Travel Insurance and Cruise Disasters: A Look at the Carnival Triumph

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Last night, the ill-fated Carnival Triumph finally docked in Mobile, Alabama after passengers had endured four days of discomfort following a fire that knocked out much of the ship’s power and left it bobbing listlessly in the water, requiring the vessel to be towed to port by tugboats in order to get passengers evacuated.  The deteriorating conditions aboard the ship have dominated travel headlines, and its ultimately safe (if odorous) arrival at port was greeted with a collective sigh of relief from most of the general public — to say nothing, of course, of the travelers aboard the Triumph and their loved ones at home.

By now, it’s been widely reported that Carnival Cruise Lines has made efforts to patch things up with the understandably shaken passengers of the Triumph.  The cruise line’s arrangements to charter buses and planes, book blocks of hotel rooms, and secure ways for all of the Triumph’s travelers to get home safely and quickly have been the subject of much scrutiny.  As is the case with almost any travel nightmare of this magnitude and visibility, no matter what the cruise line ultimately does or does not do for its passengers will invite opinions on all sides.  Debate is certain to rage — and is already, in fact, smoldering — as to whether or not cruise vouchers and refunds and passage home is really “enough.”

The trouble is, as consumer advocate Clark Howard aptly pointed out this morning, Carnival is not actually obligated to do anything to assist these unfortunate passengers.  Contracts of carriage aboard cruise ships don’t usually include any kind of language that barely hints at the cruise line bearing responsibility for passengers’ happiness, comfort, or transportation needs should something on board go awry.  To question, therefore, whether Carnival’s efforts in this case are “enough” for passengers is interesting, but it’s only an academic exercise.  By offering the assistance they have, the cruise line has already gone well beyond what it’s contractually obligated to do.  (Moral and ethical obligation may be another story, but that will ultimately be tried in the court of public opinion.)

Like it or not, if Carnival had chosen not to extend these offers of assistance, there wouldn’t be any legal need for them to do so — though there would, presumably, have been a resulting public relations snafu the likes of which no company aiming to stay in business would ever want to experience.  In the event that the cruise line had not taken care of its passengers’ immediate needs, what recourse would they have had?

Travel insurance may have provided solutions for many of the Triumph’s passengers in that circumstance.  A comprehensive travel insurance plan — one purchased from a third party, not from the cruise line — would very likely have covered most, if not all, of the difficulties experienced aboard the ship.  Among the possibilities:

  • Damaged belongings.  If conditions aboard the ship — whether fire or flood — led to property damage, the baggage coverage included in a travel insurance package policy could have helped with replacing the affected items.
  • Medical care.  If a passenger fell ill or was injured on board, the medical coverage on their travel insurance policy might have helped to cover the costs of their treatment, if those costs were not already covered by their primary health insurance carrier.
  • Rebooking.  The Triumph’s passengers all ended up having to get home through alternate arrangements, not using the means they had originally planned.  A reputable travel insurance company would not only have assistance available to make the necessary arrangements for transportation and, if necessary, lodgings, but would also potentially reimburse those costs.
  • Reimbursement for pre-paid expenses.  If any passengers had made arrangements for further travel beyond the scheduled return of their cruise, and had lost the opportunity to fulfill those plans, travel insurance could help them to recover any pre-paid, nonrefundable expenses.

It’s easy to assume that a cruise line, or any other travel supplier for that matter, will always do the right thing for its passengers.  We’d like to believe that they will.  However, situations like the one aboard the Carnival Triumph certainly give us a moment of pause as we consider what might have happened.  The only way to be sure you’re protected in whatever way possible against the financial toll of a travel disaster is to equip yourself with an appropriate travel insurance policy from the moment you book your trip.

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One thought on “Travel Insurance and Cruise Disasters: A Look at the Carnival Triumph

  1. I can confirm from harsh personal experience that cruise lines don’t think they have to do anything to make it up to customers when things go awry and it’s their fault. The contract of carriage is, in fact, totally one sided, with no recourse or appeal on the part of the passenger. Caveat emptor. Buy trip insurance.

    I had booked a cruise from Istanbul to Venice last summer aboard Oceania’s Riviera. I reported aboard with a very large knee, caused by my worst gout attack ever, complicated by an infection from a fall. I called my physician at home, who is on staff at Presbyterian-New York Weill Cornell Medical Center, and she suggested I not get treated until I got aboard ship and saw the ship’s doctor. The doctor, whom I judged in the end to be incompetent, wanted me immediately debarked before the ship sailed, so I could “have (my) knee opened and scraped.” I declined. He was in a panic about my high white cell count, not realizing that gout increases white cell count as surely as an infection, and for the same reason. So he treated me for the infection, and only upon my insistence treated me for the gout. He kept referring to me as “septic” and being in danger of losing my knee unless I immediately had it opened and scraped. He never believed I had gout, however, refused to talk to my doctor back home, saying “I don’t care what she thinks and I especially don’t care what you think,” and when he involuntarily debarked me into the Greek medical system three days later he noted on my medical certificate (from memory, but this is the gist) “Patient thinks he has gout. Uric acid level normal.” In other words, he was claiming I didn’t know what I was talking about.

    The ship’s agent ashore was in charge of getting me into the only private hospital in Piraeus and obtaining rooms for us at a decent hotel–all at our expense, of course. I had an MRI which found plenty of soft tissue damage “consistent with gout,” and a blood culture which confirmed a routine, easily treatable bacterial infection above the patella but never in the knee or the bloodstream. In no way was I “septic” or in danger of losing the knee. Still, I went home, cancelling onward plans in Venice and northern Italy. The episode probably cost me $8,000 plus lost cruise fare.

    When I got back to New York, I saw competent orthopedic surgeons and rheumatologists in two different hospitals, including Presbyterian-New York. They kept me on the drugs I had been taking for two weeks. “I know it looks bad,” said the ortho, but your knee is fine, and we’re not cutting into it. Furthermore, the smartest thing you ever did in your life was refusing to have the knee opened and scraped, which could have driven the infection into the knee and caused serious complications. “So what caused all the agitas?” I asked. “Gout, mainly,” said the competent doctor. “You had an infection I would probably have treated at the same time, but mostly it was gout.”

    I had medical coverage, so that was 80% taken care of, the hotel stay and living expenses in Piraeus were my problem (but the food for our four day wait for test results was great) and Delta Airlines was wonderful, and changed our non-refundable flight arrangements at no charge. We’re still out the cruise fare, of course. I wrote to the Chairman of Prestige Cruise Holdings, which owns both Oceania and Regent, expecting some sort of makeup offer. I pointed out this was my fourth cruise on one of their very expensive ships (two on Oceania and two on Regent) and had one more booked for the coming year. They said they had acted appropriately, and they would do nothing to make it up to us.

    I of course have cancelled the upcoming Oceania trip. I will never travel on one of their, or Regent’s, ships again. And everyone should be forewarned. I had no idea a vacation could turn out so badly. If only I’d had trip insurance, I would have saved thousands of dollars. In July we’re taking a Windstar cruise, and I purchased my trip insurance long ago.

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