Beware Cruise Line Insurance. And Don’t Get Sick at Sea

Cruise lines catering to Canadian or American residents are not in the business of selling travel insurance. That’s why you should not count on any insurance they sell to cover you adequately if you are dumped off at a local hospital in St. Thomas, Grand Cayman, or Cozumel. And if you have illusions about being treated on board, forget it. This is not Doctor at Sea.

According to Cruise Lines International Association, more than 500,000 Canadians are expected to board cruise ships out of North American ports this coming year. Most will be offered in-house travel insurance designed by the cruise line or insurance designed for American passengers by third-party companies. Avoid them. They don’t work for Canadians and they could leave you high and dry with unmanageable medical bills.

Some of these insurance products may pay to evacuate a critically ill patient from the ship or small island to a nearby hospital location. But what then? Evacuation is not repatriation. These terms are not interchangeable, though some insurance plans would make you think so. Don’t fall for the idea that evacuation means getting you back home. It doesn’t. It only means getting you to a hospital that should be able to take care of you. After that, you’re on your own to get home by air ambulance—at perhaps $40,000 a trip from the Caribbean–or trying to arrange multiple seats on a commercial aircraft, few of which want to carry sick, debilitated passenger.

Also, many travel insurance plans for Americans sold by cruise lines or even third-party companies have unrealistically low coverage limits, like $10,000 or even $50,000, to cover medical emergencies and/or evacuation. That is a pittance when you consider that your first day in an ICU, anywhere, can cost at least $5,000 (in the US, $15,000). If it costs less, it’s probably a hospital you don’t want to be in.

Because Canadian provincial health plans pay practically nothing (maybe 5 per cent) of the costs of out-of-country medical emergencies, virtually all supplemental Canadian travel health plans provide at least $1 million in coverage and all provide repatriation benefits—that means covering the costs of getting you to a hospital at home. If you can get into a hospital at home is quite another story, but at least they will cover the cost. They’re also cheaper than the ones offered by cruise lines or American cruise line brokers.

And if you expect a cruise line doctor to whip out that inflamed appendix and prop you up in a deck chair to complete your tropical cruise, think again. If you fall ill on board and need the services of a doctor or nurse, you will pay for those services at going landside rates. Get out your credit card. Shipboard doctors are contracted private practitioners—not cruise line employees.

Alas, there is no James Robertson Justice in sight.


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