“Be careful what you wish for,” said a nurse from the medical center on Discovery Princess.
It was disembarkation morning, following an otherwise pleasant five-night cruise along the West Coast, and I woke up with the worst sore throat and earache I’ve had in years. I also lost my voice, so my boyfriend had to call down to the onboard medical center to ask about getting a COVID-19 test.
The sailing concluded in Vancouver, where I was supposed to stay for three days before boarding a 10-night Alaska voyage with a different cruise line. Not wanting to spread my germs — and knowing I wouldn’t be cleared to sail on the subsequent cruise if I was sick — I wanted to know what I was dealing with just three hours before leaving the ship.
Long story short, my results were positive and, per Canada’s requirements, I had to isolate in a hotel room for 10 days before flying back to the U.S.
I’ve already covered what it’s like to be both quarantined as well as isolated on a cruise. (There is a difference between the two.) But it’s an entirely different process for a passenger who tests positive on a sailing and doesn’t have enough time to complete mandatory isolation on board.
What follows is an account of the problems I encountered as I struggled to obtain crucial information that should have been easier to find on the ship and at the hotel. I’ll cover details like where they take you, how you get there, what to do about food — and, most importantly, who pays for it all.
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Cruise lines have had nearly a year to perfect the procedures for handling passengers who test positive for COVID-19, but what happened after my onboard test was anything but smooth sailing.
The test itself was quick and efficient. Around 6:30 a.m., shortly after I called the medical center, the nurse showed up at my cabin to conduct the complimentary PCR test used for passengers experiencing symptoms. If I tested positive, he explained, I would have to wait in my cabin to be escorted off the ship.
He offered me a box of Strepsils for my throat. “You might as well take them; they’re free,” he said, and told me he’d call with my results in 45 minutes.
At 7:15 a.m. on the dot, he phoned with the unfortunate news that a faint line had appeared on the test. He told me I’d have to isolate at a shoreside hotel for 10 days and that I should call the guest services desk to see if they could help with arrangements.
Little did I know the nurse’s suggestion was the only helpful one I’d have for the next few days. What followed was a flurry of chaos that highlighted how easily communication can break down when several teams try to coordinate passenger isolation.
Overall, it took three calls and 50 minutes on the phone to reach the ship’s front desk. On the first two occasions, I waited on hold before someone picked up, breathed into the receiver and then hung up. The third time was the charm, with a crew member telling me that they’d book a hotel for me and send someone to my cabin when it was time for me to disembark.
While I waited, my next order of business was to cancel the plans for my subsequent trip and then notify my family. After that, I focused on obtaining my test results, figuring I might need them later. I called the medical center again, and shortly after that, an envelope slid under my door with a paper copy inside.
It also contained a letter verifying the length of my onboard isolation. For fellow passengers who tested positive earlier in the sailing, their time isolating onboard counted toward the requisite 10 days. Unfortunately, because I didn’t get sick until the last day of the cruise, I had to spend 10 days in the same hotel room, unable to leave.
What struck me as odd — and, frankly, somewhat irresponsible — is that, although my results were positive, the nurse said it wasn’t necessary to test my boyfriend, with whom I shared a cabin and spent 95% of my time on board. (He was technically on a different booking and wasn’t exhibiting symptoms.)
He had tested negative on the ship the day before as a requirement for returning to the U.S., so he was allowed to disembark and fly home, where he continued to test negative for three more days.
It’s unknown whether they tested my other close contacts, such as my room steward, my dining room waiters or the woman in the spa who gave me a massage two days prior.
“We do have structured protocols in place that monitor the health of our crew members, which includes routine [COVID-19] testing of each crew member,” Princess said in an email when I asked about it.
The line declined to share the total number of ill passengers on my sailing.
Getting off the ship
The process of disembarking the ship was cumbersome, with little communication about when I’d be allowed to leave and where I’d be going when I did. Even more concerning is that it seemed my escort wasn’t much better informed.
Nearly three hours after testing, a crew member knocked on my door, protected only by a mask and a flimsy plastic apron. He was carrying a bottle of some sort of cleaner, which I didn’t see him use. He helped me with my luggage and led me into a crew elevator that took us to the atrium area.
When we reached the gangway, however, we were met by a senior officer who explained that I had to return to my cabin until all other passengers had disembarked. I didn’t mind, but it was concerning that each time I walked through the ship, I could have been spreading the virus, despite my mask.
Back in my room, I waited another 15 minutes until the escort, who remained in the hallway with my bags, knocked on my door. He apologized for the back-and-forth and thanked me for my patience. We took the same route, crew elevator and all, back to the gangway, where I scanned my card and left the ship.
At the terminal, I was met by an official-looking Canadian woman who asked for my name, which wasn’t on the list of ill passengers because of how recently I had tested positive. She asked where I was going, and when I told her I didn’t know, she looked confused. I explained that nobody had told me where I was going but that I had just tested positive and was supposed to be taken to a hotel to isolate. She added my name and handed me a leaflet from Princess Cruises.
“Oh, sorry — one other thing,” I said. “How many days are required for isolation?”
“Ten,” she replied, and I was on my way, following the crew member who was still wheeling my massive suitcase as he accompanied me.
“Are there a lot of us?” I asked the crew member as we walked down a long hallway to the parking garage at the Canada Place cruise terminal.
“No, not many,” he said, likely hoping I wouldn’t ask him to elaborate.
Lucky for him, I didn’t have time for more questions, because one of the infamous, unmarked black minibuses was waiting to take us (me and 13 others) to wherever we were going. We were required to sanitize our hands (as if that would somehow help our plight) and asked to board the shuttle while our luggage was loaded. The ride was quiet, and the driver was friendly, but I noticed he was only wearing a mask, with no other protective equipment and no divider to keep him from being exposed to the passengers’ germs.
We drove about 20 minutes away from the port and arrived at the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel in Richmond, British Columbia. Our arrival was the first time I knew where I’d be staying. As soon as the driver unloaded our bags, he drove off, leaving our group of infected travelers to check themselves in and figure out other logistics in a lobby full of unsuspecting (and presumably healthy) hotel guests.
Checking in for isolation
The hotel check-in staff was not overly helpful in clarifying the situation, either.
When it was my turn to check in, I gave my name, driver’s license and credit card to the woman at the desk. When check-in was finished, I was told they had me in the system as checking out on May 10 — which would be only six days after I arrived. When I pointed out that I was supposed to isolate for 10 days, the woman simply replied, “Check with your cruise line.”
When I asked her how long isolation was supposed to be, thinking maybe I had misunderstood previous instructions, she again told me to contact Princess.
When I pressed her, given that isolation times are set by the government and not the cruise line, she advised me to call 811 — a line Canada set up for information about COVID-19. (Unfortunately, when I called it later, I got a dead tone.)
Then I asked her if there would be anyone checking in on us medically. She said nobody would be. (For me, it wasn’t a big deal, as my symptoms were fairly mild, but I worried about some of the much older passengers who were on the shuttle with me.)
I also asked if I needed to do anything in order to leave when my isolation was over.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “You can just leave. It’s pretty much the honor system.”
I ultimately received four different answers from six different sources regarding how long I was supposed to isolate:
- 10 days, according to the nurse from the onboard medical center.
- 10 days, according to the Canadian official at the gangway.
- 10 days, according to the Canadian government website.
- Six days, according to the cruise line, per the length of my hotel booking.
- Ask the cruise line, according to the woman at the hotel front desk.
- Until you test negative, according to the cruise line public relations department.
With no official information, other than what was on the government’s website, I was confused. I tried calling the customer service number on the letter from Princess. Sadly, it was just a general information and booking number with a message stating that, due to high call volume, I might experience longer-than-usual wait times.
Frustrated at the conflicting information the cruise line had provided, I hung up. Cruises have been back for almost a year, so there’s no reason any sick guest should be dropped off at a hotel without concrete answers.
Princess did not immediately respond when I asked why I was only booked at the hotel for six days and why nobody could give me a straight answer about the length of my isolation or whether I would need any sort of medical authorization to leave.
Thankfully, on day three, a woman called my cell phone on behalf of the Canadian government to verify my name, birthdate, test results and the fact that I was isolating. She was able to officially answer my two main questions: How long do I have to stay here (10 days), and do I need any sort of medical clearance to leave (for Canada, no; for the U.S., yes). After the call, I phoned the front desk to extend my stay by four nights. (Hey, at least I got Bonvoy points for this!)
Before our arrival in Victoria on the second-to-last day of the cruise, all passengers had to fill out a form on the ArriveCAN app. When the nurse from the medical center tested me, he asked for my ArriveCAN confirmation number, which allowed him to tie my passport number, contact information and test results to the app and thereby report it all to the Canadian government, which is how they knew I was sick. (Nobody checked my passport when I disembarked, and I’m guessing that’s why.)
My hotel room
I was thrilled to have been given what the woman at the desk referred to as a “courtyard” room, until I realized I was on the other side of the hallway. Instead of the lovely courtyard view of trees, flowers and the hotel pool, I had the pleasure of staring at a parking lot full of deafeningly noisy Canadian geese for the duration of my stay.
On the plus side, I was on the first floor and had a sliding glass door that opened to let in fresh air. It was a godsend whenever I started to feel stir crazy.
The space itself wasn’t bad. It felt dark and a bit dated, but it was clean, comfy and had everything I needed — a desk area, a huge television, plenty of charging outlets, a super-soft bed and a bathroom with a tub that was perfect for soaking.
A couple of times I had to call the front desk for replacement items like tissues — so many tissues — an extra sheet and some garbage bags. Everything always arrived quickly and was left outside my door to avoid contact.
Food and supplies
The minute I arrived, I set to work on procuring essentials for the coming days: cough syrup, throat lozenges, nasal rinse, vitamin C, vapor bath and, of course, snacks and bottled water. But it wasn’t as easy as I expected. I was glad my symptoms weren’t worse; had I felt sicker, I might not have been up for the hours-long ordeal of ordering necessities.
My first move was to try Uber, which now delivers more than just food. After setting my search to “delivery” and spending 45 minutes adding everything into my cart from a local drugstore, I was informed — but not until checkout — that the particular retailer I had chosen was offering pickup only. (Thanks, Uber.)
When that didn’t work, I figured I’d finally take advantage of the Walmart+ membership offered by The Platinum Card® from American Express with monthly statement credits. But Canada doesn’t have Walmart+, and the regular Walmart app didn’t work because it’s U.S.-based and wouldn’t recognize the address of the Canadian hotel.
Frustrated, I downloaded Instacart, which is what the front desk recommended when I called to explain the issues I was having. Fortunately, the same app works in both the U.S. and Canada, so I was able to take advantage of a free seven-day trial of Instacart Express and place three orders — two from Walmart and one from Real Canadian Superstore. Both were delivered straight to my door.
Then, I set my sights on dinner. I wanted Domino’s, but my U.S. app was useless. I downloaded the Domino’s Canada app but was stymied again, as it wouldn’t accept a U.S.-style zip code when I put in my credit card information. I ended up calling to order over the phone using my Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card because Domino’s wouldn’t take Amex. The pie was also delivered right to my door.
I ended up ordering another pizza later in my isolation, and I also used Uber Eats (which works in both countries) to place orders for delicious Indian food from a place called Curry Express and, of course, Tim Horton’s (because it’s never a visit to Canada without a maple doughnut).
The food was excellent, and it arrived quickly and straight to my door. There was one big problem, though: Neither my $15 monthly Amex Uber credit nor the $50 in gift card funds my boyfriend sent me showed up in my account while I was in Canada because it was all in U.S. dollars. (Again, thanks, Uber.)
The saving grace, however, was Harold’s Kitchen and Bar, the hotel’s on-property restaurant, which offered room service delivery. Because it took less time to arrive and didn’t force me to fumble with an app, over the 10-day period, I tried nearly everything on the menu, which included morning breakfast offerings and a selection of appetizers and mains from lunchtime onward.
Because I called so often, the folks who handled room service delivery quickly began to know my voice. “Ah, it’s you! Room 119,” they’d say when the front desk would connect me to place my orders. Throughout my time there, Alan, Shirley and Lelizen brought me extra servings of my usual English breakfast tea with honey without my even having to request it. Their kindness and attention to detail didn’t go unnoticed.
The major downside to ordering so much takeout with no housekeeping was that trash and recyclables quickly piled up. Thankfully, the takeout all came in brown paper bags that I used to keep everything as contained as possible until the last day, when I asked the front desk for garbage bags so I could sort everything.
Passing the time
I’m fortunate that I can work remotely. Because this was a work trip, I had my laptop with me and was able to put in full days as usual from my hotel room, which helped to pass the bulk of the time.
When I wasn’t working, I caught up on back episodes of “The Walking Dead,” watched the full series of “Midnight Mass” on Netflix and finished reading a book that I’d been struggling to wrap up for the past several months.
Whenever I have long flights, I travel with a few small items to keep me busy on the plane, including adult coloring books and colored pencils, as well as puzzles like crosswords and sudoku. They all served me well during isolation.
Because I was bored and sad that I had to miss my Alaska cruise, I also decided to see if I could attempt to recreate a few cruise experiences — a “shore excursion,” a “hike,” a “spa treatment” and “formal night” — from my room.
I also signed up for a free trial of the Equinox+ fitness app so I could attempt to do some on-demand exercises in my room. I made it through exactly one 15-minute bodyweight workout before erupting into a COVID-induced coughing fit and calling it quits. (If I had chosen to continue using the app after the free trial, which I didn’t, my Amex Platinum benefits would have covered $25 per month of the $40 app fee with the card’s $300 annual statement credit.)
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I worked on figuring out what I’d need to do to leave Canada. That involved tracking down what the U.S. would require for me to reenter the country, booking a flight home and contacting my travel insurance company.
To return to the U.S. by air, which was my plan, I needed either a negative test result or proof of my positive test and a letter of recovery from a medical professional, dated at least 11 days after the positive test.
On day six of isolation, I tested myself with an at-home kit. (I always travel with a couple of extras, just in case.) I was still positive.
Anticipating that I might continue to test positive for a while, I called my primary care doctor to see if she could clear me via a telehealth call on day 11. Since I was not only out of the state but also out of the country, there was nothing she could do. She recommended I find an urgent care clinic in the area, so I phoned the front desk to ask if they had any local recommendations. Big surprise: They didn’t.
I briefly considered using Amex’s concierge service to see if they could help but figured I’d try Allianz, my travel insurance company, first, as I had to ask about filing claims for my stay anyway. They were able to refer me to QuickMD, a website that handles certificates of recovery via telemedicine for a flat $75 fee, no insurance needed (or accepted).
I went to the website, created an account, entered my credit card number and made an appointment for day 11 at 6:20 a.m., before my 9:20 a.m. flight home. (I was able to use a United Airlines credit from 2021, so it didn’t cost me anything extra to reschedule my return to the U.S.)
I tested again on day 10, within 24 hours of my scheduled flight, and was negative, which ensured I’d be allowed back into the U.S. I decided to keep my QuickMD appointment and get the certificate of recovery anyway, just in case.
The night before the appointment, I realized that my laptop, which I used to make the appointment, hadn’t updated to Pacific time. That meant I had unwittingly made the appointment for 6:20 a.m. EST, or 3:20 a.m. where I was. It was an awfully early wake-up call that day, but the appointment took only three minutes from start to finish, and I had the letter of recovery in my inbox in 15 minutes.
Thankfully, everything went according to plan, and I was able to board my flight with my negative test.
A quick note that, in researching my options, I was surprised to discover a negative test isn’t required to enter the U.S. by train or private car. (Does someone actually think COVID-19 only travels by plane?) If I had continued to test positive and was unable to obtain a letter of recovery, my backup plan was to take a train or rent a car to get from Vancouver to Seattle and fly home from there, once I was already across the border.
Paying the bill
Remember that letter the woman gave me at the gangway when I disembarked the ship? It was information from Princess’ customer service department about hotel arrangements, food and flights.
It explained that we would have to pay the up-front costs for our isolation accommodations, whether they were arranged by Princess or by us independently, but that room charges and up to $100 per day for food would be reimbursed by the line if not covered by travel insurance.
It also said that Princess would assist with flight changes, but only if passengers had booked through Princess in the first place. Otherwise, we would have to call our travel agents or airlines directly.
This happened during a press sailing, so the Princess public relations team was in constant contact with me. They offered to comp my flight home and put a corporate credit card on file for my hotel tab so I didn’t have to go through the reimbursement process. I declined both in order to keep my experience as close as possible to that of a paying passenger.
Plus, I wanted the points!
I put most of my charges, with the exception of the two Domino’s orders, on my Amex Platinum, which means I’m earning points for everything. But it’s a hefty chunk of change to have to cough up all at once, especially if you’re not expecting it or if you’re on a budget and just dropped a bunch of money on a cruise.
I’m also unsure what happens if an ill passenger doesn’t have a credit or debit card to use or if they have insufficient funds to cover the out-of-pocket costs up front.
Leveraging travel insurance
The cost for my entire hotel stay and room service was 4,298.09 Canadian dollars ($3,351.90). That doesn’t include my two Uber Eats deliveries, two Domino’s deliveries and three Instacart orders. In total, those added up to 404.19 Canadian dollars ($315.09). Combined with the $75 I paid to QuickMD and the $661.33 cost of my one-way flight home, that brought my grand total to $4,403.32.
Fortunately, I hold an annual travel insurance policy with Allianz. It covers trip interruption related to COVID-19 up to $3,000, so that will eliminate most of my hotel bill. It also covers medical costs up to $20,000, so that should more than take care of the QuickMD fee and what I paid for things like cough syrup, nasal spray, vapor bath and distilled water for my neti pot.
Submitting my insurance claims was easy. I was bracing for a cumbersome process, but I was pleasantly surprised.
I called during my isolation, and the person I spoke with helped me to initiate both parts of my claim — trip interruption and medical — over the phone. I received two follow-up emails, instructing me to either email my supporting documents (receipts for my hotel stay, QuickMD session and over-the-counter medications; proof of my positive test; and the itinerary for my canceled cruise) or upload them directly to my claim on the Allianz website.
I submitted everything, but the process wasn’t without a couple of hiccups. I realized after I got home the hotel billed me for the night of May 3, even though the ship didn’t arrive in Vancouver until May 4. I called and was told it’s because the cruise line had to guarantee accommodations would be available for all of us early on the morning of disembarkation, so the block of rooms was reserved the day prior.
I was worried the insurance company might question why I needed a hotel for May 3 if I didn’t test positive until May 4, so the hotel kindly fixed the bill and sent me a new copy, which I submitted — but not before converting everything to U.S. dollars so I knew how much to ask for in each part of the claim.
Now all I can do is wait. The company’s website says it could take up to 30 days for my claim to be processed. When I receive a decision, I’ll know how much of the overall amount I then have to submit to Princess for reimbursement.
All in all, the reimbursement process could take at least a couple of months to play out. In the meantime, I’ve had to pay off the credit card balance on my own and will replenish my bank account when I finally get my money back.
After countless phone calls, emails and logistical adjustments over the course of my isolation, I’ve got some pointers for anyone who’s planning to travel in the near future:
Know what you’re dealing with
Brace yourself for a potential communication breakdown between the cruise ship’s medical center, guest services, the shoreside staff and the hotel. If you test positive, prepare for potential challenges, request contact information for a specific person at the cruise line (not just a generic guest services number) and don’t be afraid to politely demand answers if you have questions.
Before you leave, research the government’s rules for countries you’re visiting and those for returning home — everything from isolation times to medical clearance and testing requirements. There’s no guarantee anyone from the cruise line or hotel will have the correct information, and the cruise contract to which every passengers agrees before they sail does state it’s each passenger’s responsibility to know the requirements for the countries they’ll be visiting.
Travel insurance is essential. Make sure your policy includes coverage for COVID-19-related trip interruption and medical expenses. However, don’t automatically assume it will cover everything. (Trip interruption payouts are often too low to cover the cost of a long isolation.) Keep your policy number handy, along with the insurance company’s phone number. Its representatives can often help if you’re seeking medical attention and can also assist with the logistics of getting you home.
You’ll have to pay for the costs incurred — hotel stay, food and other supplies, as well as return travel — up front and then submit everything for reimbursement. In this case, Princess generously picks up the tab for all passengers for anything insurance doesn’t cover, but don’t always expect that will be the case. Also, note it could take a month or longer for your claims to be reviewed and reimbursement to be issued.
Your isolation hotel, if booked by the cruise line, will likely charge you for an extra day to guarantee the room and allow for early check-in.
Keep meticulous records of all charges and purchase receipts, both email and printed. Take photos of anything and everything you think might help your insurance claim.
Pack some extras
Bring small diversions on your cruise that will help pass the time in the event something like this happens. These could include a laptop or tablet for work, movie watching or e-books; card games; an HDMI cable and phone adapter so you can stream your favorite services on your hotel television; a coloring book and colored pencils; knitting or crocheting; and crossword puzzles, word searches or sudoku.
Bring an extra week’s worth of underwear and pajamas. They don’t take up much space, and they’ll keep you from having to arrange laundry if you have to extend your stay. Also come prepared with an extra couple weeks’ worth of medication if you’re able to do so, just in case.
Know how to obtain necessities
Don’t expect that all of your U.S.-based delivery or workout apps or streaming services will work overseas. Some do; many don’t. Research food and grocery delivery apps used in the countries you’re visiting. (You might not be able to download them until you get there, but at least you’ll know what you need.)
Travel with at least two credit cards and know their limits and perks. Look into any free or discounted delivery, streaming or workout apps and services those cards might offer. Be aware that certain perks might not be available outside the U.S.
Stay in touch
Consider investing in an international mobile phone plan for your next trip, just in case you find yourself having to make a lot of calls. You could wait to add one only if you find yourself in an isolation situation, but unless you have Wi-Fi available to contact your mobile carrier, you’ll be hit with roaming fees or per-minute charges in order to add a plan after you’ve left home.
Have contingency plans for things back home in case you’re delayed returning to work, your children or your pets.
Keep your wits
Above all, remember not to panic. It’s not always easy, especially when you’re not feeling your best, but a clear head and a positive attitude will go a long way in navigating the logistics of getting stranded abroad and helping your isolation to pass quickly.
Featured photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy.