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When Bad Things Happen to Good Cruisers: Will Insurance Protect You?

If you've ever bought travel insurance, a lingering question is always whether it'll actually protect you when you need it most. Benefits and claim limits vary widely from company to company as well as from policy to policy, and insurance lingo is infamously obtuse. Trying to figure out why certain common, scary and unpleasant scenarios aren't covered by insurance -- or are only partly covered -- can be as mystifying as trying to understand why other seemingly rare or innocuous travel snafus are covered.

To avoid nasty surprises in the form of teensy exclusions that may ruin even a fully insured cruise, Chris Harvey, chief executive of travel insurance comparison website Squaremouth.com, advises combing through the fine print of a policy -- before, not after, you buy. "Your only real protection against a bad refund is good insurance," Harvey sums up, "but you really need to know exactly what a policy will protect you for."

To give you some idea of typical inclusions and exclusions, here's a cheat sheet to travel insurance's finicky fine print. Will insurance cover my losses due to a hurricane that drastically affects my cruise itinerary?

Weather is one of those tricky insurance caveats. According to AIG Travel's Gallagher, "Generally, if a traveler purchases travel insurance before a storm is named, he or she may be covered for eligible losses related to the storm. However, if a traveler purchases a policy after a hurricane has been named, losses resulting from the impacts of the storm will not be covered. Unexpected severe weather is just one reason travelers are encouraged to purchase travel insurance when making their initial trip deposit. Lastly, travelers should be aware that not all policies carry coverage for weather-related events, so it depends on the policy."

Just remember that a change of itinerary to avoid bad weather isn't an actionable claim. There must be some type of financial loss, such as missing out on a paid shore excursion if your ship skips an island due to bad weather or an unexpected hotel stay in your embarkation city if the start of your cruise is delayed by a hurricane. You can't file a claim for the supreme bummer of missing your favorite ports if your ship sails a different route than expected.

Updated August 29, 2018

Does travel insurance protect me if I have to cancel a cruise because something happens to my family or home?

Most policies are pretty liberal in covering unforeseen events that, while unrelated to your travel plans, would likely cause you to cancel them. If a family member -- including spouse, kids, parents, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces -- falls ill or dies pre-cruise, you could cancel the trip and put in a claim. Policy buyers are also covered if something happens to their home that renders it uninhabitable; if the roof caves in, the house burns down or a winter storm bursts pipes, you're covered if you need to cancel or interrupt your cruise to deal with the emergency.

Am I covered for an accident involving alcohol?

Unlawful behavior is frowned upon by insurers … as is having a few too many drinks by the pool. Alcohol intoxication is a little-known exclusion for most policies. Succumb to alcohol poisoning, dive drunk into a shallow pool and crack open your forehead, or wreck your rental car after a few rounds at a bar in port, and it's enough to void emergency health coverage for an otherwise insurable accident. Insurers rely heavily on medical records to assess your claim, Harvey says.

Am I covered for medical tourism?

It's best to rethink having lip-fillers injected at the ship's medi-spa. Policies tend to incorporate wording to this effect: "No payment will be made for loss caused by or resulting from traveling for the purpose of securing medical treatment." That means insurers have grounds to deny any claim -- from lost luggage to emergency medical treatment for an accident -- if you're traveling abroad seeking treatment or cheaper surgery. Depending on the insurer, "treatment" could be interpreted to include Botox, teeth whitening or acupuncture treatments, now offered by many cruise line spas. The prohibition applies equally if you extend your cruise vacation with a week at a plastic-surgery clinic on land.

What if something bad happens during my bungee-jumping shore excursion?

Cruise lines offer plenty of adventurous shore excursions, but Harvey cautions that insurance often specifically exempts hazardous sports and activities. Bungee-jumping or zipline-loving cruisers do have options, though: Travelex Travel Select lets you purchase an upgrade to waive the exclusion. Their Travel Guard Adventure Sports plan is an example of a new breed of policy specifically designed for the modern adventurer, and it doesn't come with hazardous sport exclusions. But note that most policies also won't cover competitive sports, competitions and tournaments. So, for example, you aren't protected if you're injured while taking part in a 5K race organized ashore.

What if I have a pre-existing condition?

A pre-existing condition, such as diabetes, a heart condition or depression requiring medication, doesn't automatically make you uninsurable. You'll need to seek a waiver for this and buy the policy by a certain date -- depending on the insurer, typically 14, 15, 21 or 30 days after making an initial trip deposit. Only Generali Global Assistance (formerly CSA) and HTH Worldwide still allow the waiver if the 30-day deadline has passed, as long as you haven't yet paid for the trip in full.

Interestingly, some policies apply the waiver broadly to include anyone listed on the policy, so if a traveling companion's pre-existing condition keeps you from cruising, you might have a claim as well. Even if you buy insurance too late to get the pre-existing condition waiver, you'll still have a number of other useful, trip-related benefits -- depending on the policy, anything from lost luggage to medical emergencies that have nothing to do with your pre-existing condition.

The definition of "pre-existing" changes from policy to policy; in general, if your ailment is under control and there's been no change in your treatment recently, you may not be classified as having a pre-existing condition at all.

Am I covered during pregnancy?

From the insurer's standpoint, policies aren't designed to cover foreseeable events -- meaning a pregnancy that's progressing normally wouldn't be insurable. If traveling leads to an unplanned birth in a foreign locale, you're covered if the birth is significantly premature -- therefore a complication and also a medical emergency. Luckily, cruise lines' own rules make this a fairly straightforward claim: Most don't allow you to set foot onboard after 24 weeks (the end of the second trimester), and as far as insurance companies are concerned, giving birth before 24 weeks qualifies as a complication, so you'll be covered. Also, if you're cruising in your first or second trimester and have a bad fall and want to check that the baby is OK, you'll be covered. But popping by the infirmary to check on normal pregnancy symptoms wouldn't qualify for coverage, Harvey advises.

What if my cruise is canceled or I need evacuation because of a country's political upheaval?

"Riot or civil unrest" is a common exclusion, so if a cruise is cut short or canceled due to an unstable political situation -- such as happened in Egypt for certain Nile River voyages in early 2011 -- chances are you won't be reimbursed for the canceled or aborted cruise.

Nor are you likely to be reimbursed for travel expenses incurred while trying to evacuate an unstable destination. Some companies -- such as MH Ross, TravelSafe and Travel Insured International -- offer policies that cover nonhealth-related evacuations that ferry travelers out of danger zones. Some other policies may let you file a claim under "travel delay" and "missed connection" benefits for unanticipated costs of lodging, etc., as you await evacuation.

"It's important to know where your carrier stands on all these issues," says Harvey. Best in situations of civil unrest is a "cancel for any reason" upgrade, available with many policies, which reimburses up to 95 percent of canceled trips. Or, if the cruise line cancels or cuts short your trip, hope that it will refund your costs.

What are my options if a country's political situation deteriorates before my cruise starts?

You can't cancel a cruise for fear that something bad might happen and expect a refund. Fear of civil unrest isn't a covered reason to abort an upcoming cruise that's still scheduled. Terrorism is a covered reason for some policies but not for others, so check with individual insurers. And the wording is especially finicky -- if a bombing in your homeport the week before embarkation leaves the terminal functioning normally, you may not be eligible for a refund; if bombs have destroyed the terminal, you may.

What if my ship's engine breaks? What if the cruise is ruined by poor weather?

They seem like very different disasters, but insurance treats mechanical or weather-related snafus in exactly the same way. You aren't covered for "loss of enjoyment" from the ship breaking down and skipping the port you most wanted to see, or a pelting rainstorm ruining your private-island beach day, but you'd still have a significant claim if you suffered a measurable financial loss or personal injury as a result. Did you buy a nonrefundable shore excursion for a port that ended up cut from the itinerary due to fog? You're covered, and Travel Insured International even offers a "change of itinerary" benefit on some plans, spelling out your claim under this cruising scenario. Were you tossed about when the ship listed in a gale? Keep receipts from a hospital or doctor's visit, and make an emergency medical claim. Stranded on a nonfunctioning ship, eating Spam? If your return home was delayed, coverage would kick in once you disembarked and started incurring unforeseen costs of lodging, food, local transportation or rebooking flights.

What if I overslept and missed my cruise or missed embarking after a shore excursion?

It all comes down to why you weren't able to get on the ship. Oversleeping isn't a covered reason to interrupt or cancel travel. On the other hand, you'll have a claim for "common carrier delay" if the local bus taking you back to the ship breaks down, the last ferry is canceled or you're in a traffic accident on the way to the airport. If you fall ill and have to be taken to the hospital, you could be protected for a missed departure, as well.

What if I'm robbed?

Some plans provide limited or no coverage specifically citing robbery or assault. No one wants to think about being robbed but it can happen on vacation, as it did to two Carnival Magic passengers in Belize in September 2016. The incident occurred near the port as the cruisers were exploring on foot. Some policies do cover the value of what was stolen. Others cover stolen luggage, but not other types of belongings or incidents of theft. As a rule, travel insurance never reimburses lost or stolen spending money.

What if something happens to me while I'm depressed or suicidal?

Mental illness and medically diagnosed depression are conditions that can void a policy, if they were severe enough to contribute to some ill-fated event, such as a suicide or a medical emergency. When buying your policy, be aware that mild depression that's under control with medication may be classed as a pre-existing condition. If you or a travel companion suffer from depression, you'll want to clarify the terms with your provider before you purchase insurance. If you have to cut short a cruise to deal with someone back home who's clinically depressed, travel insurance might also not be much help. Sadly, an incident would have to occur in order to activate the terms in your policy. For example, you could file a trip interruption claim if a family member committed suicide and you departed the cruise earlier than expected to go home to be with family.

What if I fall overboard?

Falling overboard is extremely difficult to do. But, if it happens and you survive falling into the ocean, you should be covered for all costs of the rescue, further medical treatment and flying home from the nearest port -- unless, of course, you were drunk or suicidal, which would negate the coverage.

What if I suffer a serious accident or fall into a coma?

You'd be covered, but only if someone contacts your insurance company soon after the accident or illness. The key point in any medical emergency is to contact the emergency assistance number listed on your policy as soon as you're able, or make sure a travel companion or family member does so. If cruising solo, let family members know you have insurance, and give a copy of your policy to traveling companions, a tour guide, cruise director or hotel manager. This is something not enough insurance purchasers do, says Harvey. Failure to notify an insurer promptly gives justification to deny an otherwise covered claim, he says. "The insurer wants to know whether to transport you back home or to a better facility, and will want to approve expenses regarding your care."

What if I'm sexually assaulted?

Claims of rape by crew members or fellow passengers happen at more than twice the U.S. rate for claims on land -- about 56.9 per 100,000, according to cruise crime expert Ross A. Klein's 2008 testimony in Senate hearings on the issue. The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act mandates that ships log complaints of crimes, including rape, and hand their reports over to FBI, Coast Guard and other law-enforcement investigators. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, cruise lines reported 37 sexual assaults during the period of January 1, 2017 through June 30, 2017. As with assaults onshore, many go unreported. Even if most trip insurance policies don't contain wording specifically mentioning rape, you could still have a covered claim. If you sought treatment or had a rape kit done at the local hospital, for instance, you'd make the claim for emergency medical benefits; if you cut short your cruise after the rape, you could file a claim under the trip interruption benefit.

What if I come down with norovirus?

Just as when the ship is mechanically incapacitated, the principle of "measurable financial loss" applies here: There needs to be a provable monetary loss for insurance to help in this situation. The inconvenience of a dream cruise dashed by annoying illness doesn't count. Were you too sick to go on prepaid, nonrefundable excursions? Did you pay to see the ship's doctor? Those are valid insurance claims. Whereas if you're stuck in your room feeling like death for a few days, there's nothing to claim, since you didn't incur any real expenses.

What if I'm offered an unsatisfactory settlement for my ruined cruise?

If a cruise line's compensation isn't enough, put in a claim on your third-party policy instead, advises Harvey. Why your original cruise failed is important only in that it needs to be a "covered reason": spelled out and afforded a benefit under the policy. If that's the case, decline the cruise line's offer of onboard credits, free alcohol or a free future cruise and hand over vouchers they gave you to your third-party insurance provider, who will be in a better position to make you whole for your financial loss -- in cash, not in kind. If you've accepted any cruise line help, such as money to rebook travel arrangements, it will be deducted from the value of the claim through third-party insurance.

What if I die while cruising?

It's the worst-case scenario -- and, unfortunately, it's not too uncommon. Death falls under a policy's "medical evacuation and repatriation" benefit, which means your estate would be reimbursed for the cost of transporting your body home. Harvey notes that the amount of such coverage varies widely: Travel Guard's Basic policy offers $100,000 per person, while Travel Guard Platinum lets you expense up to $1,000,000 for repatriation and is one of several policies offering additional life insurance coverage, too. A spouse or family member covered under the same policy would be able to reclaim expenses caused by interrupting the cruise to accompany your body home. A death certificate is needed to activate any claim.

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