It may happen more than you think. People arrive with their luggage at a port of embarkation, ready for the "cruise of a lifetime" vacation they have been planning for a year -- only to be told at the very last minute that their right to board the ship is being denied.
Could it possibly be any worse? Yes, in most cases the cruise line also refuses all financial responsibility for this action, costing the non-passenger just as much, or more, that if she had enjoyed every sea-wheeling moment.
How can this happen? Cruise ship rules of passage state very clearly, in brochures, on the cruise tickets and cruise line web sites, that under a variety of specific conditions the line can deny your cruise with no refund of any kind. You end up, stuck and dumb-struck, on the pier needing to make panicked alternative arrangements. You need to get back home or find a place to stay, and you are out the money you paid for your cruise. Then you also realize you won't get any more vacation time for a year and it's too late to plan anything else.
Sounds pretty harsh, right? In most cases it is, even though the cruise line will sometimes offer a cruise credit or other compensation - though it certainly isn't guaranteed. Despite the appearance that the lines are getting away with highway robbery, the truth is they really do want everyone onboard, because most people spend far more money on a ship than they can eat, even in lobster.
So, under what circumstances will cruise boarding be denied? There are many different reasons, legal or financial. But before we get there, let's get this out of the way. There is no substitute for a highly qualified travel agent. If you are not sure of your travel requirements, work with a qualified cruise agent who deals with people like you (depending on your circumstances as outlined below) every day.
Here are some of the most common reasons why a person may be denied boarding a cruise ship.
Passport and Visa Problems The cruise lines make you, the passenger, responsible for having the proper documentation to take a cruise on their ship. This isn't their choice, they have to follow the laws of the nations on the itinerary. By U.S. law, all cruises require a passport or suitable alternative, but you may also need a visa for a nation the ship will be visiting. If you do not have a passport (or equivalent) and all of the necessary foreign visas, you will be refused boarding your cruise.
As far as visas are concerned, the people who need to be most vigilant are non-U.S. or Canadian citizens traveling on cruise ships which typically cater to an American clientele. For guests with U.S. or Canadian passports, the cruise lines will almost always explain all visa requirements well ahead of the cruise date. But the rules are different for people with non-U.S. or Canadian passports, and will vary depending on what country issued your passport and where the ship is headed. The cruise lines do not even attempt to explain to the people using these "foreign" passports what documentation they will need prior to booking their cruise, solely because the rules can vary so much.
Alaska cruises are a particular concern. Almost everyone knows the U.S. requires a visa to enter, but the ship also makes one stop in Canada on most Alaska cruises, and this means they also need a Canadian visa, even if they do not plan to leave the ship. Bottom line, always check the visa requirements for any itinerary.
Here are a few examples from letters I have received: A California resident flew to New York City to board a cruise to Bermuda. Although she had U.S. citizenship through marriage, her passport was from Macao (A city-state similar to Hong Kong and also governed by China). This woman was told at the pier that people with Chinese passports cannot enter Bermuda without a visa from the Bermuda State Department. She was denied boarding and ended up staying in New York City while the rest of her family took their cruise. She lost her cruise fare, had to pay for her stay in New York, bought alternative flights home and lost her non-refundable airfare she had previously arranged.
In this case, it was a Bermuda customs official working at the New York City pier who instructed the cruise line to refuse her passage on the ship. Sadly, it turned out the customs official was wrong. Bermuda does not require a visa for Macao residents, but she had no way to prove that at the moment. This timing issue is very common. Just when you find out you need a visa (or simple clarification of the rules), it is Saturday and all the embassy offices are closed.
Where foreign visas are concerned, the question always comes up, "what if I agree to stay on the ship?" There are places where that is allowed, but they are few. Russia is one of them. If you do not have a visa or an arranged tour with a certified Russian tour operator you should be allowed to stay on the ship in Russia, and you should not be denied boarding the ship in the first place. However, this can still be subject to cruise line policy, so you should always check rather than take anything for granted.
Most destinations are not that way, however. You do not have the option of staying on the ship. You cannot be on a ship sailing into the port of that nation if you are without a visa, and so the cruise line must deny you boarding the cruise at all.
Passport Requirements Right now, if cruising outside of Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean you need a passport now and will not be allowed onto a cruise ship without one with one exception called the "closed loop" rule: if your cruise begins and ends in the same city and only visits WHTI (Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative) compliants ports of call, then you are allowed to cruise without a passport, but you must have proof of US citizenship (a certified birth certificate and driver's license, for example).
Go here for more specific details on the WHTI qualifications.
The other qualified documents for arrival by sea include a Passport Card or an Enhanced Driver's License, both cheaper than a passport, but each is only for land and sea entrances, not air. Only a true passport is good for all kinds of entries to the United States. So, no matter what, we at CruiseMates always recommend that you get the passport, because you never know if an emergency will require you to return to the United States by air. Without a passport you will have a very long delay getting back in.
Most airlines and some cruise lines will deny you boarding if your passport is set to expire less from six months from your travel date. The reason being you may be gone longer than you expected. Always renew your passport at least six months before it expires.
Canadians living in the United States need to carry their green card with them if using a Canadian passport to enter the United States. Without it, you can be denied boarding on a cruise ship.
All this being said, my best advice is to find out for yourself what is required to enter every country on your cruise. In addition to the visa, also get copies of the best official documentation from every visa-required country that explains the rules for entry. Our experience shows the cruise lines and some border officials sometimes do not really know what any given country may require if you have a "foreign" passport, and when they don't know the rules, they tend to deny boarding.
In fact, in the case of the woman from Macao above, the official was wrong! She did not need a visa and should have been allowed on the ship. However, she had left her copy of the official Bermuda document that backed her claim at home. Had she had it with her, she might have been able to change the official's mind.
Cruise Line Policies -- Age Restrictions There are other reasons to deny boarding other than visas and passports. Cruise lines have their own policies and once again, it is up to you to know their policies before you book your cruise. If you do not comply with the cruise line policies you will be denied boarding and you will not get a refund or other compensation.
An example; Carnival Cruise Line has a rule that anyone under the age of 21 must be accompanied by someone at least 25 years of age in the same stateroom. Otherwise the younger person will be denied boarding. But there are exceptions:
A guest's age will be verified at embarkation. Guests not conforming to this policy will be denied boarding and assessed a 100% cancellation penalty. NO exceptions will be made at embarkation.
If you are under 21 and part of a group an exception may be made. Group policy is slightly different because of stricter group terms and conditions including mandatory chaperones, damage deposits and other considerations. But you should verify what is allowed before you go.
Minor Children Traveling with a Legal Guardian Adults who are not the parent or legal guardian of any minor child traveling with them are required to present the child's valid passport and visa (if required) and an original notarized letter signed by at least one of the child's parents. The notarized letter from the child's parent must authorize the traveling adult to take the child on the specific cruise and must authorize the traveling adult to supervise the child and permit any medical treatment that might be administered to the child. If a non-parent adult is a Legal Guardian, the adult must present a certified certificate of Guardianship with respect to the child.
Take note that if the child has two legal parents and one is not going on the cruise, even in cases of divorce where only one parent has legal custody, it is a very good idea to get notarized permission from the parent who is not going on the cruise. Immigration officials have been known to deny a parent taking a child out of the country without the absent parent's notarized permission slip.
Health Reasons - Pregnancy Many cruise lines have a policy that denies pregnant women from cruising. In fact, Carnival just changed the rule from denying women who are more than 26 weeks along to denying those who are beyond 24 weeks along.
This rule was changed recently, and there was a case of a woman who checked originally when she made her deposit, but did not check again before she made her final payment. Meanwhile, the cruise line changed the rule and when she arrived at the ship at 26 weeks pregnant she was denied boarding. In this case, the cruise line did refund her cruise fare.
Other Health Reasons At the time of boarding, you are given a form to fill in asking if you have experienced diarrhea or vomiting in the last 48 hours. The reason is they are on the lookout for Norovirus. If they believe you have the virus they may deny you boarding. Having the symptoms alone is not the issue. If you have food poisoning or a non-infectious cold that is not a concern. But if they determine the cause is Norovirus you will be denied.
An important caveat here! Since we wrote this original article we have received a number of complaint letters from readers who say they checked the affirmative boxes on these health forms and we subsequently denied. Do not do this - honesty is not the best policy. If you think you are infectious do the right thing and stay home, but if you have food poisoning do not tell them. Many people have been denied their cruise merely for checking "yes" to experiencing these symptoms regradless of the reason why.
Health issues are also sometimes a reason to put a passenger off a ship in the middle of a cruise. If a ship's medical officer determines a passenger is exhibiting health issue that the ship's facility cannot treat, the passenger may be put off in the next portof call. They may elect to do this even if there are few medical facilities onshore, but there is an airport. The reasoning is sound, a medical emergency that cannot be treated onboard can be fatal. Alternatively, people who present an infectious virus during a cruise are likely to be quarantined in their cabins until the doctor says they are no longer infectious.
The concern here is that a passenger may be put off the ship even if they do not have a passport. In that case, the person cannot fly back to the United States without going to the U.S. embassy and getting an emergency passport first. The cruise line will not take any financial responsibility for the fact that you do not have a passport, even if one is not required for you to be on the cruise ship. If they need to put you off, getting a passport is your own responsibility.
Physical Disability Lawsuits have determined that a person who is disabled, even blind, and traveling alone must be allowed to board as long as they are capable of taking care of themselves and can show they normally do. However, it should be understood by the guest that while most large cruise lines do their best to be ADA compliant, they are not legally required to be, and some ships simply were not built that way. Furthermore, while most U.S. destinations require facilities for the disabled, many nations the ship might visit do not have facilities to aid the physically challenged. This is not a reason to deny you boarding, but it is something for the physically challenged traveler to keep in mind.
Summing Up Cruise Lines can legally set policies to deny you boarding and invoke them at any time. Furthermore, it is your responsibility to know the cruise line policy and if you do not or cannot comply, do not expect a refund or other compensation.
Now, cruise lines do not want to deny you passage. They want their ships to sail as full as possible since much of their revenue is made onboard. But they will deny you passage if they believe your situation will be detrimental to the progress of the cruise by slowing them down with local officials or raising a health issue they cannot control.
Cruise line policies change, so be sure to check frequently before your sail date. If a rule does change and you discover it before your cruise date, you may be able to fix the problem or make alternative arrangements with the cruise line. Buying travel insurance is also a good idea, but read the policy carefully. Many of them do not cover you if you are not in compliance with the "rules."
In truth, the cruise lines will often compensate a passenger who misses a cruise by giving them a voucher for a make-up cruise. Getting your money back is much harder to achieve. Cruise contracts are very specific and unfortunately hard to beat in court. Most of them specify that you must file, even small claims, in the state where the cruise line is headquartered.
This is yet another reason for having an experienced travel agent on your side. CruiseMates has been making all of their group cruise arrangements through the same travel agent for many years now because she always gets the best price and she really knows her stuff. Naturally, she has awards from most of the cruise lines as a top-selling agent. There is no substitute for experience when it comes to needing to know what you may not know.