I’d been looking forward to my Arctic cruise with Lindblad for months. As soon as it was booked, I went online and filled out the paperwork for check-in, and I started exploring what my cruise on the line’s new 128-passenger ship, National Geographic Resolution, would bring.
I’m a cruise pro who has been on more than 100 cruises – including at least a dozen expedition voyages – and my boneheaded mistake nearly cost me this journey.
The reason: I missed the required medical form.
I had seen it sitting in my “to-do” list on Lindblad’s online cruise center, simply listed as “Medical Forms.” I assumed it was just a standard declaration that I didn’t have COVID-19 or some kind of gastrointestinal affliction and that I wasn’t pregnant, the kind of form I’ve filled out a hundred times before.
Wrong. It actually was a form that needed to be filled out by my doctor, certifying I’m in good enough health to take on an expedition cruise and the associated difficult shore excursions. And I only discovered it with 16 days to go.
And thus began my scrambling. Here’s what I did, and what you should know if you’re planning an expedition cruise to Antarctica or the Arctic.
My husband also travels for a living, and his schedule is even more hectic than mine. By the time I discovered the form – two weeks and two days before our cruise was scheduled to leave – I realized other travel commitments meant my spouse would be home less than 24 hours before our trip.
My first reaction was to panic and despair that the cruise might not happen. My heart racing, I read and reread the form looking for a loophole. There wasn’t one. So then I reached out to my network here at Cruise Critic to ask for advice and see if my colleagues ever needed a medical form to travel (this was a first for me).
Turns out, medical forms are somewhat standard when it comes to cruising to regions like the Arctic and Antarctica. Some lines require them, others don’t. Lindblad’s requirement is very clear (if you read the form): A doctor needs to sign off on your general health. Some other lines that require them for the Poles include: Viking, Scenic Cruises, Hurtigruten, Ponant and Quark Expeditions.
What actually is required on that form varies by line; some will require full physicals, others just a signature self-attesting that you’re in good health. But the requirement is non-negotiable. If you arrive at the pier without it, you'll be denied boarding.
After the panic passed, problem-solving mode kicked in, and I started reaching out to every medical center near me.
Because of the limitations on my husband’s schedule, I started trying to problem solve for him, first. Here’s what I learned: Urgent and emergency care facilities won’t handle this kind of request, nor will a random TeleDoc appointment. Virtual appointments with your primary care physician might suffice, if you’ve seen that doctor recently. We hadn’t, but my husband did see his cardiologist a few months before, so I reached out to him. He was out of the office and wouldn’t be back until after our window, so I frantically searched for another option.
I got ahold of our primary care physician’s office, and our regular doctors or usual office weren’t available, but they found appointments for each of us at related nearby clinics with different docs. My husband’s even fit his incredibly tight window. Both options required a little more driving that typical, but, at that point, we knew better than to be picky. Everyone I talked to was understanding about my mistake and tried their best to help us out.
Success! We made it and got our documents filled out, no problem – my doctor said filling out a form like this was a first for him. It even was covered by our insurance. Still, I consider us lucky that my mistake didn’t cost us this trip. Also, we live in a suburb of Denver, a city big enough to have lots of healthcare options. That made it much easier to secure an appointment outside of our current doctor’s office.
“Travel clinic!” I thought, and Googled for locations near us while I waited on hold with my doctor’s office. A quick search turned up more than a dozen options in the Denver area. What wasn’t clear from the websites was whether these clinics would handle a physical. (Many travel clinics specialize in immunizations needed for specific travel, but that clearly wasn’t what I needed.)
A list of phone numbers popped up, as well as a “contact us” email option, which I hit as I waited. In filling out the email request, I was specific in my needs:
“Hello. I’m traveling soon and need a physical examination that will clear me to participate in activities like hiking and kayaking in extreme conditions. Specifically, I need a doctor to confirm I’m physically able to participate and that I don’t have any ailments that would cause concern if I did participate.”
I instantly received an automatically generated confirmation that someone would get back to me in 72 hours. In the meantime, I was able to secure our appointments. But next steps for me would have been calling to confirm that a travel clinic would meet my needs and make appointments
If you’re considering a travel clinic, the good news is, some do perform exactly this kind of service. (I heard back by email confirming this less than 24 hours after my inquiry.) If you live in a bigger city, chances are, you have a travel clinic near you. I’ve used this kind of service for immunizations in the past, and I’ve found them to be efficient and understanding of exactly what the patient needs. It’s not uncommon that this kind of clinic, companies like Passport Health, perform physicals and immunizations for employers, too, so they are efficient and moving quickly through the process and often offer a lot of appointment slots.
While we’re talking about requirements, travel insurance is often a must for expedition cruises to remote environments – some cruise lines won’t let sail without it. I’m covered through work, and so is my husband. My policy includes evacuation insurance, which is necessary for this kind of trip, where the nearest hospital might be a helicopter ride away.
Cruise Critic always recommends cruise passengers purchase travel insurance, as it’s a great way to prepare for the unplanned. For a trip like this, you can buy a plan through your cruise line, or you can purchase on your own from an insurance company like Allianz or AIG, for example. (Check out our piece on everything you need to know about travel insurance for a longer list of companies.) Make sure your policy includes medical evacuation.
So why do I even need to show that I’m medically fit? Isn’t this a risk I take by traveling?
These are the questions I found myself asking, and quickly answering. This cruise visited some of the most remote corners of the world, where we often were hundreds of miles away from any medical facility. This is not a part of the world in which medical emergencies can easily be handled. (Rest-assured, though, all cruise lines, including Lindblad, prepare for any worst-case scenario, such as those requiring evacuation. Ships have doctors and medical facilities onboard.)
On a Viking cruise to Patagonia, we witnessed a passenger being expertly airlifted to a helicopter from Viking Octantis. Like the Arctic and Antarctica, Patagonia is remote, and the nearest port was multiple hours away. Still, the guest had to wait several hours as our ship relocated to a meet-up spot with the helicopter. (He got the medical attention he needed in time, and his wife met him at the hospital in port a couple days later.)
But the risk is clear: If a guest has a pre-existing medical condition, this kind of expedition cruise might not be the right pick for them. At the very least, it merits a conversation with a doctor. And for some people, filling out the form is a good reminder to keep in mind their abilities and genuinely assess their limitations. Once onboard, the ship’s doctor took the time to address health and safety of guests, including tips like “reconsider wearing a seasickness patch if you never have before” because of potential side effects, like dizziness.
The average age of guests on our Resolution cruise in the Arctic was north of 65, though a few younger couples (and two children) sailed as well. More than one person expressed concern about slipping and falling while ashore hiking on snow or ice. Activity level for this sailing was described as light to moderate, and that is the reality of what we did. The more strenuous activities included some light hiking, kayaking and a polar plunge (I skipped this one, but it was well-attended by many of the passengers on Resolution.)
I am thankful I was able to fix my mistake: I can’t imagine having missed out on this incredible destination. Heed some advice so you don’t have to miss your dream cruise either. If you’re traveling to an extreme or remote location like the Arctic or Antarctica, make sure to read the requirements carefully. It never hurts to ask, either. Even veteran cruisers can miss basic requirements, and that has the potential of turning into a disaster. As you prepare for an expedition cruise, know what documents you need, pack your prescription medication (and maybe some over-the-counter options, as well) and give yourself plenty of time to make sure you don’t run into the same spot I found myself in. Trust me, your heart will thank you.