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Archive for April, 2006


Choosing cruise insurance

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On April - 24 - 2006

In the 17 years I’ve been cruising, I’ve seen many people fall ill and be taken off the ship in port or even evacuated at sea by helicopter. While I have always hoped for their speedy recovery, I have also wondered if they had purchased travel insurance.

It’s certainly tempting not to. How many times have you returned from a trip safe and sound and kicked yourself for spending a couple of hundred bucks to insure against some calamity that never transpired? (Plenty, God willing.) But it only takes once, and it doesn’t have to be much of a calamity to deep-six your sizable cruise investment. A jury summons can do it, or an attack of appendicitis, or a missed connection on the way to the ship.

In my opinion, all cruise vacationers should buy travel insurance. But where to start?

The basics

Most cruise lines offer a travel insurance package that can be purchased when you book your cruise. There are also many third-party (independent) insurance companies like Access America, Travel Guard and Travelex (to name a few) that offer coverage which can be purchased either directly from the company or through a travel agent.

* Coverage. Most travel insurance policies include coverage for five kinds of problems: trip cancellation (or interruption), trip delay, emergency medical expenses, emergency medical evacuation, and lost or stolen baggage. Many policies also offer round-the-clock travel assistance to help you replace a lost passport, rebook a reservation, or cope with other travel mishaps. The big draw is the trip cancellation coverage. In fact, according to Dan McGinnity, a spokesman for Travel Guard, 80 percent of Travel Guard’s claims are for events that happen before the ship leaves the dock: illness, injury, jury duty, a sick family member — you name it.

* Cost. The cost of travel insurance is usually based on the traveler’s age and the trip cost. Typically, the insurance cost will run about 6 to 8 percent of the trip cost, but it can be less. For example, a 59-year-old traveler on a $3,000 cruise can purchase a Travel Guard “Protect Assist” policy for $145. A similar policy for the same 59-year-old traveler would cost $129 from Travelex and $131 from Access America.

* Comparison. Costs and coverage do vary, and it’s in your best interest to do some comparison shopping before handing over the insurance premium. A nifty little website, insuremytrip.com, allows consumers to compare plans among 16 travel insurance providers.

Cruise line vs. third-party insurance

There are several key differences between insurance policies offered by cruise lines and those offered by independent insurance companies. Cruise offerings generally cost less than third-party insurance, and they sometimes give more protection. But what you won’t get, as a rule, is protection if the cruise line goes into financial default and ceases operations; third-party insurers generally do cover such events.

While all cruise lines offer the five basic components of coverage, most cover only those parts of the trip that you purchase directly from them. For example, if you book your airfare separately from your cruise fare, or if you drive to the port of embarkation, you won’t be covered for that travel segment under most cruise line policies. With third-party insurance, you can purchase a protection plan that covers the entire trip.

“With Travel Guard’s cruise coverage you are covered door to door, ship to shore,” says McGinnity, and the same is true of many other independent policies. Moreover, third-party insurers usually offer special coverages that cruise lines generally don’t offer, e.g. coverage for out-of-pocket medical expenses and coverage for pre-existing medical conditions.

If you have a pre-existing medical condition, you must read your insurance policy carefully. To qualify under most insurer’s terms, you must be in good health and medically able to travel when you purchase the trip; moreover, you must also have been healthy for a full 60-180 days prior to booking. In addition, the policy must be purchased within 15 days of paying the trip deposit. Few cruise lines automatically offer a waiver for pre-existing medical conditions, and when they do, it’s usually at an additional cost with many restrictions.

Another peculiarity of cruise line policies is the “cruise credit.” If a passenger needs to cancel or interrupt a cruise because of a pre-existing medical condition, another illness or injury, or any other covered reason, many cruise lines will offer the unlucky traveler not cash but a credit towards a future cruise. For cash back, it’s better to go with an independent.

One last factor to consider is how medical claims are handled. For the most part, third-party insurance provides primary coverage, i.e., the insurance company pays the traveler directly for any medical claim. Most cruise lines, on the other hand, provide secondary coverage, which means that you must file your claims through your regular medical insurance carrier; you will be reimbursed by the cruise line’s insurance company only after those claims are settled.

Emergency illness aboard ship

What many Americans don’t realize is that their regular health insurance doesn’t necessarily travel with them. Medicare recipients, for example, are often surprised to find that they do not have coverage outside the country. If your regular policy won’t cover you abroad, evaluate your needs and shop around for the plan that suits you best. Even if your health insurance does cover overseas expenses, you may still want to purchase a medical assistance policy to fill in any gaps.

One big gap in most medical insurance policies is medical evacuation. The vast majority of traditional health providers do not provide coverage for air medical evacuation and transportation services. According to Medjet Assist, an Alabama-based evacuation operation, domestic air medical evacuation services average $10,000 to $20,000, while international transports can exceed $75,000. If you travel more than once a year, consider buying an annual policy. These are available for as little as $205 a year, and you’ll know you’re covered when you want to take that last-minute trip.

Caveat emptor

Cruising is exciting, but it can turn into more of an adventure than you planned if you discover that you aren’t covered for the unexpected. The benefits of travel insurance can be great, but it pays to know which insurance is best for you. Go over the fine print carefully, and be sure you know what you’re getting — and what you’re not getting — before signing on the dotted line.

“Many times passengers return home wondering why they purchased insurance; after all, nothing happened and they could have saved that $150,” says Bonnie Buchanan, a travel agent with CruiseOne in San Antonio, Texas. “But, it’s the one time something does happen that will make up for every time it was purchased and not used.”

So, go ahead, part with the cash. Someday you’ll thank me.

Filled Under Advice

Your credit card is watching you

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On April - 19 - 2006

After returning home from a cruise in French Polynesia, I found a startling message on my answering machine: “This is Bank of America inquiring about charges made in Huahine on July 17. Please call as soon as possible regarding your account.”

I was worried. Had someone stolen my card number and gone on a shopping spree? I called the credit card company right away, and what I learned surprised me. My card wasn’t stolen. Instead, the credit card company was monitoring my spending.

I had never before used my credit card in French Polynesia, so when I bought black pearl earrings in Tahiti, the bank deemed the charges questionable and put a hold on my account — both for my protection and, presumably, to limit their own losses if the card had been compromised. Credit card companies often do this when their computers detect an abnormal pattern of use. As I found out, this normally helpful service can pose problems for travelers.

Take Hank Allyn, for example. While traveling in Belize earlier this year, the Pittsburgh resident stopped for gas along a remote road deep in the jungle. He gave the attendant his Visa card and waited in the car. A few minutes later, the attendant returned to tell him the credit card had been rejected. Allyn was confused since he had used the card to rent the vehicle only a few days earlier. Fortunately, he had enough cash on hand to pay for the gas, and he had another credit card he could use for the rest of the trip. Only after Allyn returned home and found a message from his credit card company on the answering machine did he understand what had happened.

As credit card fraud has become more global and more sophisticated, so have efforts to ferret out illegitimate charges. Credit card companies have invested heavily in sophisticated anti-fraud computer software, which uses a complex algorithm to analyze the pattern of transactions, weighing such variables as dollar amount, time of day, day of the week, merchant category and the country in which the charges are made.

Sometimes large purchases will raise a red flag, as I found out when I purchased an emerald in Cartagena, Colombia. Again, the bank called my home to make sure I was the one using the card. Fortunately, a family member was there to let the bank know that I was indeed in Colombia, thus preventing my card from being put on hold.

Passport for your card

Do you need a visa for your Visa? Maybe. A stamp of approval in advance of departure will make charging much easier overseas. If you are planning to travel to far-flung destinations, here are some tips to make sure your credit card keeps on charging:

* Call your credit card company or the bank that issues your card and let them know your travel itinerary — both dates and destinations.

* Make sure you have the issuer’s special toll-free number for overseas customer service. The regular 800 number, which is usually listed on the back of the card, will not work outside the United States and Canada.

* Make a note of your card number and the overseas customer service number, and keep them in a safe place separate from the card. That way, if the card is stolen, you will have the necessary information to make a report.

Even with advance notification, you may not be able to spend as you please while you are abroad. Certain charge patterns will still arouse suspicion, and your card may be subject to spending limits, so you should always carry a second credit card.

Your rights

Under federal law, you are not responsible for unauthorized charges over $50. However, you must report the card stolen or lost immediately to be covered under this law. If unauthorized charges do occur, you will need to document them in writing to the credit card company within 60 days. Not all credit cards have the same rules, so check with your card company for its policies.

For more information about your rights under the Fair Credit Billing Act, visit the Federal Trade Commission‘s Web site.

Filled Under Advice

Repo cruises: more for less

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On April - 10 - 2006

With the change of seasons come changes in cruise destinations, especially in spring and fall when cruise lines offer new itineraries in anticipation of warmer or colder weather. At these times, cruise lines move their ships from one home port to another in a strategic fleet movement that’s called “repositioning.” Of course, those ships don’t move around empty; instead, what you get is a “repositioning cruise” (or “repo cruise”) — a unique, one-way itinerary that is available only once a year.

In spring, the most common repositioning itineraries are from the Caribbean to Europe or from the Caribbean to Alaska; in fall, these itineraries are reversed. Repo cruises to Alaska commonly include popular stops on the cruise line’s eastern, western, and southern Caribbean itineraries, a transit of the Panama Canal and stops along the Mexican Riviera. Silversea Cruises adds an interesting side trip to the Pacific leg, sending its Silver Shadow across the Bering Sea for a stop in Petropavlovsk, Russia, before ending the cruise in Anchorage.

Trans-Atlantic repositioning cruises from the Caribbean to Europe can include stops in Portugal, Spain and Morocco. For example, when Holland America’s Prinsendam sets sail from its winter port of Fort Lauderdale to begin its Mediterranean season, it will visit Madeira, Palma and Casablanca.

Some repo cruises really go off the beaten track. When Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony returns to New York after its summer season in Europe, it will make stops in Tórshavn (Faroe Islands), Denmark, Reykjavík, and Nuuk, Greenland. Because these are one-time itineraries, repositioning cruises feel fresh and have great appeal to travelers who are looking for something new in cruising.

But if you’re not up for adventure, or you don’t want to be that cold, there are spring repo cruises that stop in warmer, more familiar ports. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line‘s Norwegian Majesty offers spring repositioning cruises from the Caribbean to Boston that stop in Charleston, South Carolina; there are return trips in the fall.

Great value

Repositioning cruises are usually longer than conventional cruises, and they can offer unique ports of call. They also offer great value. In fact, repositioning cruises usually cost significantly less per day than other sailings on the same ship. This is partly because longer cruises do not suit everyone’s schedule, and partly because these cruises sail during the shoulder seasons, when fewer people travel.

Luxury cruise specialist Lucy Hirleman, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J., says, “Cruise lines offer very attractive packages on repo cruises to ensure that their ships sail as full as possible. Pricing is sometimes 50 percent of the normal per diem on a regular itinerary. Depending upon the cruise line, pricing can be anywhere from $75 to $500 per day, per person.”

Cruise lines will sometimes dangle bigger savings on these sailings by offering free airfare or two-for-one pricing (and sometimes both). Currently, for example, Regent Seven Seas Cruises (formally known as Radisson Seven Sea Cruises) is offering free air on selected Alaska sailings and Oceania Cruises is offering free round-trip air and two-for-one cruise fares on selected cruises in Asia and Europe. All cruise lines feature repositioning cruises in their brochures, but it pays to check with a travel agent, who may know of unadvertised last-minute offers.

“Tai chi at sea”

Repositioning cruises generally make fewer port stops than conventional cruises; there is a lot of ocean to cross, so there will more days at sea. If shore excursions are your thing, this may not be the cruise for you. But for those who want to savor shipboard accommodations and services, this is a great way to do it.

In fact, there is a certain romantic aura around repositioning cruises. Devotees of trans-Atlantic crossings aboard Cunard Line‘s Queen Mary 2 will attest to the pleasures of slowly navigating the time zones in luxury rather than suffering the frantic pace — and jetlag — of air travel.

Many travelers just love being at sea, and they prefer gentle shipboard rhythms to the stressful on-and-off of nonstop port calls.

“In our hectic-paced world, a repo cruise will definitely soothe the savage beast,” Hirleman says. “It’s like tai chi at sea.”

Moreover, the cruise lines often schedule additional activities and special themed events for their repositioning cruises. Cooking classes, wine tastings and guest lectures prove popular among those who want to be edified, while others find enjoyment in such old-fashioned pleasures as a good book, breakfast in bed and pampering spa treatments.

“A repositioning cruise offers long, restful days at sea,” says Linda Coffman, editor of Cruise Diva, a cruise Web site, and author of Fodor’s The Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises.”

“If you see yourself lazing in a deck chair sipping morning coffee while gazing at the endless horizon,” Coffman says, “a repositioning cruise may just be your ticket.”

Last week, I wrote a column on getting bumped from a long-anticipated cruise. Reader Richard Johnson replied with the following comment: “As a young woman coming over from England, my grandmother was bumped from the Titanic. This has always given me a useful perspective on travel delays.” In travel, as in all things, perspective is important. Thanks, Richard! –ADP

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