What are you entitled to when something goes wrong with your cruise? It's one of the most common questions we get.
Many consumers apparently believe that a change in the ship's itinerary or a problem on board entitles them to generous compensation or a full refund. But the cruise lines have covered their areas of exposure quite well, and they make it crystal clear what they are and aren't responsible for--and what you are and aren't entitled to.
It's all covered under "Terms & Conditions" on the back of the brochure, and today on most of the cruise line web sites. It's certainly one of the most boring things one can read, and can sometimes be tough to decipher, but if you read every paragraph, you might find some surprises. Below is an abbreviated and simplified explanation of the fine print you'll find in many cruise line legal disclaimers.
Before we continue, the important thing to remember about these disclaimers is that they protect and absolve the cruise lines for things that are beyond their control. However, in many cases a cruise line that needs to change an itinerary, or that experiences some other kind of delay or inconvenience for the passengers, may choose to give the passengers some kind of compensation. It may be free onboard credit, a discount on a future cruise, or something else of monetary value. Just keep in mind that anything they give you in the following conditions is purely voluntary, not mandatory.
* Itinerary Changes
If you read the fine print on back of your brochure, your cruise documents or the cruise line website, you will see the "terms and conditions of passage." You will see that the cruise lines disclaim responsibility for itinerary changes, even voluntary ones. According to the terms and conditions, your cruise fare entitles you only to the specified number of days aboard ship, your accommodations as chosen and paid for, and all listed inclusions such as meals and entertainment. Your cruise fare does not guarantee specific ports of call, or the order in which the ship calls on them. Another thing to remember, especially on itineraries outside North America, is that the cruise lines could also be forced to change your ports of embarkation or disembarkation--which could wreak havoc with your airfare if you've booked it separately.
If a ship changes its itinerary (either before you embark or during the voyage), the cruise line is not obligated to compensate you except to refund applicable port charges. Even an itinerary that is promoted and sold on the merits of specific ports can be changed by the cruise line.
Princess Cruises just announced last week it was cancelling all ports of call in Morocco, for unspecified reasons. Many lines such as Oceania Cruises, Travel Dynamics International or Silversea that operate Mediterranean/Middle East itineraries have had to drastically alter them at the last minute, and in some cases passengers were hopping mad. Other lines sometimes do not announce itinerary changes in advance, but take a "wait and see" attitude and make changes ad hoc. In most cases, if passengers on the altered itineraries want to cancel the cruise lines hold firm on their cancellation, refund and compensation policies. Cruise lines are not in absolute control of the ports, and they may have to cancel a port call or change an itinerary for a number of reasons, ranging from weather to mechanical problems, having to medi-vac a passenger off the ship.
Sometimes it is political turmoil, such as when fighting broke out in Lebanon a few yaesr ago just when a few cruise lines had started to visit Beirut again. Last year, Libya decided to stop allowing visitors with U.S. passports to enter, and they gave the ships scheduled to go there no notice at all. The U.S. passengers were just stuck on the ship, while the other nationalities went ashore.
* Outright Cancellation of a Cruise
Cruise departures can be canceled for many reasons, like shipyard delays, mechanical problems or a full-ship charter. If that happens, the cruise line is only responsible for refunding your cruise fare. If you've booked airfare or pre/post cruise arrangements separately, the cruise line is not liable for those costs.
*Refusal of Passage.
You've booked and paid for your cruise, you've flown to the port, you have all your tickets and documents and are standing in line to check in. You reach the head of the line and present your paperwork to the check-in clerk, and then the impossible happens: You're denied boarding. This can actually happen for any number of reasons, and once again the cruise line is responsible for very little.
If you're denied boarding because the ship is oversold (i.e., the line booked more passengers than the ship's cabins can accommodate), the cruise line will refund your cruise fare--but other than that, you're on your own. If you've booked your air trough the cruise line, it will endeavor to change your air arrangements or secure you accommodations for the evening. The line might even offer you alternative arrangements on another one of its ships, or a ship from another line. This is one instance in which the cruise lines usually bend over backward and jump through hoops.
You could also be denied boarding due to incomplete, insufficient or total lack of proof of your citizenship. In this instance, you are indeed on your own: It is the passenger's responsibility to verify immigration requirements and secure proper proof of citizenship.
* Lost, Stolen or Damaged Luggage
The cruise lines require that you report missing or damaged luggage directly to the line upon boarding (or before you leave the pier, if disembarking). In most instances, the cruise lines limit their liability from $100 to $500.
* Airline Problems or Delays
Even if you booked air through the cruise line, the lines disclaim any responsibility for airline problems or delays. Nor are they responsible for problems or delays encountered with ground transfers or shore excursions. The exception to this is if you purchased travel insurance through the cruise line. Then they will get you on another flight and get you to the ship.
The bottom line is that problems will happen, and inconveniences or disasters will crop up. If you find yourself faced with a problem, make the best you can of the situation and advise your travel agent. Your travel agent can be a wonderful conduit through which you can resolve problems; and in most cases, the cruise lines will make goodwill gestures to inconvenienced passengers.
Remember this above all else: Flip to the back of the brochure and read all of the terms, conditions and fine print. Information is power.
Tim Rubacky worked for CruiseMates as the "Consumer Affairs Editor" from 2000 to 2002. Today he is the head of Public Relations for Oceania Cruises. This article was written by Tim, and updated by CruiseMates' editors 2007.