When Cruise Critic member Fran Combs arrived home from a recent cruise vacation, she noticed that one (yes, one) shoe was missing from her husband Harlan's bag. They had been packed in the suitcase, which had been placed in the hallway of the ship the night before, had been picked up and transported to the airport, and had made the flight with the Combs back to Virginia. Fran was not only puzzled at the loss of the shoe, she was quite irritated, too, since they were brand-new and expensive.
She sent the purchase receipt to both the cruise line and her travel insurer and was fully reimbursed, for a new pair. Harlan now has three brand-new shoes.
While this isn't the scenario that plays out in most people's minds as they contemplate the purchase of travel insurance for their cruise vacation, it is an object lesson in how the insurance can be of value even if catastrophe doesn't strike.
How to choose cruise insurance
The first question, for almost everyone, is whether or not to buy travel insurance, and the second is: What kind?
Now, we'll say outright that homeowner's (or renter's) insurance will often cover losses experienced while traveling ... but it's not the best idea, because it could raise your premium well above the cost of the individual travel insurance premium if you make a claim -- and it only covers losses of items in your possession, not anything having to do with medical issues or trip cancellation. So it really is better to purchase insurance designed for travelers.
Beyond that key issue, here's another one that can confuse. You can buy insurance that relies first on your homeowners premium and covers anything left over. "There are two kinds of travel insurance," says Judith Carpenter, a cruises-only travel agent based in south Florida, "primary and secondary. Primary insurance covers you from the first penny, and secondary insurance kicks in after your own private insurance has paid out.
She goes on to explain that many policies offer only "secondary" coverage, and she encourages her clients to purchase policies that are primary, "like those sold by Travelex or TravelGuard."
"Otherwise," she explains, "you can be waiting months for your homeowner's or medical insurance to pay before you can apply to get your deductible covered by the secondary policy, or ... in the case of medical expenses, you can be spending months sending receipts back and forth before you see a dime of the insurance you purchased for the trip. Primary coverage eliminates that wait."
With a primary policy, you are paid for the event or loss outright. With a secondary policy, which kicks in after your homeowner's or medical insurance has already paid, you have to wait for the other insurance to be paid, send receipts, and you are paid the difference between your out of pocket costs and what has already been paid. You have to have a stream of documentation, too.
In the course of researching the information needed for this article, we hoped to be able to give clear and concise information about each type of insurance, but it wasn't that simple. Many insurers offer coverage, and each has a different set of guidelines on such topics as pre-existing conditions, terrorist acts and what constitutes a traveling companion or an "immediate family member."
What we are able to do, however, is to offer a slight overview of the types of coverage available in a way that might help you find what you are looking for, and to help you to decide if you need insurance coverage and what kind to purchase.
Please note: The information provided is for comparison purposes only. Cruise Critic is neither endorsing nor recommending any of these insurance companies or the coverage they provide.
Should I get travel insurance for my cruise?
The easy answer to this question is: "Yes, with qualifications." We found that the cost of basic coverage is quite reasonable, usually between 5 and 9 percent of the cost of the cruise vacation. In fact, coverage for the average cruise price amounts to the cost of about seven alcoholic beverages or one minor shore excursion, so it's well worth it if you build coverage into your price.
First, though, let's discuss what's not covered:
- Bad weather: This is different than weather that causes you to miss or delay your trip. You can't get reimbursed because it rained during your entire cruise.
- Change of mind: You can do that, of course, but insurance won't cover it.
- Change in itinerary: You might want to cancel, but as long as you get a trip, even if it isn't the one you thought you were getting, you aren't covered.
- Pregnancy or childbirth: As long as it's a normal pregnancy and not a medical emergency, you aren't covered.
- War: Not covered, although most policies now have an "Acts of Terrorism" clause which will reimburse you if you miss or are delayed in getting to your origination or ending destination because of acts of terrorism.
- Change in your financial circumstances: You lose your job and can't afford to go ... not covered.
- Pre-existing medical conditions: This exclusion can be waived in certain circumstances (see below).
- Nervous or psychological disorders: Depression, anxiety, neurosis or psychosis ... not covered.
- Frequent flyer miles, free (incentive) cruise: These are considered to have zero monetary value and are not covered.
If your trip is just a weekend getaway, if you're driving your own car to the terminal, or if you haven't paid much for the cruise and haven't got much to lose, travel insurance may not be your highest priority.
But in other cases, it might be a life saver. For instance:
- Do you have a "pre-existing condition" which might cause your trip to be interrupted? (You have to have been symptom-free for at least 60 days prior to your deposit payment.)
- Are you going to be traveling on land as well as on your cruise? Will you have a rental car?
- Are you worried about the health of a family member whose condition might worsen before your travel date?
- Are you planning to travel during a period (winter weather, hurricane season) when your flights might be delayed or canceled?
- Are you planning on doing anything other than shopping or sitting on the sand? Will you scuba, water-ski, climb glaciers, try a canopy zip line or take a helicopter trip?
- Are you traveling internationally with one or more layovers? Or, if you're flying domestically, are your connection times fairly tight?
- Will your cruise be in a region or regions other than the Caribbean, Canada/New England, Alaska, Hawaii or the Mexican Riviera?
If you answered yes to even one of these questions, travel insurance is a good idea.
What kind do I need?Ahhh, this is a much more complicated question, and has no easy response. Coverage varies widely, and while all offer the same basics, some offer better protection in some areas than others. So you first need to determine where you need the most coverage and then you can decide what kind of insurance to purchase.
Cruise line or third-party insurance: Cruise lines are not in the insurance business, they're in the vacation business. It's certainly convenient to go through the cruise line to get your coverage, but is it your best option? Most travel agents think it's overpriced and doesn't offer the same protections as outside insurance, and that, even with outside administration, claims processing is more difficult. Also, it's important to note that most cruise line coverage is secondary, and kicks in only after your personal insurance has paid off, and on top of that, you are often reimbursed in cruise credits rather than in cold, hard cash.
Medical evacuation: Many frequent cruisers have seen, at least once, someone being evacuated by helicopter from their ship, or being carted away from the pier by an ambulance. These medical emergencies, while rare, are extremely costly ... and it's the patient and his or her family that bear the cost of this service. A helicopter or aircraft evacuation can cost thousands and thousands of dollars. Travel insurance covers these costs. If your cruise takes you into the Indian Ocean, into the fjords of Chile or Norway, or down the coast of Vietnam or even through the Panama Canal (just a few examples of exotic cruises) the cost to get home to the U.S. in a medical emergency will be extreme. This is where you want to ramp up your coverage.
Pre-existing conditions: This can be a critical component of your insurance choices because the companies offering coverage vary widely in the amount of time you have to have been symptom-free before your condition is covered.
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Let's face it: If you have a serious heart condition, for example, no insurance company in the world will allow you to purchase a $65 policy when it's more likely than not that you will require a $30,000 medical evacuation during your trip.
What you need to research, in the case of pre-existing conditions, is the number of "lookback days" the company requires in order to "waive the exclusion." This means, in plain English, how long you have been symptom-free so your insurance purchase will cover the condition. Some companies require a 180-day period, some a 90-day period, and some as few as a 60-day period. And in order to waive the exclusion, you have to purchase your trip insurance within 10, 14 or 21 days of your initial deposit, again depending on the insurer. Yes, it's complicated!
Trip cancellation: If you break your ankle or someone in your family becomes ill, if your friend who is sharing your cabin ends up canceling, if you can't travel for any reason that isn't excluded by your policy, you will get 100 percent of your trip cost reimbursed. Your "trip cost" includes everything that is pre-paid, not simply reserved. In fact, if your hotel is going to charge a one-night penalty should you fail to arrive, it's better to pre-pay the entire amount. Your insurance will cover the penalty as long as the stay is pre-paid, but if it's just guaranteed to your credit card, you're out of luck.
Flight delay and/or cancellation: This comes under the broad definition of "travel delay" and each insurer has its own plan for reimbursement. Usually coverage is provided for accommodation, meals, and new travel arrangements with a maximum cap of about $1,000, an average benefit of $200 per day. The benefits don't kick in until you have been delayed at least six hours (and in some cases 12 hours) so reviewing your plan's provisions is important.
Lost, stolen or damaged baggage/baggage delay: It just isn't that unusual these days (alas!) to have a baggage "incident," wherein your bags end up in Zurich while your plane lands in Tampa. In case of a baggage delay, most coverage includes an amount to get your essentials, somewhere between $200 and $600 depending on your plan. Lost, damaged or stolen bag coverage is between $1,000 and $2,500, but airline coverage is $2,800 for domestic flights, so this should not be a major component in making a decision on your insurance choice.
How to choose what's best for your needs
Here are some scenarios so you can see how the different coverages might affect your trip.
Cost comparison: You're a couple, each 42 years old. You are taking a seven-night cruise on Carnival and you are flying to the port. The total cost of your prepaid vacation is $1,300 per person. One of you has a relative who is suffering from an illness that might cause you to have to cancel your trip.
- Carnival's coverage: Will cost you at least $119 per person and will reimburse you for the cost of the cruise and the airfare.
- Travel Insured: The least expensive we've found, will cost $61 per person, offers primary coverage, and will refund 100 percent of your trip cost.
- Travelex: At $64.50 per person, will reimburse 100 percent of your insured amount.
- CSA: $68 per person, and will cover 100 percent of the trip cost.
Coverage comparison: You're 56 years old, traveling on NCL's new Norwegian Jewel, on a 12-day Greek Isles cruise. The total cost of your cruise plus airfare is $2400 per person. You suddenly get ill and have to be evacuated.
- NCL's Travel Care Free Coverage: Will cost $169 for the standard policy, giving you a maximum of $25,000 in evacuation costs. Upgrading to the premium policy, $50 more ($219 per person), will increase the evacuation coverage to $50,000.
- Travel Insured: Offers $250,000 in evacuation coverage with a premium cost of $105 per person, and the rest of the policy is primary coverage with a $50,000 emergency medical guarantee.
- HTH (Trip Protector Preferred): At $215 per person, this is the most expensive outside coverage we found, but it covers evacuations up to $1,000,000 and medical emergencies up to $250,000.
Exclusions comparison: You have planned your cruise for over a year. You will be traveling with Morrie and Elaine, your good friends, and you will be celebrating your 30th anniversary. You even managed to get adjoining suites for this trip. All of you took out travel insurance. A week before your departure, Elaine gets an ear infection and her doctor says she can't travel. Morrie and Elaine have to cancel their trip and will get 100 percent of their prepaid costs refunded to them. You don't want to go if they aren't going; this is not the anniversary cruise you had planned, and it would be ruined if they weren't also traveling. Can you get a refund?
Nope. Not from any of the travel protection carriers.
Morrie and Elaine are not family members, which BerkleyCare, administrators for most cruise line coverage, describes as "spouse, domestic partner, common-law spouse, siblings, step-siblings, siblings-in-law, parents, step-parents, parents-in-law, children, step-children, adopted children, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins." They might be travel companions, but in order for you to be able to cancel and get reimbursed, you have to be sharing the same cabin. This comes under "I changed my mind," which is one of the excluded reasons for cancellation.
And the BIG question: hurricane coverage: Many, many people are curious as to whether insurance coverage has changed after 2005's devastating hurricane season. The short answer is: No, it hasn't. Since the carriers all offer trip interruption and trip cancellation insurance, and since a change in itinerary isn't covered in any event, there was no need to make changes. If there have been any adjustments, it's been in the premiums, not in the coverage.
Remember, you take a risk when you book your Caribbean cruise during hurricane season (June 1 through November 30). You also get a better price point for that cruise, so it's a tradeoff.
Having a trusted travel agent who knows you, the cruise "product" and travel insurance options is obviously a benefit. If you're one of those do-it-yourselfers, though, there are ways by which you can access the necessary information. In fact, even for those with agents, you should get to know your options in case there is an insurance plan that better suits your needs than one your agent recommends.
We found that most of the cruise line plans are obscure and difficult to access on the Web, with the exception of those of NCL and Celebrity. Both of those lines' basic protection plans are easily found on their Web sites.
Two other Web sites proved invaluable to us as we researched this article; both provided information that would allow us to make clear choices in selecting travel protection.
Insure My Trip provides quotes from several insurance sources and breakdowns of what each plan covers. You can do the research and purchase your protection right from the site.
The Trip Insurance Store is an online insurance agency that also allows you to book your protection right from the site, but offers so much information in such a clear and concise manner that we found it to be one of the best Web sites we have ever visited. Not only can you compare the coverage of several travel insurance providers side by side, each covered component is described and explained in a manner that makes it easy to understand. We applaud and appreciate that, since the choices and conditions can be overwhelming. Another thing we liked about the Trip Insurance Store is that there are live agents you can call toll free to clarify any questions you might have.
Again, we stress that Cruise Critic is not recommending nor endorsing any particular insurance plan or insurance vendor, but we do believe that an informed traveler is a happier traveler, and we encourage everyone to examine all options. Of course, the member postings on Cruise Critic's message boards can be an invaluable resource, and are probably the very best place to start your research.
By San Diego-based Jana Jones, who is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com, as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.
Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.