Travel insurance can be a great way to protect against the "what ifs" on your next cruise. Like any insurance, the policy is useless if it doesn't cover the circumstance you're looking to account for. All too often, we read about people unhappy with a policy because they simply assumed the policy covered specific circumstances, instead of fully understanding what they were buying. Are you covered if you can't make it to your cruise? What if you need to leave half-way through your cruise? How much will it cost to go to a doctor on the ship, or in another country? Let's look at some of the questions you should ask when looking into an insurance policy, and chip-away at some common misconceptions.
None of what we're going to discuss is intended to recommend any particular policy or provide legal or financial advice. There are an infinite number of possibilities around canceling your trip, seeking care on your trip, etc, so what we discuss highlights only a few considerations. Discuss this information with your travel agent, insurance representative, or other travel professional.
Canceled or Delayed Trip - What are the covered reasons?
One common reason people buy trip insurance is so that they can recover their money in the event they don't take their cruise. With most insurance policies, it's not simply a matter of canceling and getting your money back. Policies carve out specific reasons for cancellation or delay which are covered. Generally speaking, you'll be looking at circumstances that you cannot control, such as weather, health, or job loss. Still, rather specific criteria must be met. Some companies do offer policies that let you cancel for practically any reason*, but they're significantly more expensive, and only reimburse you for a portion of your trip costs - so while they can be a great option (we've used them before), we'll be discussing more common/traditional policies and circumstances.
*Note that these 'CFAR' (Cancel For Any Reason) policies aren't as widely available as they were prior to the 2020 pandemic. Read more here: What Cruising Might Look Like After Coronavirus – Part One
Canceling a Cruise Because of Weather
We're writing this at the end of May, and the Atlantic Hurricane Season officially begins in a few days. A common misconception is that bad weather means you're able to cancel your trip and be reimbursed by the insurance company. In fact, bad weather rarely cancels cruises (there were an inordinate number of changes to sailings in 2017 due to a busy hurricane season -- still, most sailings went largely unaffected). In the rare cases a cruise is canceled, cruise lines offer refunds, but that decision may not be made until just a day or two before the scheduled embarkation date. Making the decision on your own to forgo a cruise because you're concerned with a weather condition is not a covered reason on most policies.
Wondering how cruise lines handle hurricane season? We explain what they do, and considerations if you plan to cruise the Caribbean during the Atlantic Hurricane season.
What is canceled in large numbers? Flights. If your cruise is sailing, the cruise line expects you to be there, so it's on you to ensure you can safely make it to the port of embarkation. However, foul weather in one part of the world may cause significant flight interruptions in many areas. If a Nor'easter causes your flights to be canceled and you can't make it to your cruise, you'll want to be sure that your insurance policy will reimburse you for the cost of the cruise, as well as other arrangements you may have had (such as a rental car or hotel stay). It's critical to read the policy and know what the criteria is with regard to cancellation requirements and the documentation you'll need to provide. Keep in mind that if you book your airfare through the cruise line, then it's on them to find a way to get you to the cruise. This can take the burden off you (and prevent a potential insurance claim), and is a great reason to consider purchasing air through the cruise line. Similar to considering shore excursions from multiple sources, you shouldn't just assume that the cruise line will charge you more for air than booking directly with an airline.
Canceling a Cruise Because of Health or Medical Issues
You may need to cancel your trip for non-weather related reasons such as a medical problem. Cruise lines are not unsympathetic, but they are businesses, and in most cases, illness or even death won't get you a refund from the cruise line, so you'll want to rely on insurance. Similar to weather, there are specific criteria that need to be met, which vary by policy. For example, if you break a thumb before a cruise, you may be annoyed and wish you could move your trip a few months out so you're not trying to take beach selfies with a metal splint on your hand, but it's not likely going to be a covered circumstance. Generally, companies require documentation from a physician explaining that you're not able to travel. There are sometimes exceptions for most significant injuries that wouldn't preclude you from traveling, but would greatly impact your trip (such as a long-bone injury). Once again, the details of each policy are critical. With illness there is an additional consideration: pre-existing conditions. If you have a chronic illness, or an ailment that was not preventing you from traveling when you booked, but is now, it's likely not going to be covered if you knew of this condition prior to purchasing the insurance policy. For example, if you underwent treatment for cancer prior to purchasing your policy, you may not be covered if additional treatment is needed, and you can no longer sail.
Illness and injury aren't necessarily restricted to your traveling party. Some policies may cover circumstances in which you're not able to travel because of the illness or injury of a dependent. This can be an important thing to look for if you're a parent or other caregiver taking a trip without your dependent.
Related questions to ask or think about when shopping for a policy:
- What happens in my transportation to or from my cruise is canceled or delayed?
- Can I cancel my cruise if I don't feel safe with the plans because of the weather?
- If I arrive late because of flight changes, and I can make it to my cruise but have to cancel my hotel or car reservations, is that covered?
- What are my options if I become sick or injured before my cruise and don't want to sail?
- What are the pre-existing condition exceptions?
What happens if something goes wrong on my cruise?
Cruising can offer a great escape, but reality doesn't end at the gangway. Many insurance policies protect you in the event certain things happen on your trip. This could include covering the cost of medical treatment, evacuation, or repatriation.
Medical Expenses While Cruising
Cruise ships have medical facilities onboard in order to stabilize life-threatening conditions, and treat minor ones. This can be very helpful in the event you suffer a minor injury or get a cold. Like on land in the US though, these services are not generally free. If you have a health insurance policy on land, it may or may not cover the cost of treatment on the ship, or while in a port. Even if your coverage does apply, it may only cover a portion of the expenses. Travel insurance can be very helpful, but unlike medical insurance in the US, you'll almost certainly be required to pay up front for services onboard or in port, then submit that documentation to your shore-side health insurance for reimbursement, and lastly, submit any coverage or denial of coverage information to the travel insurance provider so they can reimburse you the remaining costs.
Unfortunately, a more serious medical problem may require require medical evacuation (or repatriation in the event of death) to bring you back to your home country for further treatment or care. This is perhaps one of the biggest financial considerations, as while none of us expect this type of thing to affect us, international medical evacuation and the associated care can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and may not be covered by your standard healthcare policy.
Related questions to ask or think about when shopping for a policy:
- How will I will reimbursed if I am sick or injured and need treatment while on my cruise?
- What will happen if I need to leave in the middle of my trip to seek medical attention in my home (or another) country?
- Will my medical expenses be covered even if they're related to a pre-existing condition?
- Will the emergency travel expenses of others in my travel party be covered in the event I need to leave for medical reasons?
- Can I recover the cost of the parts of my trip I am not able to take in the event something happens during my trip?
Other Covered Expenses
Trip insurance can help with more than just medical costs and trip fares. If parts of your trip are changed which cause you financial impact, you may be able to file a claim to help. For example, if your bags are lost or delayed, you may have to purchase replacement clothing, toiletries, and other items. While cruise lines and airlines often offer assistance with these costs, your insurance policy may offer additional assistance, either for amounts exceeding what the cruise line or airline covers, or even in addition to their stipends.
To keep track of our bags, by the way, we started using Tile Trackers. They let you find your bags or other belongings right from your phone. You can read about them here, and they're also available on Amazon.
Unexpected issues can even result in your vacation getting extended. Perhaps your cruise returns late because of weather, resulting in missed flights. It's important to consider the cost of re-booking flights, and potentially getting a hotel room if you're not able to fly out until the next day. The same should be considered for the beginning of your trip, in the event the cruise line needed to delay a sailing (again, rare, but it can happen), and you incur expenses related to hotels, meals, and transportation, which you would not have had to pay for if your trip went as planned.
Related questions to ask or think about when shopping for a policy:
- Will I be reimbursed for unexpected hotel stays, transportation, etc?
- What happens if my baggage is lost or delayed?
Circumstances Which Are Not Commonly Covered
Missed flights, trains, etc.
If you miss a flight and it wasn't because of a covered reason (such as a covered injury, for example), you're not likely going to be reimbursed for the cost of booking new flights, or even the cost of your cruise if you end up missing the ship. This is one of the many reasons we recommend arriving to your embarkation port a day or two before you cruise.
Late returning to the ship.
Cruise lines make very clear the time by which you need to return to the ship when in port, yet it isn't uncommon to hear people being paged onboard, as they simply didn't make it back in time. If this happens to you, most travel insurance policies will not cover the cost of you getting to the next port, potential government fines, etc. Depending on how you book your excursions, you may be covered by the cruise line or tour operator, but if not, this can be a massive expense (in addition to just being disappointing). If you've ever priced a last-minute ticket from St. Thomas to San Juan, you're probably someone that doesn't need to be sold on the idea of travel insurance.
Cruising is rather romanticized, but if your relationship (romantic or otherwise) with your cabin-mate ends up where the ship shouldn't be (on the rocks), then you'll want to figure things out. You'll not likely find an "irreconcilable differences" section in insurance policies. Most cruise lines do however let you change all but one of the names attached to a reservation up to several days before you cruise, so you might be able to find a replacement friend who will be very excited to cruise. Regardless of who ends up sailing, that money isn't getting back into your pocket, so find a friend.
Documentation or cruise line policy issues.
It's important to be sure you're meeting government and cruise line requirements for your trip. Did you forget your passport? Does your name not match your travel documents? Are you pregnant and failed to get the required documents showing you're fit to sail? These are just a few of the things that could keep you from sailing, and if they keep you from sailing, you shouldn't expect your insurance policy to reimburse you for any of the expenses. To prevent some potential issues, we recommend you travel with a passport, rather than a birth certificate.
Acts of terror or political unrest.
A cruise line will not simply cancel a cruise because of political unrest or terrorism, and insurance generally only covers you if you're not able to sail. Cruise lines have no interest in putting guests in danger, and often, cruise destinations being somewhat unknown to us can cause us to lose perspective. Unrest in Athens doesn't mean the city is inherently unsafe, and things may be business as usual in the in city, aside from right in front of a government building. If a particular place is just too dangerous, then that destination may be removed from the itinerary, but just because your itinerary changes doesn't mean insurance will cover your trip if you choose not to sail.
Weather or other 'acts of god'
Wait, didn't we cover weather? Yes, but remember that while weather may impact your ability to cruise, it may not. Simply deciding you don't want to cruise because the weather isn't forecast to be what you hoped is not generally a covered circumstance. Similar to our above points on political unrest, the scale and proximity of natural disasters and such is important to understand. For example, as of this writing many cruisers planning on trips to Hawaii are concerned with the eruption of the Kilauea volcano. Yes, the volcano is causing disruption to some on the island, and the threat, loss of homes, and such is quite significant to those impacted, the overwhelming majority of the island (and the rest of the islands in the state) is completely unaffected. This means that you can't cancel your Hawaii sailings because of this event and expect it to be covered by your insurance. If the cruise line cancels your sailing, insurance may cover lost hotel and air expenses, and if your flight is cancelled and you can't make it to the ship, that may be covered - but if you simply chose to cancel that is on you.
Where to Buy Travel Insurance
There are many options for insuring your trip, and it goes far beyond which company you use - as each one may offer a variety of policies with different types of covered. The best policy is the one that covers the circumstances you're trying to protect against. This in mind, there are four basic ways to go about getting trip insurance.
Insurance Through the Cruise Line
Almost every cruise line offers an option to insure your trip when booking. It's important to understand, when considering these policies, that some of them may be limited to things dealing specifically with your cruise, unless you've booked your air, hotel, and other arrangements with the cruise line. Also, don't assume these policies are somehow safer because they're with the cruise line. They may be great, but it depends on what you need. The policies are not the lines self-insuring by the way (with some minor exceptions). They're the cruise lines reselling specifically tailored policies of other companies. For example, NCL's coverage is actually underwritten by Nationwide and other providers. Royal Caribbean uses On Call International, and Disney uses Arch.
Directly Purchasing a Policy
There are many companies providing travel insurance, including some of the same companies with which you may already have home or auto policies. Other companies act as brokers or insurance agents, and can provide you with policy options from multiple companies, some of them specializing in nothing but trip protection. Once again, the key is whether or not the specific policy is a fit for you, though researching the company writing the policy is of course important, too.
Enlisting Your Travel Agent for Travel Insurance Help
We often talk about the importance of using a good travel agent, and one of the reasons is because they can not only help answer questions about trip insurance, but they can also help purchase the plan, and assist you with gathering required documentation in the event you need to file a claim. This can be a huge help, as insurance companies may want very specific documentation from a cruise line, airline, etc when you file a claim, and your agent can do much of the work in this case, reaching out to the right people and ensuring the requirements are met. Your agent probably has experience to share with regard to which companies have been the most responsive or easiest to work with.
Credit Card Trip Protection Benefits
Some credit cards may offer many of the same benefits of travel insurance policies. Depending on your credit card (and if you used it to pay for your trip), you may be able to get compensated for missing or delayed bags, medical evacuation expenses, and even the cost of a cruise that you weren't able to take. Just as with third party policies, these policies have lots of fine print, but if you have these benefits available and the benefits cover your needs, you won't need to spend the extra money on additional coverage. Don't assume that a card branded by a cruise line or airline has the best perks, though, as we've found that they largely fall short compared to some premium travel cards out there.
Wrapping it Up
It feels like cheating you out of the time you've just taken to read everything above, but really we can sum up the key of shopping for travel insurance with two simple points:
- Explore your options. There are many ways to protect your trip and associated expenses. Don't assume the first one you see or hear about is the best, and know that every policy varies. It's not just about the company writing the policy.
- Read the fine print. Every circumstance is different, and if you have specific events you want to protect against, the time to ensure you're doing that is when shopping for a policy, long before you're filing a claim.
Whether you buy travel insurance or not is up to you. Candidly, we do for some trips and we don't for others. We've had great experiences with Allianz, but there are many options out there and we hope we don't have to test many of them out for ourselves. If you do decide that insurance is right for your trip, find the one that covers what you're protecting against, and keep a good paper trail of the policy documents, every expense (planned or unplanned), and hope that you did all of this work for nothing.