In this unprecedented time for the cruise industry, here’s how to stay on top of policies.

While cruise company–initiated cancellations were once relatively rare (owed to few-and-far-between culprits like severe weather, ship mechanical failures, or company bankruptcies), it’s a scenario that’s now, in the age of coronavirus, playing out more persistently.

Companies have cruise cancellation policies in place for refunds or postponements if your trip has been canceled—as many have. If your trip hasn’t been canceled but you’d like to opt out of an upcoming booking, know that many cruise lines have adopted significantly more relaxed cancellation and rebooking policies. Here’s everything you need to know about special cruise cancellation policies in place during the COVID-19 pandemic—as well as standard cancellation policies to expect at other times.

Cruise cancellations and coronavirus

Many cruise lines—including major players like Princess, Norwegian, and Celebrity—have temporarily suspended operations worldwide in response to coronavirus-related risks and restrictions. All companies have discontinued ocean-going departures from U.S. ports until at least April 11. “As you can imagine, the situation is rapidly changing day to day, and even hour by hour,” says Erika Richter, senior director of communications for the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), a trade association.

Given the situation’s fluidity, travelers booked on sailings over the next few months should anticipate the possibility of a last-minute cancellation by the cruise line. In those cases, your cruise line or travel agent will contact you directly regarding compensation, in the form of either a full refund or future cruise credit.

If the cruise line hasn’t canceled your trip but you’d like to change it, know that many lines have temporarily replaced their standard cancellation or postponement penalties with more flexible policies. Specific terms and conditions vary by company, but most lines will now allow you to get a full cruise credit toward a future sailing date with no penalty; fewer lines are offering cash refunds.

“It’s worth noting that some lines are incentivizing the decision to rebook by offering some additional perks in the form of onboard credit—so you could be getting some added value if you decide to rebook your cruise,” says Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of leading cruise review site Cruise Critic. If you go this route, Cruise Critic advises waiting a few weeks to do so, since lines are now overwhelmed with handling current cancellations and getting passengers returned safely to port from in-progress sailings. The site also advises patience, noting that refunds could take up to 90 days or more to be issued.

For sailings that are farther out, you don’t need to rush to a decision. These relaxed policies—many of which allow cancellations up to 48 hours in advance of departure—allow you to take a wait-and-see approach. Just be sure to review your cruise line’s fine print before reaching any decisions. “If the line ends up canceling off your cruise as part of their suspending service, you could have more leeway in terms of compensation and a refund offering,” McDaniel says. “But that will vary by line and circumstance.”

Richter also suggests employing the services of a trusted travel specialist who can help navigate your cruise cancellation policy and advocate with the company on your behalf. “There are so many unknowns right now as this situation progresses,” she says. “For travelers who are committed to sticking with their future voyage, staying informed is the most important step to take.”

Standard cruise cancellation policies

Keep in mind that these relaxed policies are only temporarily in place. Previously, cruise lines had been considerably more restrictive with their cancellation and modification rules—for instance, you might expect to lose at least part of your payment if canceling within 90 days of your departure, and if you canceled within a few weeks of a voyage, you might lose all of it.

Before coronavirus struck, reasons for cruise cancellations had been significantly more limited in scope. One possible scenario was extreme weather. While cruise lines can usually preemptively reroute ships in the face of approaching hurricanes or other significant weather events, alternate arrangements are not always achievable. In September, for instance, Hurricane Dorian forced several cruise lines to cancel scheduled sailings out of Floridian ports.

Other times, unforeseen mechanical or technical issues can mean a ship is unsafe to sail, as was the case for three of Carnival Vista’s sailings from Galveston last summer, which were canceled due to a malfunction with the ship’s maximum cruising speed capabilities.

In these circumstances, travelers can expect the option of a full refund or a replacement booking on an alternate sailing. Some lines may take it a step further still and reimburse the cost of any travel arrangements made (like non-refundable flights or hotel bookings), as well as offer additional vouchers for discounted or upgraded future sailings.

While the particulars of individual cruise line contracts vary, most lines we contacted stated that such policies are typically determined on a case-by-case basis. All major lines adhere to the Cruise Line International Association’s Passenger Bill of Rights, which explicitly outlines that guests are entitled to a refund for cancellations due to mechanical failures. But, notably, weather-related instances are considered a force majeure and not outright covered; in those instances, compensation would be at the discretion of the cruise company. “Be sure to contact your travel agent if you used one,” McDaniel says. A trusted specialist, with clout and industry connections, can be your best advocate for negotiating with the cruise line.

How travel insurance can help

Obtaining independent travel insurance is generally a good idea, especially for cruises. It can help cover your investment in the case of a cancellation or unplanned change on your end, while additionally tacking on extra coverages like international medical insurance, trip interruption or delay benefits, and medical evacuation options. Not only will insurance recoup your fare in the event of cancellation, but also flights, hotels, and other prepaid travel expenditures that the cruise line might not reimburse.

When it comes to the current coronavirus outbreak, however, standard policies are no longer covering pandemic-related claims. For that, you’ll need to upgrade to a pricier and more comprehensive cancel for any reason policy to help ensure some degree of travel protection. Read our story, All Your Questions About Cruise Travel Insurance, Answered, for more details.