A guide to travel insurance for cruises

Mar 15, 2020

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It’s not always smooth seas when it comes to cruising.

As we’ve seen in recent weeks during the outbreak of the new coronavirus, even the best-laid plans for a cruise vacation can sometimes be thrown off course by an unexpected event.

You might need to cancel a cruise in advance due to the sudden onset of an illness, such as COVID-19 (the official name of the disease caused by the new coronavirus). Or, maybe you fall ill during the cruise and need emergency medical attention. Maybe your flight to your ship gets canceled and you miss the vessel’s departure. Or your ship is late arriving in port at the end of a voyage and you miss your flight home.

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These sort of things can happen to cruisers, and they’re all the sort of situations where you might benefit from having travel insurance.

Note the word might. Travel insurance policies vary widely, and not every policy covers every type of event. That’s why it always pays to read the fine print in a policy before you purchase it. Know what you’re getting in advance.

What does travel insurance cover when you cruise?

The typical travel insurance policy covers a wide range of things that can go wrong in conjunction with a cruise vacation — both before and during the sailing.

For starters, policies often will reimburse you for the cost of canceling a cruise due to a last-minute crisis. They also often will cover costs related to an interruption of a cruise (maybe your ship breaks down, requiring you to fly home midvoyage). These two elements are known as trip cancellation and trip interruption insurance, and they are bundled into the typical travel insurance policy.

Some policies also will cover out-of-pocket costs related to a flight delay or cancellation that results in you missing your cruise departure (for instance, the cost of catching up to the ship at its next port). Expenses related to baggage delays and loss also often are covered.

Related: Cruise industry nears shutdown as major lines suspend operations

But perhaps most importantly, many travel insurance policies will cover medical expenses you incur while on a cruise. And some even will cover the cost of evacuating you from a foreign destination if you are in the midst of a medical crisis.

Travel insurance giant Allianz Global Assistance reports that 53% of all cruise-related “billing reasons” for claims are because of illness for the insured person, while 14% are for an injury. Another 8% are for the illness of a family member, 4% for the death of a family member and 4% for the illness of a traveling companion, among other reasons.

(Photo by Rawpixel via Unsplash)
About 14% of cruise-related insurance claims are due to injury. (Photo by Rawpixel via Unsplash)

Those percentages include illness and accidents that happen to cruisers just before a trip that make it impossible to travel. But, in many cases, such claims are the result of illness and injuries that happen during voyages.

People often take risks during vacation that they might not take back home, whether riding a jet ski, zipping around on a motorized scooter in a city they don’t know well or hiking unfamiliar terrain,” James Page, senior vice president and chief administration officer of AIG Travel told The Points Guy.

Some policies also cover the financial default of a travel provider. In such cases, if your cruise line goes out of business before you sail, you could get all or at least some of your money back.

Travel insurance policies don’t cover everything. For instance, standard travel insurers generally will not reimburse you for the cost of a cruise you cancel due to worries about an outbreak of an illness such as the new coronavirus. That’s true even if a U.S. government agency such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issues a recommendation that you don’t cruise, as they have done in the case of the new coronavirus outbreak.

Related: Avoiding outbreaks isn’t covered by most travel insurance policies

If you want the ultimate flexibility to cancel for such a reason or any other, you’ll want to look into more expensive cancel for any reason travel insurance upgrade.

Where to find a travel insurance policy for cruises

You can buy a travel insurance policy directly from your cruise line when booking your trip, or through your travel agent (if you’re using one, which often is a good idea when booking a cruise). You also can go directly to a third-party travel insurance provider or a travel-insurance aggregator site, such as InsureMyTrip.com or TravelInsurance.com.

Third-party insurance companies that specialize in writing travel insurance include AIG Travel, Allianz Travel Insurance, Travelex Insurance and American Express Travel Insurance.

Related: The Points Guy’s guide to the best travel insurance companies

One reason to use a travel agent or a travel aggregator: They can help you find a policy that offers added coverage specific to cruising.

“Many plans now offer benefits that will specifically appeal to cruise travelers, such as missed connection, missed port-of-call and cruise disablement coverage,” Stan Sandberg, cofounder of TravelInsurance.com, told TPG.

Missed connection coverage reimburses cruisers for a set dollar amount if they need to rebook travel to catch up with their cruise at the next port. Missed port-of-call coverage pays a benefit if the cruise ship misses a scheduled port of call due to weather, a natural disaster or mechanical breakdown.

Cruise disablement coverage pays a benefit if the traveler is confined on a ship for more than five hours without power, food, water or restrooms.

As noted, policies vary widely. It’s a good idea to compare plans, and make sure the one you buy has the elements that are most important to you. One size doesn’t fit all.

See what your credit card covers

Some premium credit cards offer valuable travel protections that is comparable to what you might get from a standard travel insurance plan. For example, the travel insurance provided when you pay for travel with select cards can reimburse you for expenses if your baggage is damaged, you’re stranded overnight due to a flight delay or cancellation or you have to return home to handle a family medical emergency.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, offers trip delay reimbursement, trip cancellation and interruption insurance, emergency medical coverage and even medical evacuation coverage, among other benefits. And yes, cruise lines are considered common carriers just like airlines.

If you’re planning to rely on a credit card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or The Platinum Card® from American Express (among others) for travel insurance, just be sure to carefully recheck your card’s benefits and limits against regular travel insurance. And remember, you must pay for at least part — and sometimes all — of the trip with that credit card to take advantage of its protections.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises 

Find out if your credit card protection includes travel accident insurance or covers pre-existing medical conditions, as well as when it will pay you back. Other questions to ask: What are the coverage limits? Will you have to pay for a foreign hospital bill upfront and then seek reimbursement later?

Be wary of cruise line coverage

Cruise lines often ask consumers booking a cruise to buy the line’s own protection at the time of purchase. But if specifics about the coverage are lacking, always ask the line for details in advance, review coverage perks and limits and then compare those to one or two independent travel insurance policies, or your credit card’s insurance benefits.

Cruise line travel insurance policies sometimes have quirks. Many cruise companies will only offer a travel voucher or credit for future use in the event of a covered cancellation, not an outright refund.

Also, financial default may not be a covered event in a cruise line-sold policy. But it’s typically covered with plans from third-party travel insurance companies.

Cruise line policies also can be more restrictive.

“Cruise line insurance seems to have become better and has more widespread coverage than in the past, but it typically won’t cover air or pre- and post-travel [arrangements] unless those elements are purchased through [the line],” said Debra Kerper, a Cruise Planners travel adviser from Carrollton, Texas, who books travel and sells private insurance. “This is when private insurance coverage becomes so very important.”

Related: The extreme measures cruise lines are taking as coronavirus spreads 

How much does travel insurance for a cruise cost?

Expect to pay anywhere from 4% to 8% of your total prepaid, nonrefundable trip expenses for a travel insurance policy. That’s a wide range, we know, but it reflects the wide range of products that are out there.

You’ll also find some basic plans that cost even less than 4% of your trip expenses. Some super-premium plans that cover just about any conceivable issue can cost as much as 12% of your trip expenses.

All reputable insurance companies will offer a “free-look period” during which you can receive a 100% refund on your premium. This allows you to review the policy you’ve selected and return it for any reason within the period allotted — usually for a small administration fee under $10.

Under normal circumstances, you don’t need to purchase a so-called cancel for any reason policy unless you really need the flexibility. The policies are significantly more expensive.

You can receive a quote and purchase a policy online in minutes with any credit card. Note that, although you may think travel insurance should code as “travel” when paid on a credit card and thus be eligible for bonus points on certain cards, that isn’t always the case. Your points earnings will depend on the individual underwriter’s merchant code. When in doubt, expect that the purchase will fall under the insurance category for earnings.

Should I buy travel insurance when booking a cruise?

Whether or not you buy travel insurance is a personal decision that will depend on a lot of factors. Would you be willing to absorb the loss of having to cancel a cruise on short notice due to an illness or accident? Could you afford an evacuation flight from a far-off port if you suddenly became seriously ill? Only you can answer those sort of questions.

Here, some thoughts that might help your decision:

You might not be covered by regular medical insurance while cruising

If you’re an American and traveling internationally (which will be the case for most cruises), you may find that most private medical insurance plans in the U.S. won’t cover you.

In addition, Original Medicare only covers people traveling outside U.S. borders in limited circumstances.

While certain Medicare Supplement Plans do have some foreign emergency medical benefits, not all do. Be sure to talk to your Medical Supplemental Plan provider to see if you’re covered, what’s covered, what the limits are and how the bill is paid.

Also note that, in some countries, particularly in Central and South America, travelers may not be discharged from a hospital until their bill is paid in full.

Plus, if you have a medical incident overseas, you could find yourself stuck in a shared hospital room without air conditioning or a private bathroom. The level of care may not be what you expect.

“For people traveling internationally, it’s crucial to know beforehand where to go for any treatment … and how they’re going to pay for that treatment,” AIG Travel’s Page said.

Getting evacuated for a medical condition is expensive

Most airlines won’t accept seriously ill passengers, those carrying bulky medical equipment or those requiring a full medical team.

Even a low-cost weekend getaway on a cruise to the Bahamas out of Miami can turn costly if you suffer a serious accident or illness requiring medical treatment or an emergency medical evacuation.

Being flown back to the U.S. from a far-flung overseas location in a private, medically-equipped aircraft, with a professional medical team onboard, can run between $70,000 and $180,000, according to Mike Hallman, president and CEO of Medjet, a medical transport membership company.

“Domestic transports, which we cover as well, can cost upwards of $30,000,” he said.

Without proof of medical evacuation coverage, foreign providers will also want that money upfront. Hallman says that, while regular travel insurance typically will get you to an acceptable overseas hospital and even to a higher-level care facility if “medically necessary,” medical evacuation coverage means you can fly home to your own hospital, doctors and family — without claim forms, cost caps on transports or surprise bills.

The tandem approach — buying both travel insurance plus a separate medevac transport membership — is a good option, Hallman said.

“We always recommend travel insurance, as it covers trip interruption, which is important, as well as medical coverage for the hospital and treatment costs,” he said. “We pick up where they leave off.”

You can’t predict the weather

Cruising is a great way to explore multiple destinations in one trip. But it’s good to keep in mind that unexpected delays, interruptions or cancellations due to weather can happen during cruises, particularly during hurricane seasons in places such as the Caribbean and Asia (where hurricanes are called typhoons).

(Photo via Shutterstock)
(Photo via Shutterstock)

During the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season (June 1 to Nov. 30) Allianz paid 6,238 claims from customers whose travel plans in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and southeastern U.S. were impacted by the storms, according to Daniel Durazo, director of communications and marketing for Allianz Global Assistance USA.

If you’re hoping to insure against a storm-related disaster, it’s good to buy travel insurance as early as possible. Once a storm or hurricane is named, it’s too late to buy travel insurance to cover it.

Of course, cruise lines will move ships away from a weather threat. But when the port line-up is adjusted, or the cruise shortened, they might only offer the guest an onboard credit, onboard gift or future cruise credit, rather than any refund. It depends on circumstances for that specific voyage.

Related: Everything you need to know about cruising during hurricane season 

Costs can mount quickly when things go wrong

Even if the cruise line does provide a full or partial refund or cruise credit for an itinerary change or some other interruption, travelers could have to swallow the cost of other travel elements not purchased through the line. That could include nonrefundable flights, prepaid resort or hotel nights, nonrefundable tour fees and more.

Travel insurance can cover those, plus help with flight delays or cancellations, baggage loss or theft.

If a winter storm causes you to miss your flight to where the ship is boarding, “Travel insurance could help you get to the next port to join the cruise, so you don’t miss your entire trip,” Page said.

In fact, 13% of “billing reasons” for claims to Allianz are for common carrier delays (such as a flight delay), while weather and natural disaster related claims account for about 3%.

The government probably won’t bail you out

While cruise ships have medical facilities, they’re usually not equipped to treat serious illness. If you experience a serious medical problem on a vessel, you may have to get off the ship in a foreign port to seek treatment at a hospital. In such a case, if you don’t have medical evacuation insurance, you may then find yourself stranded in that port, assuming you need a medical evacuation.

Don’t expect Uncle Sam to step in and help foot the bill.

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs is clear about the importance of buying travel insurance.

“The U.S. government does not provide medical insurance for U.S. citizens overseas,” the bureau says on the website. “We do not pay medical bills. You should purchase insurance before you travel.”

If you need to be treated for a medical emergency off-ship, the US government won’t pay your medical bills. (Photo via Shutterstock)

You may need more assistance than you think

If you’re injured or becomes severely ill during a trip, especially in a foreign country, it may be difficult to access help without the assistance of trained professionals that comes with many insurance plans.

Many travel insurance companies provide around-the-clock assistance with locating overseas clinics and pharmacies; getting to a doctor or hospital; refilling lost or depleted prescriptions; assisting with up-front payments to hospitals; and arranging flight changes so you can get home.

Travel insurance companies also can arrange for an air ambulance, a nurse escort, oxygen and a lie-flat seat on a flight home if your medical condition warrants it.

You want to be careful if you have pre-existing conditions

When you travel, it’s important to be fully covered, which means having comprehensive medical coverage that includes any pre-existing conditions. Otherwise, if you head into a doctor’s office overseas, have any tests completed, or visit an urgent care center or emergency room, you might find you’re not covered.

Here, timing is extremely important. Cruisers seeking coverage of pre-existing conditions as well cancel for any reason insurance generally must book within seven to 21 days of the first payment they make for a trip. The timing various by insurer.

(Photo by Rawpixel via Unsplash)
If you have a pre-existing condition, make sure your covered. (Photo by Rawpixel via Unsplash)

Bottom line

Travel insurance isn’t for every cruiser — or even for every cruise. It’s not inexpensive. But it can bring a lot of peace of mind if you’re about to head out to sea. Do your homework, compare plans and always assess the risks.

Planning a cruise for 2020? Our guide to cruising starts here:

Additional reporting by Susan J. Young. 

Feature image by eugenesergeev / Getty Images.

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