Recently, the Toronto Star published a story about the growing availability of cruise ship access for the disabled—people with impaired mobility, poor sight or hearing, or those needing dialysis or oxygen tanks. The story noted, quite correctly, that virtually all cruise ships are now also well-staffed with doctors, nurses, basic emergency room equipment, and even telemedicine connections to some of the top land-based health centres in the world. But what Canadian cruise passengers also need to know is that none of these hi-tech services are free. Cruise ship doctors and nurses charge land-based prices, and if you don’t have the right kind of travel insurance, you can end up with a headache-inducing bill.
Last year, an estimated 250,000 Canadians hit the cruise lanes, most sailing into the Caribbean, the Bahamas, the Mediterranean, and Alaska. And with cruise lines now offering deep discounts to keep their cabins full, it may be time for you to consider that cruise you always dreamed about. But be careful you cover yourself with travel insurance that is tailored to Canadians, not the kind sold to Americans, which usually comes as part of the in-house packages sold by Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity, Crystal, Princess, or a dozen other lines sailing from North American ports. If working with an agent, make sure they do their homework and give you proper Canadian travel insurance options.
Most American insurance plans sold to cruise passengers have much lower benefit limits than Canadian single-trip travel insurance plans. They also don’t cover repatriation to a hospital close to home, aren’t coordinated with your provincial health plan, and don’t pay your doctor or hospital directly (you’re required to put up the dollars and then file for reimbursement), And though they offer to “evacuate” you to a nearby land-based hospital in case of emergency, they may leave it up to you to get back to Ontario or BC or Newfoundland on your own, at your cost, and once you pay your hospital bill in Trinidad.
And don’t think you’re going to get too much medical care on board the ship. Though the clinic facilities may be state of the art, they are still basic life-saving and support technologies, designed to keep you alive until you can be transferred to a land-based hospital at your next port of call.
Most ship doctors are also independent practitioners who run their clinics on a fee-for-service basis—not cruise line employees. So if you’re thinking of suing the cruise line for a misdiagnosed appendicitis, think again. You’ll have to deal with the doctor, who may well be a resident of the UK or India or the US.
If you already have medical conditions, it’s especially important to get domestic travel insurance that is specifically medically underwritten. This means you are covered and your premiums are priced on the basis of medical information you provide the insurer and which the insurer agrees to cover. With medically underwritten plans, don’t fudge the truth or conveniently forget certain medications or hospitalizations. Before insurers pay out claims, they scrutinize your medical record for years back—if they discover a discrepancy, it could invalidate your coverage altogether. So play it straight and Bon Voyage.
Oh, if you get seasick, you might get some pills free from the ship dispensary. But that’s about all you’ll get without paying.