Crown Princess is a beautiful cruise ship, but fortune has not been smiling on her lately.
The norovirus stuck the ship during two recent sailings, resulting in hundreds sick and one cruise to be cut short. The first outbreak struck on the ship's Jan. 28 cruise and returned on the Feb. 4 cruise. On that cruise, 226 passengers and 63 crewmembers became ill.
After the first outbreak, the ship was cleaned during the regular 12-hour Saturday passenger turnarounds in Fort Lauderdale. But when the ship was hit with outbreak number two, the cruise line consulted with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and decided to bring it back to Fort Lauderdale two days early for an “enhanced cleansing protocol.”
Because the Feb. 4 cruise was cut short, the line chose to give all passengers on the cruise a 100 percent refund, whether or not they got sick, plus a 25 percent discount on a future cruise. In my experience, that much compensation for a norovirus outbreak, even with the loss of two days of a seven-day cruise, is extremely rare.
Princess spokeswoman Karen Candy said that even though only about 7 percent of the passengers -- 226 out of 3,078 -- became ill during the cruise the company decided to compensate all passengers. Princess also arranged flights home, covered airline change fees, and provided hotel accommodations when needed.
Admittedly the constant fear of catching the virus was likely a drawback for some. Still, what they received is far better than nothing, which is what the passengers on the ship's two previous cruises were given.
Passenger Rights and Norovirus
If you encounter a norovirus cruise, you have the right to leave the ship, but that is all. You are not guaranteed any compensation from the cruise line, nor can you cancel an upcoming cruise on a ship just because it has experienced a recent outbreak of norovirus. You will have to pay the same cancellation penalty you would pay if you cancel for a personal reason.
Michael Crye, executive vice president for technical and regulatory affairs for CLIA says any passenger compensation for a norovirus outbreak or otherwise is at the discretion of the cruise line, and that “public relations” generally have something to do with that decision.
“In the case of Crown Princess, I believe that fact that the cruise was ended two days early had a lot to do with their decision.” CLIA (the Cruise Lines International Association) has a FAQ page about norovirus on ships.
But he says the cruise line industry follows a clear protocol to ensure that ships are properly cleaned. Crye says that the cruise lines have a voluntary program with the CDC called the “Vessel Sanitation Program” which provides methods for the CDC to inspect and monitor cruise ship health issues.
"If a ship has a “substantial outbreak” (defined as reaching 2 percent of the ship population) of norovirus the CDC will open an investigative file. If it reaches 3 percent the ship begins its “Outbreak Protection Protocol,” which includes cleaning all areas of the ship, and not allowing passengers to touch certain shared surfaces, such as food serving utensils in buffet lines,” Crye explained to me.
“If the situation gets worse, such as on Crown Princess where the infection reached over 7 percent of the passenger population, the CDC can counsel the cruise line to put the ship through an “enhanced cleansing protocol,” which is a detailed written process created by the cruise line and approved by the CDC. Each cruise line’s protocol may be slightly different, but they are substantially similar and all must be approved by the CDC,” Crye continued.
What About Travel Insurance
Norovirus, like most diseases, comes under the legal principle “force Majeure,” or “Acts of God.” If you contract norovirus during a cruise, the staff will likely restrict you to your cabin for 48 hours and deliver your food and drink. The disease is uncomfortable but rarely dangerous, except in the very elderly or health compromised.
So if you if you think it is worth it to get travel insurance to protect against illness or cancellation, consider this. It is really good only as a protection if you happen to catch the virus onboard the ship and you incur costs because of it.
Regular travel insurance will not allow you to cancel a planned cruise just because the ship has had an outbreak of norovirus on a previous cruise, unless you specifically buy a “Cancel for Any Reason” travel insurance policy.
John Cook, president of QuoteWright.com, an independent online travel insurance store, told me “Basically, every travel policy names certain covered “perils.” Things like lost luggage, trip interruption and medical conditions are all included.”
Travel insurers do classify norovirus as a medical condition. But travel insurance will only apply if the ship’s doctor charges you a fee (not usual in norovirus cases), or recommends hospitalization, then insurance should cover the medical evacuation and related expenses, although policies differ in this respect.
“But your policy will probably limit how much compensation you can get per day for a medical issue,” Cook advised. “Flights are usually covered, but other expenses will likely be capped at about $150 per person, per day, at a maximum of five days.”
Cook recommends saving your receipts for everything -- taxis, hotels, meals, etc. You will have to pay out of pocket and submit a claim for reimbursement later.
Trip interruption, such as Princess' decision to shorten the Crown Princess cruise by two days, is another named peril.
Trip interruption is different, with the compensation based on a prorated per diem cost of the vacation. But if a cruise line gives the passengers compensation, as Princess did for the Feb. 4 cruise, then the insurance company will not see your situation as a “loss” and will not reimburse you.
Furthermore, “pain and suffering” is not considered a peril by travel insurers, so if there is no financial loss to the policy holder the insurance will not pay.
Avoiding Norovirus on Cruise Ships
Eradication of norovirus requires the cooperation of everyone involved. It can even live in a host as long as 48 hours after the symptoms fully subside, so a person who feels fine can still be contagious. The virus can also live on surfaces for many hours, even days. The best way to avoid noro is simple --basic hygiene.
It is not killed by soap or alcohol-based hand sanitizers -- but it can be dislodged. The most effective prevention is to wash your hands with soap, rinse them thoroughly, and dry them with a disposable paper towel. Watch what you touch, especially banisters, elevator buttons and shared restaurant utensils. Do not rub your eyes or nose, or bite your fingernails.
The just-completed cleanup of Crown Princess was overseen by the CDC, and according to Candy, Princess hired additional people to assist in cleaning everything from railings and door handles to soft furnishings like carpets and drapes.
Still, even with the most extraordinary sanitation measures, there is no guarantee that a newly arrived passenger will not bring the virus onboard again. The CDC is being especially vigilant this year because of an unusually high incidence of outbreaks on land.
The Cruise Ship Disease?
Norovirus is not a disease that is limited to cruise lines. In fact it strikes anywhere there is a large concentration of people. According to the CDC norovirus website, the disease is highly contagious and only takes 10 to 100 viral particles to catch it, whereas the common flu requires about 10,000 particles. As the second most common virus in the nation, norovirus can break out any place, and it commonly does. It is often wrongly identified as “stomach flu” or “food poisoning.” It is neither. Your best defense is a good offense. Yes, it breaks out on ships, but the number of cruise ship outbreaks appears to be declining in the last few years as the cruise lines get smarter about preventing the spread of the disease. Click here to read more.
Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.