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.