Cruise vacations are wonderful getaways. Whether you visit famous ports of call on an ocean cruise or explore historic waterways on a river cruise, you can relax, meet new people, enjoy delicious meals and forget about arranging hotels and transportation.
Know Before You Go
As you research cruise vacation possibilities, be sure to take the time to read each cruise line's contract. This document provides information about your cruise line's policies and obligations to you as well as your obligations to your cruise line.
Find Your Cruise Line's Passenger Contract
Some cruise lines post their contracts on their websites. You may need to use the website's search function to find it, using a variety of search terms, including passenger contract, cruise contract or guest ticket contract.
Other cruise lines send you a copy of your cruise contract with your tickets or give you a link to the contract on the password-protected section of their website reserved for booked guests. You agree to the contract when you purchase your cruise ticket, so you may wish to consider asking your cruise line or travel agent for a copy before you hand over your deposit.
Once you have your cruise contract in hand, read it carefully. Important topics include:
Cancellation Policies / Refunds
Most cruise lines have complicated cancellation and refund policies. In general, you can cancel a cruise, but will not get all of your money back; your refund will be determined based on how soon before your sailing date you submit your cancellation request. If you cancel within approximately two weeks of your sailing date, you will not get a refund at all.
Cruise lines offer trip protection plans; passengers can choose to purchase coverage that will allow them to get a larger refund should they need to cancel their cruise.
You can also purchase a separate travel insurance policy that includes "cancel for any reason" coverage. Typically, you can exercise your option to cancel for any reason up to 48 hours before your trip is scheduled to begin, and you can recoup 75% to 80% of your trip cost if you do cancel your trip.
Without a trip protection plan or travel insurance policy, you stand to lose a great deal of money if you have to cancel your trip at the last minute. You should always assume that your ship will sail, even in a hurricane, unless your cruise line notifies you that your cruise has been canceled.
Medical Care at Sea
Your cruise contract should also provide general information about charges for medical care provided at sea. It may include a reminder that Medicare does not pay for medical services incurred outside of the United States, including onboard your cruise ship. Passengers on Medicare should consider purchasing a travel medical insurance policy for their trip.
Baggage Loss and Damage Policies
Each cruise line determines how much it will compensate passengers for loss or damage to baggage and personal possessions. For example, as of this writing, Royal Caribbean limits baggage liability to $300 per passenger, and excludes jewelry, precious metals, prescriptions, dental wear and many other items from loss or damage compensation. Norwegian Cruise Line limits liability for baggage damage or loss to $100 per passenger unless that passenger opts to pay for extra coverage, and has a similar list of excluded items.
Do not be surprised if you discover that your cruise line will not compensate you for loss or damage to items left in your stateroom.
If you plan to carry valuable items with you on your cruise, you should consider purchasing a separate baggage loss / damage travel insurance policy.
Itinerary / Port Call Changes
Your cruise line can change your itinerary, including your port calls, at any time, for any reason, and will likely do so if bad weather, labor disputes or political unrest threatens your safety. If you have set up a tour or activity at a port of call yourself or through anyone but your cruise line, and your cruise itinerary is changed, you will not receive a refund from your cruise line.
Your cruise contract may also state that the cruise line may substitute one vessel for another without notice and without compensation to passengers. In other words, if there is a problem with your ship, you may sail on a different ship with a different layout, which will affect your stateroom assignment, dining options and shipboard activities.
The Bottom Line
Your cruise line knows that pleasing its passengers is key to its continued profitability. The policies detailed in your cruise contract are designed to protect the cruise line. Understanding these policies before you purchase your cruise tickets and using this information to determine whether you need to buy travel insurance for your cruise.