though you might be expected to pay up front and then get reimbursed by your provincial plan or your private travel insurer.

Related: 5 Reasons Why Canadians Should Buy Canadian Travel Insurance. Period.

And if you have never been a cruise passenger, you should know that as big and glossy as cruise ships have become, their medical facilities remain modest at best. If you fall ill on board or have an accident, you can visit the infirmary and get medication or other attention, but be prepared to pay as much as you would on the mainland. And in case your medical service is not up to par, forget about threatening a malpractice suit against the cruise line—the doctors and nurses are usually independent contractors, not ship employees.

Bottom line for Canadians: Do not buy the travel insurance sold by the cruise company or its agent. The plan you normally buy when travelling to Arizona, Florida, the UK, or when you go to Italy to visit your relatives is the only coverage you need. It’s better coverage, has higher limits, is more flexible, and is… cheaper.

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