Noro on a Cruise: Onboard Medical Care Is Not Always Free

April 16, 2010
When 120 passengers came down with gastrointestinal illness on a recent cruise onboard P&O Cruises' Oceana, their biggest complaint was not about missing days of their holiday or the discomfort they endured. Their gripe? Having to pay for medical care onboard.

Though cruise lines typically charge for doctor visits, treatment and medications onboard, P&O Cruises spokeswoman Kate Rist told Cruise Critic that medical treatment for Norovirus or other stomach bugs used to be free. Then, in the fall, the line changed its policy.

All this led us to wonder: What are other cruise lines' policies when it comes to picking up the tab for tummy trouble treatment?

We spoke with a handful of cruise lines and discovered pretty quickly that there's no industry standard. Spokespersons for Carnival, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line all tell us that they don't charge for onboard doctor's visits and treatments for passengers showing symptoms of acute gastroenteritis. Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez gives a logical explanation for this policy: "We want to encourage ill guests to report, so they don't make other guests ill."

However, Holland America Line spokeswoman Mary Schimmelman says that while the line used to take the same approach, ships' doctors found that people were taking advantage of the free medical care and continuing to report symptoms long after they'd developed. As of April, that cruise line has changed tactics and is now charging passengers the same medical fee for gastrointestinal issues as for any other problem. That cost, to give you an idea of what to expect, is $80 to $100, depending on whether the visit is during the day or after hours. Princess also charges passengers for medical visits; that policy has been in place for nearly a year.

Our advice? If you aren't sure whether your cruise line will comp you, give yourself peace of mind and buy travel insurance that covers medical care while traveling (standard in most comprehensive policies). No one ever plans to get sick on vacation, but if you do, at least your medical costs will be covered.

Norovirus is the second most common illness next to the common cold, and is highly contagious, spreading ably in confined spaces like hospitals, hotels, dormitories and -- yes -- cruise ships. For more information, read Norovirus: What You Need to Know.

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor