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Medical Emergency on a Cruise Ship: What Should You Do?

doctor with clipboard
Allianz - doctor with clipboard

You’re walking back to your cabin after a sumptuous meal when you start to feel short of breath, with some pain in your abdomen and chest. Is it just indigestion? Or something more serious, like a heart attack?

If you were at home, you wouldn’t hesitate to call your doctor. But you’re on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, many miles from shore. Now you’re wondering what to do — and if something’s seriously wrong, what happens next?

Here’s what you need to know in case you experience a cruise medical emergency. Remember that travel insurance is essential for cruise vacations, so compare plans and buy before you go! Find travel insurance for your next cruise.

What to Do When You Have a Medical Emergency on a Cruise Ship

Don’t panic. First, visit the ship’s medical center. All major cruise lines have onboard medical facilities staffed by experienced, credentialed doctors and nurses.1 While the equipment and services available may vary, cruise medical centers generally are able to perform minor surgeries, prescribe medications and stabilize patients who have more serious medical conditions.

Sometimes, cruise passengers hesitate to visit the shipboard doctor because of the cost. Don’t expect the medical center to accept your U.S. health insurance; typically, the cost of any services and/or medication you receive will be billed to your room. If you have travel insurance with emergency medical/dental benefits, then you may be reimbursed for losses due to covered medical and dental emergencies that occur during your cruise.

If you have travel insurance from Allianz Global Assistance, contact our 24-Hour Hotline Assistance to let us know what’s going on — even if you’re not yet sure how serious your medical problem is!  The earlier we know about a potential emergency, the more time we have to lay the groundwork for assistance. Ask the shipboard doctor to keep your case manager apprised of your condition, in case we need to provide assistance.

Getting Treatment for a Cruise Ship Medical Emergency

Once you’ve been examined, the doctor will determine the best course of action.

If your medical condition can be treated on board, the doctor will administer treatment and/or medication. You may return to your cabin or be kept under observation.

If your condition is contagious but not life-threatening, you may be quarantined so you don’t infect others. On a cruise ship, quarantine is very serious — and it’s not optional. You’ll be instructed to stay in your cabin for a specified time, and your keycard may be deactivated (so that if you leave, you won’t be able to get back inside). Ship staff will bring you food, beverages, medicine and anything else you need.2

Being quarantined can totally ruin your cruise. Fortunately, travel insurance may be able to help! If you or your traveling companion is quarantined, that can be a covered reason for trip cancellation/interruption, so you can be reimbursed for your unused, nonrefundable trip costs.

If your medical condition requires treatment at a hospital, the doctor will work with the ship’s captain and/or your Allianz Global Assistance case manager to decide what to do. The ship may continue on its course and drop you off at a hospital at the next scheduled port of call. Or, in some instances, the ship may change course to reach port sooner. While the ship won’t wait for you, it’s possible you may be able to rejoin your cruise once you’ve been treated on shore.

Be aware that if you don’t have travel insurance with emergency medical benefits, you may have to pay out of pocket for your care in a hospital overseas. As the U.S. State Department notes, “many foreign medical facilities and providers require cash payment up front and do not accept U.S. insurance plans. Medicare does not provide coverage outside of the United States.”3

If your medical emergency is urgent and life-threatening, you may require a medical evacuation to the nearest appropriate medical facility. Without travel insurance, this process can be a costly nightmare. Medical evacuation by helicopter typically costs tens of thousands of dollars, and can rise to six figures in some parts of the world. Once you’re stabilized and you’re ready to return home, the cost of a medical escort or stretcher flight, if required, may cost another $25,000 to $30,000, on average.4

When you have travel insurance with emergency medical transportation benefits, Allianz Global Assistance can arrange and pay for your evacuation if you suffer a covered illness or injury while on your trip and we determine that the local medical facilities are unable to provide appropriate medical treatment. No matter how far you may be from shore, we’ll do our best to help!

One last thing: Once you’ve returned home safely from your cruise, remember to file a claim. You may be able to file a claim to be reimbursed for covered emergency medical expenses, as well as the costs for the unused part of your cruise, if you had to cut it short because of a covered medical emergency. Submit as much documentation as you can, and contact us with any questions.

Got a cruise coming up? The sooner you buy your travel insurance, the longer your coverage window! Find the best travel insurance for cruises from Allianz Global Assistance.

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