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How to Buy Protection to Keep Yourself Afloat : Insurance: Shop for the best policy to guard you against medical emergency or last-minute cancellation.


* Trip interruption. Provides funds for a flight home from the nearest port if a family emergency requires your immediate return, and a refund on the unused portion of your cruise--up to the total amount for which you are insured. If you have to leave your cruise and fly home suddenly, you probably won't be eligible for an advance-purchase discount fare; instead, you will be expected to pay full fare. Insurance covers costs.

* Emergency medical and dental assistance. Provides limited coverage for medical treatment in cases of illness or injury on a cruise. David F. Gould, vice president of BerkelyCare, which administers the insurance programs of 18 cruise lines, believes temporary medical protection is the most important reason for buying travel or cruise insurance. Many regular health plans, including employee policies, do not cover the cost of medical treatment abroad (a designation which includes the Caribbean except Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

"Not having medical coverage abroad," says Gould, "is life threatening," especially for older travelers. If you have a health plan that provides for coverage abroad, travel insurance generally will pick up costs that insurance doesn't cover, including a deductible.

Pre-existing medical problems are excluded in the travel policies Gould's firm handles, which is also generally true with standard health policies. But Gould notes a significant difference in the definition of "pre-existing" between travel and regular medical policies. In the plans he administers, including that sold by Royal Cruise Line, a pre-existing condition such as chronic diabetes can be covered if it has been stable for a specified time (usually 60 to 90 days) before the insurance is purchased.

If you have a chronic but stable illness, look for a travel policy that will cover emergency medical payments in the event of any unexpected recurrence of the problem during the cruise.

* Emergency evacuation. Provides transportation to the nearest appropriate medical facility, if required, with provisions for getting accompanying dependents home. Policies with this benefit may also provide for someone of your choice to remain by your bedside. If your health is frail, this coverage should be considered seriously.

* Default. It's rare for a cruise line to go bust, but it has happened. Retail policies can protect your deposit, but this coverage generally is not a part of the supplier policies sold by cruise lines. If you don't buy default protection, you are most in jeopardy on cruises departing from ports outside the United States. Cruise lines departing from U.S. ports, including Puerto Rico, are required to post a bond administered by the Federal Maritime Commission. The bond should cover all passenger payments if a cruise line suddenly shuts down. Paying by credit card also offers a measure of protection; if the ship doesn't sail, you may be able to contest the charge on your monthly statement.

Other areas that can be covered include missed connections, delays and baggage troubles.

When comparing policies, it is important to check the maximum amount of coverage each policy provides in its list of benefits. Generally, cruise line policies list specific benefits and limit reimbursement to a specified amount, which varies among the lines. With retail insurance, you should be able to purchase as many benefits and as much coverage as you want.

Independent retailers include:

* Access America (6600 W. Broad St., Richmond, Va. 23230; 800-284-8300), which offers two policies designed especially for cruise travelers. Access America Cruise Protection is sold to all cruise passengers; SafeSail provides differing benefits and is sold only through the National Association of Cruise-Only Agencies. * Travel Guard International (1145 Clark St., Stevens Point, Wis. 54481-2980; 800-826-1300), which has put together a cruise-specific package called Insure America Cruise Protection Plan.

* The Travelers Companies/ Ticket and Travel Plans (1 Tower Square, Hartford, Conn. 06183- 5040; 800-243-3174), which sells a package of travel insurance for trips of all kinds, including cruises.

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