Heart attack scuttles cruise on Royal Caribbean — refund, please?

By | September 28th, 2016

Michael Smith and his wife booked a dream cruise to Alaska on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas, only to have it stopped cold by a medical emergency.

They hoped Royal Caribbean would sympathize with their plight, but rarely will a cruise line take responsibility for an unavoidable life event that is not their fault. The couple is hoping we can persuade the cruise line to reconsider.

Almost immediately after the Smiths boarded the ship in Vancouver, Michael began to feel that telltale ache in his left arm.

“I reported to the ship’s doctor, and he immediately called for an ambulance to take me to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver,” he says. “I was then diagnosed with a heart attack.”

By the time he was released from the hospital, the ship was already in Alaska, so the Smiths were forced to cancel their cruise and go home. Although their vacation was over, their problems weren’t. The couple faced bills and a cruise line that refused to refund their cruise fare.

The Smiths had prepaid for a land tour and two beverage packages to be used during the cruise. Despite the line’s normal cruise cancellation policy, Royal Caribbean reimbursed Smith for those expenses, along with the taxes and fees he paid on his cruise fare.

Some of this can be considered a goodwill gesture by the cruise line, since the cruise contract does not mandate that all those items must be reimbursed. But at the same time, the reimbursements were mostly for shipboard services the Smiths never had a chance to use. I think it is fair to say the cruise line refunded as much as the ship’s purser would allow.

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But Smith was hoping for more — that he could get a full refund for the cruise he and his wife were unable to take. Unfortunately, cruise line policies are very similar to those of airlines. They make their money by selling a “perishable commodity,” meaning that once that ship sets sail the suddenly vacant stateroom cannot be sold to anyone else.

Smith tallied the cruise line expenses for us:

  • The total amount the Smiths paid to Royal Caribbean was $3,276.
  • The cruise line refunded the beer packages ($644), and the shore excursions for two people ($759).
  • The taxes and fees (port charges, for example) were also refunded, but the cruise line kept $2,870.

“They are not going to refund one penny of the cruise fare even though we only spent maybe three hours on the ship,” says Smith.

That’s a lot of money.

But even worse are the medical bills Smith received. Smith is from Arizona, and his U.S.-based Blue Cross medical insurance does not cover any of his hospital expenses in Canada, so now he also owes more than $11,500 ($15,000 Canadian) to the cardiologist and an assistant.

Most medical insurance for U.S. citizens will not cover you in foreign nations. That includes the vast majority of ocean cruise vessels, which are registered under foreign flags.

I don’t know if Smith knew he was at risk of a heart attack, but even pre-existing conditions are insurable as long as you reveal the condition well in advance of the cruise, typically before or with the final payment to the cruise line. The time limitation exists to make sure people do not try to buy “pre-existing condition” insurance just before a cruise sets sail. Yes, this is confusing, and so travel insurance policies must be compared carefully before purchase. Using a reputable agent to help you is also highly recommended.

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A good travel insurance policy would have also refunded the cruise fare and other unexpected travel costs, such as hotels and the return flight to Tucson. (For more information, see our FAQ section on travel insurance.)

Of course, no one ever likes to think about all the things that can possibly go wrong during a vacation, but in this case $1,000 in travel insurance for both Smiths could have saved them about $14,000 in expenses.

Smith wants us to ask for an exception to the cruise line’s nonrefundability policy. After all, he suffered enough with the heart attack and hospital costs. Shouldn’t the cruise line show some compassion?

Should we take Michael Smith's case?

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