The ship sailed, but they didn’t

At the dock without my glasses. / Photo by bimiers – Flickr Creative Commons.
When Antonia Giannasca called Carnival Cruise Lines this year to book a vacation to Mexico for her extended family, the sales representative assured her that she had all the travel documents necessary to board the ship.

Under the U.S. government’s “closed loop” rules for cruises, her 3- and 11-year-old sons needed only their birth certificates. She and her husband were required to bring a valid ID and a birth certificate. Her mother, Vittoria, a naturalized citizen born in Italy who would be celebrating her 71st birthday during the voyage, needed her naturalization form and an ID, the representative told her. Passports wouldn’t be required.

But those assurances gave way to a sinking feeling as they tried to board the Carnival Imagination in Miami. When Giannasca’s mother arrived at the dock with the family on June 18, a Carnival representative examined her paperwork and shook her head. “Uh-oh,” the agent said. “This is the wrong form.”

Vittoria Giannasca should have brought a naturalization form with a raised seal, a little detail that the Carnival sales agent apparently had failed to mention. An emotional confrontation between family members and cruise line employees followed, with Carnival offering to let the passengers find the required form and board the ship in Key West, Fla., for an extra $1,500 — money they didn’t have.

They missed their cruise.

Giannasca, a restaurant server in Boynton Beach, Fla., says that her family was traumatized by the lost vacation and by Carnival’s treatment. The cruise was to be their first, and she and her husband had saved for nearly a year for the special event. But being denied boarding wasn’t the worst part. When they asked Carnival to refund the $3,275 they’d spent on the cruise, the company turned them down flat, she says.

“We sincerely regret any misunderstanding regarding acceptable forms of travel documentation,” Carnival said in a form letter. “While I wish I had better news, we can’t respond favorably to your request for compensation.”

How many passengers are left standing on the dock like the Giannascas? No one keeps industry-wide statistics on denied boardings, the way the federal government does for airlines. But I’ve been hearing recently about more cases like the Giannascas’, some of them involving cruise line employees who provided inaccurate or incomplete information about travel documentation. After the ship sails, there’s little hope of getting any money back, except for refundable taxes and port fees.

I spent nearly two months working to secure a better answer than a form letter for Giannasca. If Carnival had recorded the conversation — and an automated message does notify callers that to “ensure high-quality service,” their call might be recorded — it could easily determine whether a sales agent had misled the passenger. A review of her paperwork turned up evidence of what Giannasca sees as Carnival’s negligence: The cruise line sent Giannasca a receipt for her purchase but no cruise contract, the legal agreement between Carnival and its passengers, and no details about the required travel documents.

I contacted Carnival on Giannasca’s behalf, but it merely reiterated its position. “We strongly recommend that consumers familiarize themselves with the required documents when considering a cruise vacation,” Aly Bello, a Carnival representative, told me.

“How could we have known that we needed a form with a raised seal?” Giannasca responded.

The short answer: She probably couldn’t have.

Carnival’s Web site is vague, saying only that it requires guests to provide “proper travel documentation” and noting that it “assumes no responsibility for advising guests of immigration requirements.”

A look at the State Department’s online notice about closed-loop voyages wouldn’t have added much clarity. Even its definition of a closed-loop voyage (“U.S.-based cruises with itineraries that both originate and terminate in the United States, returning from contiguous territories or adjacent islands”) is enough to confuse the average traveler.

“In my experience, cruise lines are quite arbitrary in their enforcement of these rules,” says James Walker, a maritime lawyer based in Miami. What’s more, he says, there’s little consistency between cruise lines as to the types of certificates that are allowed: One line will accept a faxed copy of a birth certificate from a courthouse, while another one insists on a notarized document. There’s simply no way to know what will pass muster.

As always, there’s probably more going on here than meets the eye. Before 9/11, companies routinely offered passengers who were denied boarding a credit, if not an opportunity to make up the cruise. A first-timer like Giannasca would have been a good candidate for either; after all, a voucher might have enticed her to book another Carnival cruise and perhaps to become a repeat customer.

But the economics changed about a decade ago. Tighter security led to stricter travel document requirements. At about the same time, travel insurance became a significant source of revenue for the cruise industry and travel agents. (Carnival had offered Giannasca a $600 policy, which she decided not to buy and which she says wouldn’t have covered her anyway.)

Today, well-publicized stories about families being denied boarding are likely to benefit a cruise line, because they underscore the value of the company’s profitable travel insurance products. Online forums and discussion groups are filled with shouting matches between disgruntled passengers and cruise line apologists who insist that the aggrieved customers should have bought pricey travel protection policies.

It’s difficult to see how a cruise line would benefit from sailing with an empty cabin. That would deny it the revenue from optional beverages, restaurant meals and tips. But there’s certainly some incentive to deny passengers an opportunity to cruise later at a discount or at no additional charge. And public turndowns like this one, which passengers like Giannasca are sure to take to every cruise forum on the Internet, are just free advertising for optional travel insurance.

Regardless of the reason for the increase in denied-boarding cases like Giannasca’s, the solution is simple, says Janice Hough, a veteran travel agent based in Los Altos, Calif.: “Bring a passport.”

Even though you’re allowed to travel on a closed loop with a valid birth certificate and an ID, you might need to disembark in a foreign port and cut your cruise short. If that happens, you’ll need a passport to get home, says Hough.

Carnival concurs with that advice. In fact, when it comes to travel documentation, that’s one place where it’s uncharacteristically direct. “It is recommended that all guests travel with a valid passport during their cruise,” its Web site says.

Looking back, it would have cost the Giannascas $615 for new passports, just $15 more than travel insurance — and it would have been all the assurance they needed that they’d be able to board their birthday cruise.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • technomage1

    I’m guessing that the raised seal mentioned in the article means that she tried to show them a copy of the certificate, in which case Carnival would be correct in denying them boarding (same as a copy of a passport would not be acceptable).  Carnival does mention this on their website.

    I don’t know much about naturalization papers so I could be wrong on this.  There may very well be different types or forms – in which case, Carnival should specify the type or form required.

  • pinklotusblossom

    I really feel for the Giannascas. How terribly disappointing and frustrating to feel as if you’ve gotten together all the paperwork you’re told you need for a nice vacation, only to find out it’s not enough because the cruise line wasn’t specific about the necessary documentation. 

    With that said, I’m really surprised anyone travels internationally without his/her passport in this age of extra security and scrutiny. 

  • TonyA_says

    I’m curious, what would have been the penalty to Carnival  if they were caught transporting an AMERICAN with a naturalization certificate without a raised seal?

    Also, did the woman have a State issued photo ID? The new ones here in Connecticut require us to bring a birth certificate or a naturalization certificate to get the Federally blessed version. Wonder why those kinds of IDs will not help identify who is an American?

    The passport solution is expensive especially for Americans who do not plan to go overseas. A passport is more than just an ID, since immigration authorities need to stamp it and put a Visa if needed. Besides, isn’t that the selling point of a closed loop cruise – no passport needed? They make it sound like it is easy for passengers to have to prove who they are before boarding when really it is not. Why not make a law or rule to require people to prove they are Americans BEFORE they can buy these things? No more tears due to denied boarding.

  • BryanDrost

    This is a very interesting situation to me — I feel for the passengers as they appear to be novices who were apparently told one thing, but in reality required another. At the same time, they should have also done their due diligence to make sure that they had appropriate documentation with them. Perhaps I’m a worrier, but I know that when I travel or when I’ve led student-groups, I check documents six months before travel, three months, and definitely the morning. In addition to the traveler’s responsibility, I think companies that are in the business of transporting people need to have very clear explanations on the types of documents that people need when they travel.   

  • Sam Varshavchik

    The first time I decided to take a cruise vacation, many, many years ago, when it was all and over I was quite sure that it was going to be my last one.

    Nothing particularly went wrong, but the whole experience left quite a sour taste in my mouth. I really resented that, once I handed over my money, arrived, and checked in, the primary focus of the cruise was apparently not to provide some rest and entertainment, but to suck even more money out of my wallet, under a continuously changing set of pretenses.

    Everything I’ve read since then; stories like this one, repeated outbreaks of the norovirus, one sided so-called “contracts” that basically say “screw you if the ship skips a port of call for some imaginary reason”, the various horror stories of cruise companies avoiding responsibilities for tort damages they caused, of various kinds, by being, essentially, foreign entities, etc… — none of them really did anything to change my mind.

    I found many other ways to vacation, since then, and I see no reason to change my mind.

  • MJonTravel

    While I’m truly sorry this happened the family, it is their responsibility to ensure they have the proper documentation. I see people attempting to travel on cruises with their birth certificates and drivers licenses and I truly don’t get why anyone would do that. I know the cruise lines fought hard to maintain the ability to allow it, but the onus is on the passenger to make sure they have what they need. My advice to anyone attempting to travel outside the US by any mode of transport is to get a passport and don’t even bother with the birth certificate issue. It’s not worth the hassle…or potential hassle.

    Now…for one of the specifics of this case…. I don’t understand why Carnival was attempting to extort an extra $1,500 dollars from the family for simply boarding the ship at the next port (assuming they would have been able to get the proper form).

  • AirlineEmployee

    Sorry, the passenger(s) did not do their homework…..No way would I rely on a third party “opinion” as gospel….I’d be checking it out online – one only needs to google things, which takes only a few minutes of research.
    Unfortunately, I too have had to deny boarding to recipients of wrong information.  
    Anyone that plans to step foot out of this country should not even think about doing it without a passport. 

  • SoBeSparky

    Now if I had to bring a birth certificate, I know it has to be the original, not a copy.  So what is the difference?  Take along your original forms, not copies.  Originals in most cases have raised seals.  That’s how I got my passport and how I qualified for Social Security.

    No travel agent, airline or cruise line is responsible for federal rules.  The federal government is.  

    As Chris comments, the family should have just opted for passports, the wisest long-term to solution for travel, voting ID, etc.  

  • EdB

    Should a cruise line be responsible for inaccurate information it gives to a passenger about travel documents?  I think the real question should be, “Should a cruise line give any information about travel documents?”  I think almost all these problems would be resolved if the cruise lines would not give any information but rather refer people to the State Department for that information.  Either that or the State Department should supply checklists to the cruise lines to send to the passengers listing the required documents.  Then there would be no question as to if the required documents are provided.

    But the bottom line, the best way to be sure you have the right document, BRING A PASSPORT!  Just consider the extra cost to get one if you don’t have one as part of travel insurance.

  • naoma

    I travel all the time and everyone knows you MUST CARRY THE PROPER DOCUMENTS.  IF YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT THEY ARE — ask!!!!!

  • jerryatric

    While I agree that Carnival should ensure it’s agents give correct information re documentation, it is equally important for the traveller to ensure they have the right information themselves from the government agency involved.
    Personally, I live in Canada & even a trip to the U.S. I keep my passport next to my wallet.

  • Dr. Humbug

    There are people who spend all sort of money on a trip but don’t spent the money for a passport that last 10 years and the passport solves all sorts of problems. Even when I travel domestically I show my passport instead of my driver’s license at the airport or anytime when a photo ID is required. I don’t like people seeing my home address from my driver’s license which can lead to identity theft.

    I’ve learned long ago not to trust, or believe anything the travel industry says about what identity papers I need for travel. Most of time they are wrong or they leave out the major details. I always bring my passport. My current passport has 3 inserts of 24 pages each as I travel about 75,000 miles internationally annually.

    When my children were small, each had their own passport. No need to have birth certificates, raised copy or not, etc. As for visas, I check with the foreign country’s web site.

  • Christopher Elliott

    This family did the best it could to secure the correct travel documents. It relied on the word of a Carnival representative. Unless you’re a travel professional or work for the State Department, you probably wouldn’t know that it’s not enough. I share this family’s disappointment. 

  • Christopher Elliott

    No, those were government fines under the Jones Act. Completely unavoidable, unfortunately.

  • Raven_Altosk

     Does insurance cover losses incurred by “missing travel documents?” With no research beyond one cup of coffee and knowledge of sleazy “travel insurance” cases from this forum, I’m going to guess … NO.

    Either way, people should NEVER take a cruise’s answer on travel documents. Since they keep your money either way, what’s the real motivation for a cruise line employee to tell the truth. Kinda like a used car salesman…it’s as is and you’re stuck with it, no matter how many times they say “runs great!”

  • Korrine Johnson

    What a huge disappointment :(.  The question is whether she was actually misled.  I have had clients tell me that I told them they could cancel up until the day before and receive a full refund.  Those words would never come out of my mouth (and luckily the calls are recorded), but sometimes people hear what they want to hear.  On the flip side, sometimes the cruise lines hire extra help during busy season and those people have no idea what they’re doing.  This is just one more argument for using a travel agent in my opinion.

  • casey200

    If the cruise line gives specific information about what documents a traveler needs, they are accepting responsibility for their guidance to the customer. Otherwise, they need to tell the customer: ‘we recommend all passengers bring a valid US Passport’. Or ‘we cannot advise on travel documents’. If they aren’t authorized to give that kind of specialized information,then why are they giving it out in the first place?

  • Jonathan Kandell

    When asked abouttravel documents, I always end out a form we have that specifies what s required and urges the passenger to check the websites of the US State Departmnent and the bodies in charge of entry in the countries visited.
    If there is a mistke on MY FORM, my company will compensate the traveller. If they mess up and do not read or folow through on what is written, then, while we will assist you as best we can, there will be no refunds, no compensation, nothing.
    Everyone is responsible for themselves. 

    On a personal note, even flying within the US I bring my passoprt with me. You never know what emergency may arrise   

  • EdB

    But as has been stressed several time in your blog, and by you if I remember right, *NEVER* rely on what the cruise lines tells you for documentation.

    So is this case a done deal? 

  • Kathleen Proud Keyte

    I’m not without sympathy for their situation – but as Chris noted at the end, passports would have been only slightly more expensive than travel insurance. I know lots of Americans don’t have passports but in this case & others it is well worth the added security of knowing you won’t be turned down at the port.

  • RobRob

    I generally agree with you, but not here.  Doing the best you can and relying on the world of a representative (who is trying to sell you something and likely to tell you what you want to hear) are not the same.  Check the State Department’s web site.  Check forums.  Ask a travel professional.  If, indeed, they had done “the best they could,” this would likely not have been an issue. This is not to say that cruise lines should not train their reps to be as thorough and helpful as possible but the onus is still on the passenger to ensure they meet the requirements.

  • kathymcn

    Actually, one time we misplaced our passports while on vacation and RCI let us board with copies of our birth certificates. If the state dept web site does not specify “raised seal” how were they to know? (and have you tried reaching a gov’t official on the phone recently?)

  • mbods

     For the novice, where would one find out what proper documents one needs if even the State Department’s site is vague?  Very frustrating for us and smacks of “scam” for the unseasoned traveler…


    This is the first time I have ever felt the need to comment.  But here goes.  The lady had a Naturalization Certificate without a raised seal. That means that it was a copy.  At the Naturalizatoin Ceremony where someone is sworn in as a citizen, they make it very clear that you should take good care of that certificate because, unlike most other forms (Passport, Drivers licence etc) IT IS ILLEGAL TO COPY A NATURALIZATION CERTIFICATE.  This is not a “Carnival: or even a Travel issue.  In addition to denying her boarding, Carnival could have called the local Immigration agent at the dock and had this lady arrested and fined!!

  • Christina Conte

    Not everyone is as informed as many of us responding here. SImply because we read Christopher’s column, and articles on other travel sites provides us with information many travellers do not have. I agree with pinklotusblossom that it is surprising that in this day and age that everyone doesn’t have a passport, but again, if one has not travelled much or ever, it can be understandable.

    Given this mindset, why would the Giannascas second guess the representative who told them, quite clearly, what would be required to travel? This happens too often, and it makes me wonder if it is not an accident that they are misinforming guests? Why are there no consequences for this representative?

    Although I would never try to board a cruise ship without a passport, I honestly feel that Carnival should make amends by at least offering to give them another cruise if they refuse to refund their money.

  • bodega3

    Cruise lines clearly state on their website and in their brochures (which are becoming a thing of the past with Carnival) that it is the passengers responsibility to verify correct documentation.  There are too many ‘what ifs’ and it is ultimiately the passengers responsibilty to check and double check with proper authorities, which would be governmental agencies.  

  • bodega3

    Regarding your question, I don’t think any do.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    I had to vote no on this one – asking the cruise line isn’t the same as asking the State Department or checking their website.

    I knew I was taking my son to Europe with me and several months in advance called the State Department’s customer service line and got through to someone right away.  I had a list of the questions I wanted to ask and wrote down (as well as read them back to the CSR) the answers I got.  It all went w/o a hitch and all was well for our trip.

    No one should rely solely on the response of an entry-level employee who is trained in customer service as it relates to the cruise line, not the intricacies of international travel.

    The US State Department can be reached at:
    Phone: 888-407-4747How to reach a live person:Press # two timesEmail: AskCI@state.govYou can all 202 501-4444 from overseas. 

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Once my comment is approved, I posted the customer service information for the US State Department.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I totally agree with you.  The only cruise I will ever take is on a rented jet-ski

  • Michael Ryan

    I worked at a pier this summer where ships depart for Alaska.  There are passengers denied on almost all sailings.  While it is all  well and good to say the passenger should be more responsible, I firmly believe the shipping companies share a major portion of the blame for not putting the requirements in SUPER LARGE PRINT!!

  • technomage1

     In your case, since you stated “while on” I’m assuming you had already started the vacation.  In most cases, if you misplace your passport while traveling a copy is good enough to get you returned home.  If you were starting your vacation, you may have just gotten lucky and had an agent that was having a good day.

    As far as the raised seal, as I said my best guess is that she tried to embark with a photocopy – which, state dept aside, Carnival specifically states is not acceptable on their website.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Huh?  How does the Jones act come into play?  They would have been boarding the ship in Key West vs Miami.  The Jones act prohibits the ship from transporting passengers between US ports.  But the

  • TonyA_says

    Wow. You want Grandma to spend her 71st birthday in jail ???

  • BryanDrost

    I often will check the embassy of the country I’m visiting as well as will call back the tour provider. 

  • bodega3

    It is on their website and in their brochures, so people have to take responsibility of verifying something this important with the proper governmental authorities. 

  • bodega3

    While it sounds good to say Carnival should refund their money, they didn’t take the proper steps and why should a company lose money on this?  Not trying to be mean, but I am a business owner and you wouldn’t believe the excuses we hear all the time when the information on their purchase was provided. 

    Immigration is a serious issue and as a traveler, it is YOUR responsibility to check and double check the requirements.  No tour company, no carrier, no cruise line accepts that responsibilty and if you are a DIY’er, there is only you to take the blame.

  • bodega3

    Usually it is a ‘certified copy’, which in the case of birth certificates, is now special paper and no raised seal is used in many locales any more.  Type of BC’s do vary.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Carnival should be ashamed of itself.  If they can take your money, they can give you correct information.  Refund this family NOW!  

    Of course they should all have had passports to avoid being victimized by Carnival, but if they queried the forms required and got answers, they should be able to rely on those answers.  Shame on Carnival.

  • Parisfox

    If the cruise company doesn’t want to be responsible for incorrect information, then their employees shouldn’t be giving out ANY information, but should, instead, refer the person to a source of the information requested.  Simple solution.

  • TonyA_says

    Why I do not buy the passport solution and why I believe Carnival did Grandma and family wrong

    As far as I know only the Grandma had a problem because her Certificate of Naturalization did not have a raised seal on it. So I assume the rest of the family had no problems and did not need passports (for any reason).

    Getting passports for 3 adults and 2 children will cost a minimum of $615 in fees. It will also require personal appearances to a passport office, library or post office. Since Mrs. Giannasca waits tables, that may mean lost wages and tips just to go apply for a passport. The family worked hard and saved for almost year to pay Carnival $3,275. They did not have the money to pay the the $1500, as other called it “extortion” fee. Why will they have the money for $615 worth of passports they probably won’t use again (since they could barely afford to travel overseas)? Incidentally, $3275 divided by 5 passengers is $655. So an out-of-pocket cost to get passports is like paying from another passenger.

    The fact is Americans do not need passports to take a close-loop cruise under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). Read

    I am a travel consultant and I use Elliott’s site to provide me with research topics. There are a lot of travel problems or issues I could not have experienced (or even thought of) if I do not go to this site. This one is unique. The problem is that poor Grandma Giannasca’s Certificate of Naturalization does not have a RAISED seal.

    Note, she is not being accused of using a Fake Certificate. She is not being accused of using a Unauthorized Copy of a Certificate. We don’t even know if the Certificate has a seal but it just wasn’t a raised one. So what gives Carnival the right (or duty) to authenticate a U.S. Certificate of Naturalization? What makes them qualified to do so?

    The US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) clearly states …
    “Closed Loop” Cruises: U.S. citizens who board a cruise ship at a port within the United States, travel only within the Western Hemisphere, and return to the same U.S. port on the same ship may present a government issued photo identification, along with proof of citizenship (an original or copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular report of Birth Abroad, or a Certificate of Naturalization).
    They do not state that a Certificate of Naturalization needs to have a raised seal.

    Anyone who works for the US travel industry knows that the  US CPB publishes a Carrier Information Guide and a Vessel Inspection Guide to help “inspect” travel documents. As far as I know, nothing there requires a carrier to look for a raised seal on a US Certificate of Naturalization.
    You can download the guide here (see links on right of the page).

    The USA has been issuing Certificates of Naturalization since 1906. See:

    So many versions must exist. The latest one was redesigned in 2010. See:

    Are you telling me a low paid Carnival employee can authenticate different versions of a Certification of Nationalization?
    The US State Department has an office specifically designated to AUTHENTICATE CERTIFICATES. See
    Bottom line, it is not Carnival’s job to authenticate US Certificates of Nationalization.

    Grandma Giannasca is almost as old as John McCain who was born in the Panama Canal Zone. I wonder if McCain’s Certificate of Citizenship has a raised seal on it. Same question for Mitt Romney’s father who was born in Mexico. I am definitely not a birther but you see how crazy this concept of proving who is an American really is.

    By the way for those of you who think that US Certificates of Naturalization WITHOUT RAISED SEALS are fake, please read this link:
    Apparently, some naturalized citizens have the same problem.
    So how could Granda get a passport easily when here Certificate may have been issued without a raised seal?

    Finally to show you how ridiculous this is – why would any illegal alien want to board a cruiseship (or any carrier) inside the USA when they know their status can easily be discovered? Illegal aliens use fake certificates so they can get a job or a driver’s license or welfare AND STAY HERE. But to board a cruise in Florida and come back? That’s insane.

    IMO, Carnival was just plain WRONG!

    … And Antonia, I love that name!

  • Joaquin

    I don’t understand why people think that the cruise line is not responsible.  People, particularly most elderly trust a rely on the information that is given to them by people who are they doing business with.  That’s the reason why so many in Florida become victims of con artitsts.  Carnival is supposed to be a reputable and well-know company. Why should they distrust the information that one of the agents provides?  Carnival should be responsible.  It is their responsibility to have well-trained, competent and we-ll supervised employees. Their supervisors and managers should have an adequate monitoring of the quality of their service.  They are taking the easy way out.  Shame on them. 

  • Bill___A

    Carnival’s Web site is vague, saying only that it requires guests to provide “proper travel documentation” and noting that it “assumes no responsibility for advising guests of immigration requirements.”

    You know, it seems pretty clear to me…you are responsible for finding out what you need and don’t hold them responsible.

    Maybe Americans should all just get passports.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Sadly, many people don’t bother to read, regardless of type size or accenting.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “But it wasn’t in the lecture, so why should it be on the test?” when the syllabus clearly indicates that the student is responsible for assigned readings as well as the lectures.  Of course, that assumes that the student *read* the syllabus in the first place! 

    Also sadly, that is applicable to this situation here.  I don’t know what the cruise line rep said, but in the end, the written contract is what prevailed at the dock.

  • bodega3

    Grandma should have taken her papers down to a passport office to find out if it was proper. I have advised clients to do this, to talk to the passport office in person, which is at our local post office.  I found out my BC wasn’t proper when I went to apply for my first passport, even though I had traveled to Mexico, to the Caribbean and Canada with it.  It had a raised seal, but it wasn’t a true BC, just a hosptial acknowlegement of birth that use to be given out.

    Carnival wasn’t wrong IMHO.  When people are not US born and have other issues, they need to take responsibility on getting to proper authorities and the cruise line reps, just like TA’s can’t know all the ins and out of all immigration webs.  When in question, they just won’t board someone. 

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    GREAT analysis!

    Quoting from your quote ” . . . proof of citizenship (an original or copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular report of Birth Abroad, or a Certificate of Naturalization).”  Nothing on there says “certified” copy, let alone references a “raised seal”.  Any student that I dinged on a test that brought something like that to my attention would get the points back that I had deducted.

    If Carnival will not provide any relief via Christopher Elliott, perhaps there’s something in the contract (that the OP may or may not have seen) that provides for formal mediation or arbitration?  (I’m figuring that that particular weasel-clause is in there, somewhere.)   It looks like a more formal legal process is required here.

    Carver, Joe: thoughts?

  • TonyA_says

    Chris what is the status of this case?
    This case makes me sick. I think that if Grandma brought a real certificate and she was denied boarding on the basis that the certificate does not have a seal, then the Giannascas should consider hiring a lawyer and sue Carnival.

    The reason why the Certificate of Naturalization has a seal is to MARK THE PHOTOGRAPH that is attached  (pasted) on top of the certificate.
    The certificate itself is on watermark paper and has other features that make it hard to counterfeit.

    It is conceivable that during the process of making a certificate, the one completing it forgets to stamp the photo or applies less pressure on the stamper. Just because one’s certificate does not have a raised stamp means that one’s US citizenship is invalidate. They became Americans as soon as they took the oath in the Judge’s courtroom.

    The NEW version of the Certificate of Naturalization has a DIGITAL photo. I do not know whether a seal is still necessary because the photo has now become part of the certificate itself by means of a digital printing process.

    I don’t believe US border authorities require cruise lines to authenticate Certificates of Naturalization. I don’t believe they (Carnival) know how to authenticate an INS/CIS stamp. The OP could have embossed a Mickey Mouse stamp over the photo and Carnival would probably not figured out its legitimacy (for as long as it was raised it was OK). The way I see it, if I brought a Certificate of Nationalization issued to me by the INS, or now CIS, and the cruise ship REJECTED it, it is their responsibility to prove that my certificate is bogus. If they are wrong then they have to pay up.

    I think one can easily challenge that Carnival has no way to tell if a US Certificate of Naturalization (which existed since 1906) is bogus or not. That said they might only be guessing and in the process discriminating or shortchanging some American citizens.


    While I agree that a cruise company should be held accountable if they give inaccurate information, this was not the case for this family. The cruise gave them information, I feel it was not correctly interpreted. If you are going to provide any type of certificate, how stupid are you to think a photocopy would be acceptable? These type of items ALWAYS need a seal or notarization. I just got a really good job and I needed MULTIPLE forms of I.D. – the second one being either a passport OR NOTORIZED birth certificate. I do feel bad for them but a passport would have solved ALL of their problems and as the article pointed out, a passport makes things much easier in other countries.

  • TonyA_says

    By saying that guests need to provide PROPER travel documents, Carnival is implying that THEY (Carnival) know what is IMPROPER. That is hard to believe that when it comes to US Certificates of Naturalization since only the US State Department can authenticate that Certificate.

    Grandma is 71 years old. Who knows how old her certificate was? Which version was it?

    Also, I do not believe Americans need to waste $135 for a passport when, according to Mitt,  47% don’t have the money to do anything else (but survive) without a bailout from Uncle Sam.

  • MarkieA

    I’m guessing that the Giannascas felt that they WERE doing their due diligence by checking and verifying with the cruise line. Who would know better the rules for travel than the travel company? Again, we have quite a sophisticated group of travelers on this blog; certainly in the upper 5% of the traveling public. Just because it’s “common sense” for you, doesn’t make it common sense for everybody.

  • Charlotte Lawson

    I think this is another great example of WHY you need to use a professional travel agency to book your cruise. They know about things like this and can help you in advance so you are not denied boarding over a technicality!

  • MarkieA

    Well, actually there were two parties to the initial contract; the Giannascas and Carnival. The “third party” would be the State Department. So, you WOULD rely on the third party opinion, in this case. I know what you mean though, but I don’t know if I can hold the travelers 100% responsible for this; they did try and get information. If you ask a question of the party that you think should know the answer, and you get an answer from them free of any doubts or suspicions, why would you go somewhere else?

  • MarkieA

    Absolutely! It would be so much better if the Carnival rep simply referred the traveler to the State Department website.

  • tom65xke

    Went through a similar question with Holland American on a cruise from Seattle to Alaska with a stop in Canada. Question was would  we be allowed on if our passport expired in less than 6 months?  Could not get a straight or consistent answer so renewed early. After all that i don’t think they bothered looking at it

  • flutiefan

    “Carnival’s Web site is vague, saying only that it requires guests to
    provide “proper travel documentation” and noting that it “assumes no
    responsibility for advising guests of immigration requirements.””

    doesn’t sound vague to me. they assume NO responsibility. period.

  • flutiefan

     wait, so you think only Americans should be able to take these cruises?

  • flutiefan

     Chris states that both of those phrases are contained on Carnival’s website:
    website “assumes no
    responsibility for advising guests of immigration requirements.”


    ““It is recommended that all guests travel with a valid passport during their cruise,” its Web site says.”

    i think it’s pretty clear.

  • TonyA_says

    I respectfully disagree with you. Certifications of Naturalization are mailed to the new citizen by the INS (now USCIS)

    She would have absolutely NO REASON to suspect it was faulty. Your suggestion is akin to me having to have my US passport checked by the passport office or post office to see if it was valid.

  • LFH0

     The law comes into play because by boarding in Key West, Fla., and alighting in Miami, Fla., the vessel would have, in effect, transported the party one way between two separate and distinct ports. Had the cruise line provided this transportation, it would have been fined $300 per passenger illegally transported; the line would then assess those passengers a like amount to recover the amount fined.

    (The relevant law is actually called the Passenger Vessel Services Act, enacted in 1886. The more recent Jones Act, enacted in 1920, expanded the cabotage protection to cargo.)

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    It is NOT illegal to copy a naturalization certificate.  Not sure where you got that but a quick search of the USCIS website disproves that notion. 

    I quote “… be sure to bring your original naturalization certificate and a copy of it…”

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    I think if the business takes it upon itself to advise its customers on an element of the business transaction it needs to be responsible for the consequence of erroneous advice. 

    Carnival could simply say, “We recommend that all customers have current passports” 

    This would completely solve the problem. So why don’t they.  The logical conclusion is that Carnival has concluded that it would be disadvantageous for them to make this statement. 

    Perhaps they don’t want to give customers a reason to reconsider purchasing the cruise.  

  • kathymcn

    “while on” means we had not yet boarded the ship. We may have gotten lucky, but the agent at RCI said a copy was acceptable, so we had a friend go to our house , get our birth certificate, and fax a copy to us.  That was accepted.
    Assuming this does not violate the law, why should Carnival have more stringent requirements?

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    Small claims court. 

    I hope she sticks it to these shysters. 

  • Carver Clark Farrow II



  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    It is not stupid at all to believe that a photocopy is sufficient.  It depends on the specific situation.  In today’s electronic world, copies, faxes, pdf’s etc. are becoming the norm and the default position.  When an original document or so called “wet signature” is required, the instructions generally take pains to point that out.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    You can’t legally have it both way.  You can’t provide advice as part of  a transaction and then disclaim and responsibility for providing that advice.  If Carnival wants to to that, then they have to train their sales agents not to advise the customers regarding travel documents.  Otherwise they have effectively waived that clause.

    Also, that disclaimer has to be presented to the customer through the same distribution channels as the original purchase.  If you purchase something through a non-internet means, e.g. in person or over the phone,  the website is not part of the terms and conditions unless you are explicitly directed towards the website.

  • 46Shasta19

    The more I think about this family the more unhappy I become.  Clearly they wee not frequent travelers and I believe she did do what was needed and asked the right questions from the cruise line no less and was given bad information  They are so responsible for this loss it makes me mad that they are able to deny her a refund or a replacement cruise.

  • kathymcn

     After looking at both the customs and border patrol website and the Carnival site, I think you should pursue it a little more for this family.  Both sites say that a certificate of naturalization is needed, and assuming they had that form, neither site says anything about a raised seal.  Maybe you can point this out to Carnival?  If a COPY of my birth certificate is good enough to get me on board, why not an original Cert of Nat, raised seal or not?

  • y_p_w

    What’s an “original”? Some people think that their unofficial “hospital birth certificate” is sufficient.

    What they require is a government issued certified copy of a birth certificate.

  • y_p_w

    Including the acceptance fee, a passport card is only $55 for an adult and $40 for a child.

  • y_p_w

    I would advise almost any US citizen to at least get a passport card. They cost less than a full passport and are sufficient for surface travel anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. I like it because it’s proof of citizenship that can fit in a wallet.

  • y_p_w

    There’s only one form of a naturalization certificate, although the graphics have changed over time.  I’ve seen a few, and previously they glued a photo to the certificate and then emboss the “raised seal” with the photo and paper together. These days the photo (from a scan) is directly printed to the paper and then the embossed seal is applied elsewhere.

    There is no other form that proves naturalization.  The usual recommendation for proof of citizenship is to get a passport and/or a passport card.

    As least at that point if the papers aren’t in order, there’s time to produce the right document.  Personnel at a passport acceptance facility will look over and usually know whether or not the documents are sufficient.  However, the State Dept is the final arbiter.

  • technomage1

    I missed in your orginal post that you used a birth certificate. The OPs problem was with a naturalizatio certificate. Your case illustrates the difference between a birth certificate and a passport or naturalization certificate. CBP accepts copies of birth certificates but not copies of passports or naturalization papers to begin travel. Carnivals website reflects this policy.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    That’s not what Tony is saying at all.  It appears that these cruises are marketed to Americans so that they don’t need all of the documentation that they might otherwise need, e.g. a passport.

    Therefore, perhaps the seller should be required to verify that the purchase has the appropriate documents prior to purchase.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    I have limited experience in maritime law.  If I understand correctly.  A foreign cruise ship can  make a round trip, Point A and ultimately ending at Point A.  But if you begin at Point A and end at Point B that’s illegal?

    Lol.  When I was a senior in High School we took our senior cruise on a liner that went from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands, a few more islands and ended in Puerto Rico.  But as my school was in the Virgin Islands it was silly for us to fly to Puerto Rico to make a first stop in the Virgin Islands so we boarded in St. Thomas.  It wasn’t a US Ship.  And I’m fairly certain it wasn’t before 1920.  Illegal?

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    “…the wisest long-term to solution for travel, voting ID, etc.” 

    If you are an American citizen, living in the US, and not traveling internationally, or potentially internationally (e.g. a cruise) there is no scenario in which a passport is required.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    But doesn’t that bring up the same problem.  Someone is going to say,  ”  I have a passport card” and inevitably they will true to use it somewhere where its not valid.  You still have to know the metes and bounds of its use.

  • bodega3

    This has become more of a problem now that people are booking their own travel and not using a professional who can assist them with these important bits of information.  In the decades that I have been selling travel, the one thing I was taught in the beginning is that it is my responsibility to make sure my clients know or have access to proper places to get the information they need to make their trip BEFORE they pay for it.

    I agree that you would think that the reps would provide that, but their employers have always put that on the traveler as this can be a complicated situation that only governmental offices can provide the correct information for and they don’t want to touch it. 

  • bodega3

    Photocopies for immigration purposes with travel are not accepted that I am aware of. 

  • bodega3

    That information can be found on most airlines website that have international flights..  The program is called TIMATIC and for Canada, all your passport has to be is valid for the length of your travel.  BTW, for a closed loop cruise, which yours was, a passport isn’t needed, but it is highly advised to have one just in case something happens and you have to fly home from an international port.

  • bodega3

    We advise against the card and to get a passport.  The passport card causes too much confusion with travelers and should be discontinued.

  • sirwired

     The Passport card is nearly useless.  It doesn’t cost that much less than a regular passport, is not that much less hassle, and cannot be used for air travel.

  • scot2512

    If I read this correctly it was the mother who was a naturalized citizen who was the problem?    As a naturalized citizen my  certificate  says “”It is punishable by U.S. Law to copy, print or photograph this certificate, without lawful authority.” so I’m not sure why they would take a copy instead of the original.  Or a search of Carnival’s website would show the following:

    Baptismal and Hospital Certificates, copies of U.S. Passports and Naturalization papers, are not WHTI compliant documents, therefore, are NOT acceptable.

    It also mentions “Carnival assumes no responsibility for advising guests of Immigration requirements”

  • scot2512

    As I mentioned in a earlier post the cruise line was specific in documentation if the passenger had read the travel requirements. 

  • User921394932

    Surely this is not the first case someone did not have that form with a raised seal, and Carnival should have made that clear, or even if it was the first case, they’ve trained their agents to look for it at boarding, so they can train their representatives to tell customers they need it when the call in as well.  100% Carnival fault.

    Regardless I’m tried of hearing all these stories, just bring a damn passport with you.

  • y_p_w

    The meaning of “lawful authority” is the key.  Copying your own is perfectly legal.  Attorneys keep copies of their clients’ certificates all the time.  USCIS advises people who received their naturalization certificates to make a photocopy immediately if the original is ever lost or stolen.  The point is that one is not supposed to copy for an illegal purpose.

  • y_p_w

    I got it when it first came out.  Only $20 at the time since I already had a passport.  I would probably advise people get both.

    I’ve found it to be very convenient.  I was worried that my California driver license might not be Real ID compliant if they didn’t get a waiver to the requirements.  I’ve used it many times as ID at TSA checkpoints on domestic flights.  I’ve also used mine for I-9 employment verification.

    The alternative is lugging around a passport.  I do have a neck pouch, but I consider hauling this thing around inconvenient.  Someone on vacation wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts probably isn’t going to want to haul around a full passport book.

    I also don’t understand why anyone would want to  use a birth certificate.  There have been issues when birth certificates have been lost or stolen.  They are considered “foundational documents” that could be fraudulently be used to establish a new identity.  It was also easier to get one for my kid compared to getting a non-driver license ID from the DMV.

  • TonyA_says

    That’s pretty disingenuous of Carnival. If they are the ones inspecting documents before boarding, then they can easily tell customers what they look for when they vet those documents.

  • FQTTraveler

    IF they had used a reputable travel agent the agent would have taken the time to go over every detail with them and stressed the importance and the kind of paperwork they needed for the particular destination.  Travel agents are important.  Cruiseline agents are just booking agents, some have never even cruised.  So always, always use a good experienced agent to book your travel.  Then you can talk to them anytime and ask specific questions and get answers and complete guidance even to printing out your cruise documents, not to mention extra amenities aboard the cruise.

  • bodega3

    This says it well Chris:
    Looking back, it would have cost the Giannascas $615 for new passports, just $15 more than travel insurance — and it would have been all the assurance they needed that they’d be able to board their birthday cruise

    Sadly, these days people want to travel on the cheap and it often does bite them in the butt.  I can guarantee that being prepared is well worth the expense for those what ifs!  If they had been able to board the cruise and Grandma fell while in port, she would need a passport to get home.  There things happend all the time and people don’t think about it, just how they can get that vacation for a low price.

  • bodega3

    And if you go online and read about these doucments, they are being issued on paper similar to that used in many US locations for BC’s.

  • bodega3

    You bring up an important point.  Many airline reservationists, cruise reservationists, tour company reservationists are no longer well trained nor office bound and supervised.  Gone are the days of knowledgeable reservationists and good training.  The stories abound in our industry of the misinformation that is given.  Did you know that: Cabo is in the Caribbean or as a US citizen, you need a passport to travel from MIA to HNL. Actual comments made by a cruise reservationist and an airline reservationist.  Scary!

  • y_p_w

    They’re not mailed out.  They’re presented to each US citizen after the naturalization ceremony.

    However, a pretty good way of knowing that said documents are sufficient would be to actually get a passport or passport card.  I would also leave the other stuff behind.  Losing a birth certificate or naturalization certificate is a real headache.  A lost or stolen birth certificate is a pretty good document for identity fraud.  A passport (especially the newer ones that are harder to fake) is harder.

    Once someone has received a passport, there should almost never be a need for a naturalization certificate.

  • TonyA_says

    You are right about the handing out but you can get a replacement or certified copy of N-550 mailed to you.

    If a naturalized citizen wants to renew a license with Real ID seal here in CT, they need 2 IDs. One is the Naturalization Certificate. US Passport not enough. So it is not true you can simply file it and forget it.

    The main point is no one will suspect they have a bad or wrong certificate because the goverment gave it to them. I do not think travel agents are competent enough to check them either.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

     Unless they bought the tickets online, the website is not relevant.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    If she asserts waiver, she might have a shot.  The website is not relevant.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

     I’m speaking generally to the comment.  There are of course specific circumstances where only an original or government certificate copies will do, but that’s true in all legal situations.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

     Why do you say that these people are traveling on the cheap?  Some people have limited budgets and I would not want to begrudge working class people the privilege of travel.  I would remind you that this lady is a restaurant server who saved for a year for this. Adding another $615 increases the cost of the trip by almost 20%.

    What’s being cheap to one person may very well be the only realistic option for another.

  • caruso81

    I’m sorry, but NO. Just get a passport. A real one for the adults and a passport card for the kids. End of story.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Good point! I hope they do. This one bothers me. It’s just such a huge loss over such a trivial, probably completely unimportant detail, and I feel that Carnival is being flat-out inhuman here.

  • IGoEverywhere

    Every single international tour that is sold in this country has the following general statement. “Proper Documentation is the responsibility of the passenge”! You have advocated for travel agents in the past for good clean information. This would have been a no brainer for a 2nd day agent. This error would have been the agent’s problem then. When you are talking to Carnival person, they can tell you what they think they know. Find them again.

  • jikinn

    Why do the cruise line employees offer this kind of information at all? Why don’t they just say they can’t give accurate information because everyone’s situation is different and that the passengers need to bring passports and also find out what else is needed for their particular situation (visas or whatever the required paperwork might be)? I understand that it’s not easy to get this information, but at least people wouldn’t be relying on wrong information given to them by the cruise line.

  • y_p_w

    I looked it up, and a passport or passport card along with a secondary document (SSN card or previous driver license) is enough.  I can get a document from at least 4 of the secondary category.

    do know of one instance where only a certificate of naturalization is
    acceptable.  That would be proof of citizenship for a adjudicating the
    status of a spouse married to a naturalized US citizen.  USCIS will
    require the original certificate be presented. I know people who have
    gone through this process.

  • bodega3

    That is why I suggested going to the nearest passport office, which is usually the post office in your town, and showing the certificate to them.  I have suggested this many times to clients.  I would tell my niece the same thing who is a naturalized US citizen.   

  • pauletteb

    This case would in no way entice me to purchase insurance from a cruise line. I’m sure Carnival would have found some loophole in its policy that would have allowed it to deny a claim for the same reason it denied boarding.

  • AgentSteve

    As always, we don’t know what the conversation was, between the client and the vendor. However, while we want to assume that the vendor should have been more detailed, in reality, it’s impractical, as every client is a unique booking. In this case, the family was denied boarding by “a Carnival rep” (who could have been a contract employee of the embarkation point, rather than an actual Carnival employee). I find it interesting that there is no discussion about the denial being elevated to a ship’s authority, but rather, the sanctimony of “a Carnival rep”; that troubles me.

    Unfortunately, this is another example, whereby it is critically important, for first-time cruisers to get the professional expertise of a travel agent. Even seasoned travelers can benefit, from a travel agent. At least having employed a travel agent, the client has a greater opportunity for recourse, should the agent have failed their due diligence.

    When talking about cruises, in today’s internet world, most people are convinced that on-line, or direct to the cruise line, is always the best value. Needless to say, I think everyone here would agree that personal one-on-one service, is the way to go.

    Booking clients on cruises is quite a challenge; you’ve got to do your research, both about the client and the vendor!

    In summary, while most of us feel sorry for the family, we also know that there is little to nothing, that Chris can do or accomplish. I ALWAYS encourage my clients to sail with a passport, regardless of the voyage. In January, I’ll be taking a group round-trip from San Juan, Puerto Rico; a U.S. Commonwealth. I advise and encourage them, in writing, to travel with a (current) passport. It’s the most efficient way to document who you are.

  • Meeksworth

    I’ve actually booked a Carnival cruise, and finding document info no their website is tricky, you have to really look for it. It’s also intentionally vague. Who would know in advance that they only accept a document with a raised seal? It seems like cruise lines don’t really bother to do enough to inform first time passengers or passengers with unique situations about the documents they really need. For instance, during my checkout procedure travel documents weren’t mentioned at all except in the fine print, which I had to click a link to get to. They could do a lot more to help their passengers out by being more clear about travel documents.

  • Meeksworth

    Exactly! If you want to go on a cruise, then you ask the cruise line, “ok, now all I need is this form and we can board right” Cruise line rep says “Absolutely!” Why would a novice traveler ever question an experienced travel company rep? These people believe that that the travel professionals know about travel and therefore take them at their word.

  • Meeksworth

    It seems they did ask, and were given incomplete or incorrect information. The bottom line is that until it starts costing the cruise line revenue, they will continue to screw passengers like this.

  • PGM

    This is why inexperienced travelers especially should book through a travel agent. A travel agent IS legally liable for advising them of the documentation requirements. They would have gotten the best rate AND been led through the steps of documentation. I’m not an agent, but I used to be before I had kids. A good agent would have urged them to get passports and would have checked with them about citizenship and documentation before booking and committing their money. Just because you can book your own travel doesn’t mean it’s the best idea.


    Sorry – with the amount of stolen identities – I stand by my “its stupid” to think you can come on board with a photocopy. Give me a break!