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Cruise Ship Doctors and Travel Health Insurance

Who pays? Hint: If you need to see one, you’ll want to have travel health insurance.

travel health insurance

There’s nothing like a weeklong cruise—fine dining! Dancing! Shore excursions!—to help you get away from it all. Unfortunately, your dream getaway is also taking you far away from your own doctor’s care—and, in all likelihood, your health insurance coverage, as well.

Cruise ship doctors are trained to handle many things, but the bill you receive afterwards can bring its own pain. For this reason, savvy travelers consider travel health insurance policies as carefully as they do a cruise line’s itinerary and amenities.

travel health insurance

Why you might need a cruise ship doctor

A lot has changed since the old days, when the most excitement you could hope for was shuffleboard on the Lido Deck. These days, however, cruise lines compete with each other to offer the latest and greatest in heart-pounding action and adventure. According to Cruise Critic, a cruise review and community information site: “The trend started with rock climbing walls, waterslides and ice skating rinks and quickly escalated to skydiving simulators, levitating cocktail bars and the latest in high-tech entertainment…”

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What could go wrong?

The dangers posed by today’s new attractions combine with well-known cruise ship misadventures of old—food poisoning, viruses, poolside slips, prescription pills left at home—and general risk (strokes, heart attacks, onboard assaults) to provide a veritable ocean of “Quick! Call the doctor!” scenarios.

Where travel health insurance comes in

The good news is that the major cruise ships have trained personnel and better equipment than you might imagine. Cruise ship doctors on major lines have a minimum three years general experience as well as experience in critical and emergency care, and the infirmary could include everything from EKG machines to diagnostic labs.

The bad news is, the convenience comes with a high cost—and it’s not getting billed to (or taken care of by) your health insurance company. Instead, the cruise ship doctor’s bill is charged to your onboard account; you’ll have to figure out how to get reimbursed for those receipts. Your health insurance company may pay some portion, but exclusions (in the form of out-of-network costs and/or the fact that you were not in the U.S. when the incident occurred) may apply.

(Seniors note: Except in rare occasions, Medicare does not cover charges incurred outside the U.S. Check with Medicare.gov for details.)

A well-chosen travel health insurance policy (also called travel medical insurance) will fill in the gaps, helping to pay for emergency medical care and medical evacuation, should you need it. The latter is especially important, as most health insurance companies do not cover emergency evacuation.

You’ll also want to be sure to read the fine print when choosing travel medical insurance. For example, you may find medical evacuation is covered up to $20,000—not very helpful if the actual bill is closer to $100,000. Don’t assume that evacuation is an “onboard incident only” issue; depending on your itinerary, you may want evacuation from an area of the world where the quality of medical care is unknown.

The bottom line (and top tips)

Misadventures on the high seas happen. Be sure to look into a cruise ship’s medical capabilities before booking, and safeguard your wallet by getting travel health insurance.

  • The cruise line you’re thinking of booking may offer protection plans and insurance, but experts advise against them. Instead, research multiple companies. Consumer Reports recommends tailoring a plan to your needs: “Ask for quotes, but be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. What’s covered under policies can vary. For example, some may not include emergency evacuation.” Read the fine print.
  • Also a good idea: “Check to make sure a cruise line is a member of the Cruise Line International Association. To be a member, a cruise line must meet quality control standards that have been set by the American College of Emergency Physicians.” — John Bradberry, MD/HealthCentral.com
  • As always, remember that injuries sustained while under the influence of drugs or alcohol will not be covered by most policies, and that some may have policy limits on the types of “extreme” adventures you hoped to have onboard.
  • And one last thought, also from Consumer Reports: “You can sue the cruise line, but you will lose. Courts have ruled that a cruise line may not be held vicariously liable for the negligence of a ship’s doctor, and that ‘a cruise ship is not a floating hospital.’ To the surprise of many disgruntled passengers, there’s no medical malpractice for care rendered aboard a ship.”

Have you ever had a mishap at sea that required a cruise ship doctor and having (or not having) travel medical insurance? Share your advice and hard-won insights  in the comments section below.

For all things travel-related, go to AAA.com/Travel.

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