Sick at Sea: Why Medical Evacuation Coverage is Necessary for Cruise Trips

Sick at Sea: Why Medical Evacuation Coverage is Necessary for Cruise Trips

No one thinks about having a medical emergency or getting sick at sea, but it happens more often than you might expect. Medical evacuations are highly risky procedures that involve laws and regulations of air and sea, coordination of emergency crew and ship crew, and coordination between aircraft and ship.

As a result, medical evacuations are extremely expensive and the final cost depends on many factors, including how far the patient has to travel to receive care, their condition, and whether or not they need medical treatment inflight. Having medical evacuation coverage is a vital necessity anytime you take a cruise because it’s never covered under a health insurance plan nor are evacuations ever covered under Medicare.

Warning! You may have seen media stories of the Coast Guard evacuating patients from cruise ships and think that emergency evacuation is not necessary, but the Coast Guard cannot rescue patients in many situations – either the ship is too far from the U.S. shore or the conditions are not suitable for Coast Guard boats. Plus, the cost of that rescue is paid for by the patient.

Cruise Ship Facts

Here are a few cruise ship facts that you may not be aware of:

  • The ship’s doctor is the boss – if the doctor feels that you should disembark for medical treatment, you will disembark, either at the next port or by evacuation.
  • No matter where the ship is registered, medical care falls under ACEP guidelines and has no connection to what flag the ship is flying.
  • The cruise ship captain and crew have no responsibility to get a sick passenger to a safe harbor to find medical care – no matter how sick they are.
  • The cruise ship’s medical staff are independent contractors and are free to charge whatever they want.
  • Your account will have to be settled at the conclusion of your cruise – including your medical charges. So, you may have to max out your credit card or multiple credit cards!

You must read the fine print in your cruise documents to understand your financial responsibilities.

Medical Capabilities of Cruise Ships

Modern cruise ships typically feature updated medical facilities that are staffed by doctors and nurses (independent contractors) and equipped to treat minor injuries and illnesses. Some ships have digital X-ray machines, cardiac life support systems, and telemedicine systems to communicate in real-time with specialists on shore, but remember you will be charged for everything the medical staff does to help you get well.

For every serious condition, such as a stroke or heart attack, the cruise medical staff will arrange to have the patient evacuated off the cruise ship to the nearest hospital on shore as quickly as possible. Many modern cruise ships have helipads specifically for this reason but for ships without a helipad, these situations are stressful, dangerous, and difficult.

Cruise Ship ‘Protection Plans’ have No Evacuation Coverage

Many cruise travelers are tempted by the marketing onslaught that occurs when you sign up for your cruise and make your first payment. At least some of that marketing is associated with getting your money back if you have to cancel, but you should be aware that cruise ship protection plans do not have evacuation coverage.

In fact, the cruise ship ‘protection plans’ have little coverage at all because they are sold by the cruise companies and heavily weighted in their favor. Very few incidents that a traveler can experience are covered by these plans and they are considered a waste of money by every travel industry expert. In the end, a good travel health insurance plan with plenty of evacuation coverage (at least $100,000-$200,000) is your best bet.

Travel medical insurance companies have representatives with foreign language skills, the coordination experience, and can make necessary arrangements to airlift you to the nearest medical facility. Investing in travel insurance can help you stay safe and protected on your next cruise.  To learn more, visit Cruise Travel Insurance or send your questions about emergency medication evacuation coverage, trip cancellation, and trip interruption insurance to

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