At the start of the year things were looking fantastic, 2020 was going to be there year for cruising. We were all booked up, or looking to book, and looking ahead to as summer of island-hopping voyages and gentile river cruises down the Danube.
Then a global pandemic happened. No one had seen anything quite like it before, and what ensued was a chaotic blur of cruise cancellations and wanted refunds, not helped by travel insurance providers not being prepared for a global pandemic – who’d have thought?
Cruise lines, passengers, travel agents and even us at World of Cruising were not prepared for what coronavirus might do to cruise, but it’s left the industry more prepared than ever.
So that you can start thinking about booking a cruise again, here’s how to protect your cruise for the future, from how to book to what clauses to look out for in your travel insurance. Put your mind at ease and if you haven’t already, get booking that 2021 cruise holiday…
1. Check your travel insurance
Getting travel insurance is a given, and the majority of us wouldn’t step foot aboard a cruise ship without it. However, the coronavirus outbreak has caused confusion and given us some time to examine travel insurance policies, which usually (and unsurprisingly) don’t include a pandemic clause. If you already have travel insurance, it’s imperative to contact your provider to find out how coronavirus is going to affect your policy.
Many policies taken out before 17 March – when the government started advising against travel – might still protect you against Covid-19 claims, but many insurers will not cover claims on new policies or holiday bookings made after 17 March. Until the Government changes its travel advice, it’s best to check with your insurance provider. Some cruise lines have even started offering their own travel insurance specifically designed for navigating the pandemic, like Saga, which is £5m in medical and repatriation cover and cancellation.
2. Book on a credit card
They may have the highest surcharges and booking fees, but booking on a credit card has never been more important when it comes to travel. This is down to a handy little clause under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, which states that credit cards must protect purchases of £100 to £30,000. If you book a flight or cruise which is cancelled, your credit card will provide you with protection and block the payment to the retailer – allowing the money to be refunded to you. To be covered by section 75, you must have paid more than £100 and have used your credit card to book flights or your cruise directly, although some companies do allow you to book with a travel agent.
3. Be ATOL protected…
The phrase ‘ATOL-protected’ gets bandied around a lot, but what does it actually mean? ATOL Air Travel Organiser’s Licence is a government-run financial protection scheme operated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), covering package holidays that include flights. If you’ve booked your cruise as part of a package with flights, you’re essentially protected in case the airline or travel company itself goes bust – but not against cancellations.
To be ATOL protected, you must book your flight through an ATOL holder and get an ATOL certificate on payment, or an E-ticket as soon as you book through a travel agent. It might not relate directly to cruise, but in these uncertain times and with the aviation industry hit hard by the pandemic, it’s worth protecting yourself from every possible bad situation.
4. …And also ABTA
While ATOL protects your flights, ABTA provides a more direct form of protection for your cruise holiday. The US’s leading travel trade association provides passengers with protection for holidays purchased in the UK that don’t include flights, so if you purchase a cruise holiday from an ABTA member your money will be protected in the ABTA financial protection scheme. This means if something goes wrong, you’ll get a refund including hotel costs and have any repatriation costs covered.
5. Get to know your cruise line
Cancellation and refund policies differ between cruise lines, and you’ll find that some are more generous than others. That said, during the pandemic, cruise lines have been incredibly generous and accommodating. When booking a cruise for the future, it’s imperative to look at the line’s policies you’re looking to sail on and weigh up all your options. Can you get a full refund or is it just cruise credit? Can you rearrange or is there a tie limit?
For example, Saga Cruises has released its new ‘coronavirus cancellation cover’, giving passengers the option to purchase its own unique travel insurance. The insurance includes up to £5m cover for medical and repatriation costs, and also allows for flexible cancellation cover should you need to cancel due to coronavirus. Other lines, like Crystal Cruises, don’t offer travel insurance but have introduced new assurance policies. Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Voyage Assurance allows guests to cancel for a full refund if their itinerary dramatically changes or their embarkation or disembarkation dates are altered.
6. Use a reputable travel agent
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: a travel agent is still one of the best ways to future proof your cruise holiday and get the best deal possible. Booking with a travel agent is all about personal touch and trust, and agents can put together the best deal for you with your personal requirements. Let them do all the legwork and trawl through cancellation policies to find a travel insurance policy that works best for your travel plans. Make sure to book with an agent who is ABTA and ATOL accredited in case something goes wrong. You’ll also receive customer service support and extra peace of mind when booking with a trusted agent.
7. Check health and safety measures
For your own peace of mind, it’s important to check which cruise lines are following the strictest health and safety measures when it comes to future sailings. Cruise ships have always a cut above the rest of the travel industry when it comes to hygiene, but are now installing temperature checks, even more hand sanitiser stations and socially distanced restaurant tables – with gloved servers now playing food for you.
River cruise line Nicko Cruises, which has already started operations on Europe’s rivers, is implementing health questionnaires for guests, contact-less fever checks, additional disinfection, one-walk walk systems and has closed its spas, pools and gyms. It’s also working on providing a free rapid antibody test for all guests. During lockdown, many lines have been completing the WHO’s (World Health Organisation) official Covid-19 course for hygiene procedures and infection management. More hygiene and precautions mean less risk of an outbreak, and your cruise being cancelled. (For full details of cruise line health and safety protocols, read our guide).
8. Consider everything
When it comes to booking your next cruise, it’s worth taking a step back doing a complete risk assessment. Spain has currently closed its borders to cruise ships for the foreseeable future, so it might be best to stay clear of cruises with Spanish itineraries until the country repeals its decision. Consider ship size and destination. It might be less risky to book a 100-passenger river or expedition cruise than a 4,000 passengers cruise around the Mediterranean. Also check out cruise lines with more remote, Covid-19 safe destinations. These ports are less likely to close due to an outbreak and you’ll feel safer and more secure when stepping on land.