Sequestered on a Cruise Ship: What Are Your Rights?

Posted Feb 14th 2011 11:15 AMUpdated Feb 15th 2011 03:54 PM


Sequestered on a Cruise Ship

Collectiva / Alamy

Imagine this scenario: You book a two week cruise to the Caribbean or Alaska, get sick and end up sequestered to your cabin for the entire trip. While your fellow passengers are busy soaking up the sun or exploring glaciers, you're spending the day trying to find a channel that comes in on the staticy television set and reading (and re-reading) the ship's daily newsletter. You can't even go down to the movie theater to watch "The Bourne Identity" and for you, the midnight buffet will consist of room service sandwiches and luke warm tea. Let's face it: your dream vacation is ruined.

But what are your rights – if any – when you're sequestered at sea? We spoke to Alexander Anolik, a travel attorney based in Tiburon, CA who has represented both passengers and cruise lines, about the rules and regulations that prevail when a fun ship turns into a sick bay.

The Captain's Word Is King
"Until Congress gives passengers a bill of rights, you basically don't have rights."
The first thing cruise ship travelers need to understand is that the laws of their home state don't necessarily apply. "Until Congress gives passengers a bill of rights, you basically don't have rights," Anolik told AOL Travel. "Once you board the ship you are under the captain's command." This means that if you get sick with any infectious disease (for example, norovirus, a group of viruses that effect the stomach and intestines are associated with cruise ships due in part to the close living quarters) the captain can sequester you in protection of the other passengers.

A Visit to Ship's Doctor Can Have Consequences
If you're feeling ill, your first thought might be to go get checked out by the ship's doctor, but Anolik says there are several things you need to keep in mind. "Ship doctors are independent and not employees of the ship. In many cases, they have a lesser degree of training than what you might be used to." So it is possible that a ship doctor can make a misdiagnoses and keep you in your cabin for what turns out to be nothing more than a cold. Still, Anolik doesn't advise avoiding medical care if you're truly under the weather. "Your health is more important than your enjoyment," he points out.

They Can Stop You from Embarking
Most passengers are aware of the possibility of being confined to their cabin while on a cruise but did you know that you can actually be refused embarkation if you show evidence of an infectious disease? "If you think you're coming down with something, see your hometown doctor and get a note," advises Anolik. "Even if you just have allergies and you're sneezing a lot, they can stop you from getting on board."

Stewards Are Watching You
If you have the flu, you may be required to walk around with a bottle of sanitizer and don a mask to prevent the spread of your germs to other passengers – an off-putting image, but still better than being sequestered. But if you are confined to your cabin, it's totally at the captain's discretion and that means no sneaking out of your room to the spa or the blackjack tables. "If you try, you will be offloaded at the next port," warns Anolik.

Consider Jumping Ship
For those passengers who simply can't fathom staring at the same four walls for over a week (especially if all you have is a porthole) one option is to get off at the next port and either spend your vacation there or fly home. The only problem is, you will most likely do this at your own expense. "Keep in mind that your travel insurance may not cover this," says Anolik.

Compensation is Tricky
After your ordeal, the insult to injury will likely be that you'll have a hard time getting any money back. "If the ship doctor made a misdiagnosis, it's not strict liability," says Anolik. "An agent or tour operator must give you a proper tour, but you have to show negligence and that's difficult to do, even if you say it was false imprisonment." Anolik says that in most cases, the ship will not provide you with any type of compensation and that you will be charged for the doctor's visit. He recommends taking your case to small claims court once you get back on dry land.

Filed Under: Tips & Tricks, Cruise

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I work as a ship physician. My partner is a ship's nurse. We could write a book about how misleading this article is! Not saying that nothing goes wrong on ships, but where are things perfect? Here are some short points:
- The Captain's word IS "king"; when we "confine" a guest or crew, we don't trouble the Captain! But so many other crew/staff ARE troubled! Medical, room service, cleaning, etc, - all have so much more work to do. We HATE it and would rather not ever do it. We must because of the CDC and laws of the USA and other countries. It's not our hobby!
- We have to "confine" a toddler who shows chickenpox on board (which he would hav picked up 2 weeks before), so his parents have to spend time in the cabin with him. Runied cruise. But there are a few dozen old and infirm and sickly guests on board who do not now catch it and end up in ICU or worse!
- We have to "confine" someone who THINKS they vomited because they are sea-sick. We know that we have just seen 5 other guests and crew who are also "sea sick" - actually we suspect there is an infectious cause (but we cannot tell this guest about the other guests, they have right to confidentiality, so he/she THINKS we're stupid and cruel and he promises "never to cruise with us again"). There are LAWS which tell us to confine him! USA laws! The ship is registered in another country, but we must obey US laws! If we did not "confine" him, then next you'll have a few hundreds catch his bug and FauxNews will be talking about "dirty ships"...
- But I agree that I am not at all the cleverest doctor around. Indeed, before I "retired" to be a cruising doc, at age 53, I was merely an associate professor and directed three emergency departments. My partner is such a bad nurse that she had to spend 10 years teaching other nurses. And she happens to be a "doctor", too (PhD), or so it says on the cover of the two textbooks she has written...
- "Jumping ship" and flying home? How nice for you. Not so nice for the grandmother who sits next to you on the flight and then dies of chickenpox a month later! Or why not stay at a hotel in one of the ports with your "sea sickness" and close that place down with gastro! (Yes, there are records of dozens of examples of such "escapes" and their consequences for OTHERS)
- The requirements for doctors, in terms of qualifications, to get a ship post, as guided by the AMERICAN College of Emergncy Physicians (it's not the cruise companies who invent this) demand quite a high level. Many doctors on land do not meet these requirements. I know this, as I help doctors get jobs on ships! Think about it - it's a minority of "land doctors" who manage to get a job on a ship, not a minority of ship doctors who get a job on land!

What I think we really do need is more lawyers who can sue doctors on ships and in hospitals and profit off the illnesses and injuries of their clients and the human errors of their carers. Otherwise we risk the costs of medical care remaining much lower and there is quite a danger that doctors and nurses will be more caring and less scared of treating patients...

At least for lawyers, this sort of article is a great way to generate more business and more profits...

February 23 2011 at 4:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dr. Adam Lund

I am a Canadian Emergency Physician who has had the opportunity to do 5 short (av. 4 weeks) contracts over 8 years on cruise ships. I work in a tertiary level trauma centre, teach medical school students and residents, and have had the opportunity to work in a number of non-traditional settings providing medical care. It is an absolute highlight to "get out of the ER" and enjoy the fun environment of people enjoying their holiday, in nice surroundings, usually going to very nice destinations. It's a working vacation for me, though I take the "job" part of it very seriously.

In my experience on the ships, the "quality" of my colleagues on board in the health care centres has been excellent, and the commitment to taking care of the crew (the larger portion of the job), and the guests on board has been central. The cruise line has a very high interest in the high quality of experience of the guests, and is naturally not interested in exposing themselves to medico-legal risk by providing sub-optimal care. I am not in a position to speak for "all cruise ship physicians from all lines", but as a member of the American College of Emergency Physicians Cruise Medicine Section, I can confidently state that there is a committed, caring community of physicians involved in, and interested in promoting and maintaining the highest quality of care possible while at sea.

Note that in my case, I have NOT been an employee of the cruise line, but contracted by a "vendor" who is in turn contracted to coordinate medical care aboard that cruise line.

A very small percentage of people get sick or injured while they are on holiday. In the relatively close quarters of the cruise ship, where there is a lot of shared space, certain types of infections (i.e. gastrointestinal (GI), respiratory) are very easy to spread around to other passengers. Based on real examples in the past where hundreds of people have become sick and cruise ships have had to be taken out of service, the cruise industry, the US Public Health, the Coast Guard, and the ACEP Cruise Medicine Section have worked hard to identify precautions to prevent outbreaks on cruise ships. As a result, when guests (and even more so crew members) become ill, there are strict precautions instituted to prevent the spread of illness to others. In some cases, motion sickness, food poisoning, or other causes of gastrointestinal symptoms may present with very similar symptoms to viral (i.e. contagious) gastroenteritis. In many cases, it is not possible to tell with confidence until the illness has run its course. It is not a misdiagnosis if it doesn't turn out to be a viral illness. What is important medically is to identify cases where a viral risk is part of the "differential diagnosis".

On the ship, the LAST thing I want to do is to take away from someone's good time. I am well aware that people have saved up their money and their vacation time to come on board and have a good time. Being confined to one's cabin for a period of time is a bummer (no pun intended). But permitting someone who is ill to wander the ship and compromise the health and holiday fun of hundreds of others is a greater problem.

So, if you decide to take a cruise, and I encourage that you do, wash your hands even more than you normally would and hopefully you will not face the issue of GI illness on board. If you or a loved one do become ill, we are here to help. We will do what we can to stop your uncomfortable symptoms, the guest services team will try to ensure that you are taken care of in your room until you are feeling better, and yes, we'll probably ask you not to be out and about on the ship in the interest of protecting others.


Adam Lund, BSc, MD, MDE, FRCPC (Emergency)
Vancouver, Canada

February 22 2011 at 5:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Paul F MD

I am a Cruise ship physician in the Caribbean at the moment. The lawyer, Mr. Anolik, suggests cruise doctors are not trained. This is simply untrue and self serving. I am board certified in Emergency Medicine. Most of the physicians I work with are also board certified. I work this job for the pleasure of it, not because I can't get a job elsewhere. The ship's medical facility are the equivalent of a normal emergency department is a small town.

Being quarantined is unfortunate but necessary to prevent infection spreading to infection to the other 2000 people on the ship. One person's desire to party does not trump the other people's right to stay health.

February 22 2011 at 2:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

NCL ship's doctor saved my life.

1 doctor for 3000+ passengers AND 2000+ passengers, you know he has to be good.

February 19 2011 at 10:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Boring article. Snooze..... oh look it's time for lunch.
Cruise or ice water enema.... hmmm..... the former.

February 19 2011 at 10:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

All these stories are fine, but they're not very helpful unless you mention the names of the cruise lines. Good care or poor care, If you fell into the hold and weren't discovered for six days, or if you had chest pain and the chief steward inserted a stent with a swizzle stick, help the next cruiser out and give us the punchline. Thanks.

February 19 2011 at 1:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is in response to Capt. Joel and Pattimelt. Did you read the article and my response!? First of all I said partially reimbursed and I am sticking by it. Partially reimbursed because of the room and board. Partially reimbursed especially if you were confined the entire time based entirely on the Captain's discretion. Captain should not mean dictator, the passenger should have a say and not be sequestered against will. After all they did pay for a vacation. Did you see the world sue in my response? What government, the United States Government of course. The article states that you virtually have no rights on a cruise ship and that shouldn't be tolerated. I also stated that the legislation should be fair to both parties! And another thing, how are you so sure that it's your fault if you get sick.? Maybe the ship is filthy or at fault who knows. There are alot of variables involved, and no two cases will be similiar. Every situation should be handled with objectivity. I am sticking by what I said!!!

February 18 2011 at 10:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

HERE ARE SOME WAYS TO GET THE CRUISE INDUSTRY'S ATTENTION: Let's ALL boycott the industry for the entire month of March, and e-mail them the reasons for this; such as herein comments and others' poor experience, if not our own, and you can be SURE that these BASTARDS at the helm of each company will take notice and "Like Magic" the industry will become passenger friendly again !!! Royal Carribbean's new CEO is at the top of the CEO's from Hell List - Norwegian's CEO is runner-up and Carnival's gets the Bronze Medal of poor service. The ONLY Crusie Line we never had problems with was Disney's Cruise, and the food was the BEST on this line. POOR SECURITY, INSENSITIVE STAFF, BAD ATTITUDES, MISREPRESENTATION OF VENUE, AND A SERIOUS GRAB FOR MONEY, are some of the issues that need to be addressed or "Bon Voyage" to this industry !

February 17 2011 at 5:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Scallee waggs--ha! You are funny, jimBoChili. Notice one posting said, in effect, "we didn't complain about our illness and were offered an upgrade". As a travel industry employee in charge of approving upgrades, I must say she has the proper attitude. Be responsible for yourself and plan, plan, plan. I took a cruise out of Venice recently to Italy and Greece and they had to employ a special department to deal with the Americans (I guess we are demanding). So I asked why--they replied we complain about Europeans' smell which results in requests for dinner location changes, cabin changes, changes in transportation on excursions, etc. And then I remembered I had asked to be relocated at dinner because the ship's stinkiest Frog was near us. That's the problem! No one removes their own bacteria! Take a shower, folks!

February 17 2011 at 11:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The information contained in this story is somewhat accurate, BUT the problem comes with the passenger. People who get on the ship sick, and lie on their medical forms, or do not take proper precautions, think washing your hands, are a major part of the outbreak problems.

Also, keep in mind that in MOST CASES when you are on a cruise ship you are technically in a foreign country so you stateside insurance or Medicare will probably NOT cover any expenses. But a good THIRD PARTY TRAVEL INSURANCE the have 14 hour customer service to help you in case of an emergency. But most of all USE YOUR HEAD!

February 17 2011 at 10:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply