Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard News.

A number of recent stories have covered emergency medical evacuations of ill or injured passengers from cruise ships. These evacuations could arise from serious illness (such as a heart attack or stroke) or traumatic injuries suffered by the passenger in an accident aboard the cruise ship.

Although no one hopes to have to deal with any medical issues while on a dream vacation, let alone life-threatening ones, the need for cruise ship medical evacuations can and does arise, and if you are not prepared for such emergency with travel insurance, the financial consequences could be severe. The U.S. Coast Guard is often called to conduct airlift operations, and Kudos to those men and women for their hard work and dedication. While its services are free and are paid for by the taxpayer, emergency evacuations by the U.S. Coast Guard are limited to instances where the ship is in or near U.S. waters. Unless you are fortunate enough to have your medical emergency timed perfectly with the ship’s U.S. itinerary, you’ll probably need the services of a private medical evacuation provider. Even if the medical emergency arises while in U.S. waters, unless it is truly life-threatening, the ship will likely proceed to the nearest port of call, which may be a foreign port, and evacuate you there using a private medevac company. In North America, costs for such service to return you to a U.S. based hospital could run upwards of $25,000, which will depend on your location and the medical emergency. Evacuations from Europe could exceed $50,000. As high as these numbers sound, they could get even higher. If you are not stable enough to travel, you’ll probably incur the additional costs of being transported to a local hospital and the care received there until you are ready to be airlifted.

So what’s the best way to protect against this risk? Don’t simply rely on your existing medical coverage, as most private health insurance policies and Medicare exclude coverage for medical care abroad. If you have preexisting medical issues that could potentially interrupt your vacation, you should seriously consider investing in travel insurance. The cost is usually only a fraction (5%-10%) of your total cruise and air fare package, but is well worth it.  Some passengers decide to pass on travel insurance, figuring it is only necessary if they need to cancel their trip or make a claim for lost luggage or other valuables in excess of the very low limits set by cruise lines in the fine print of their cruise contract. And that may be fine for some. But if you suffer from any medical condition that could become an issue during your cruise, you should invest in the added protection.

If you decide to purchase travel insurance, make sure that you are purchasing from a reputable and established company. While most cruise lines offer their own cruise protection plans, their coverage is often more limited in their terms than those available from third parties and offers secondary rather than primary coverage. This means that you have to turn to other sources of insurance first before the cruise line policy kicks in. Instead, you may want to check with your travel agent or use one of the travel and medical insurance companies listed on the U.S. Department of State’s website.

Before purchasing the policy, make sure it has a preexisting condition waiver, so those medical conditions you already have before taking your cruise are not excluded. You should also opt for a policy offering primary coverage, even though it is slightly more expensive. Finally, buy early. Certain policies have time limits tied to your trip deposit payment, and while you can purchase the insurance up until the day before your departure, you may not have all the features you could have benefited from if you bought the policy much earlier.