A month before their cruise, Michael Altshuler and Eileen Zegar discover they have been assigned a new itinerary — sailing to ports of call that are of no interest on a ship they did not choose.
Their entire vacation had completely changed, and they were not even aware of it. Their question: How can Norwegian Cruise Line alter their cruise and then expect them to pay for it all?
You might be surprised.
When Altshuler and Zegar planned their March 2017 cruise over a year ago, it was based on the ports of call they wanted to visit. Their chosen itinerary had them departing from Barcelona, and traveling on to Morocco, the Canaries, and southern Spain. But Norwegian changed their vessel and destination to a different country entirely, without asking for their approval or giving them the option of switching to another cruise.
The kicker is that Norwegian had the legal right to do so.
Altshuler and Zegar happened to stumble upon this information while reviewing shore excursions about a month before their cruise date. On the second page of what appeared to be a verification of their original booking, there was a reference to a change in the itinerary. From their standpoint, it looked like Norwegian was trying to hide the fact that they were no longer sailing on their chosen itinerary. It never informed them directly that a change had been made.
Altshuler made several attempts to contact Norwegian Cruise Line, including the vice president of guest relations all the way to Norwegian’s president. His request: To receive reasonable compensation and fair treatment. Instead, he was given the option of either taking the cruise or losing out on the money spent for the tickets. The only “goodwill gesture” offered for the “confusion” was six free dinners.
Altshuler is wondering how Norwegian can legally get away with this type of treatment. The answer lies in its terms and conditions.
Passengers embarking on a cruise are required to sign a lengthy legal contract that basically removes the liability from the cruise line and puts it back on the passenger. Under itinerary changes, Norwegian states,
In the event of strikes, lockouts, stoppages of labor, riots, weather conditions, mechanical difficulties or any other reason whatsoever, Norwegian Cruise Line has the right to cancel, advance, postpone or substitute any scheduled sailing or itinerary without prior notice. Norwegian Cruise Line shall not be responsible for failure to adhere to published arrival and departure times for any of its ports of call. Norwegian Cruise Line may, but is not obliged to, substitute another vessel for any sailing and cannot be liable for any loss to passengers by reason of such cancellation, advancement, postponement or substitution.
It is not clear when Norwegian changed Altshuler and Zegar’s itinerary. However, it was not due to adverse weather conditions or mechanical issues, and there were no travel warnings issued by the U.S. Department of State. It looks like the revised itinerary falls under the “change for any other reason whatsoever” clause.
This case serves as a reminder that cruise lines have the legal right to make changes that affect thousands of passengers, and the passengers have no recourse.
“Because Norwegian Cruise Line has refused any accommodation, we will sail on March 21, on an itinerary we did not choose, because it has given us no option. We have been abused, taken advantage of, and bullied, because NCL has the power, and we have none,” according to Altshuler.
That’s the moral of the story. When passengers sign on the dotted line, they waive their rights with the cruise lines.
These contracts are set up in favor of the cruise line, not the passengers. In addition to the right to change the itinerary or vessel at any given time without notice, here are some typical clauses to be aware of:
- Baggage and personal property are transported at your own risk. If the cruise line loses your luggage, you can expect a small fraction of its value as reimbursement.
- The cruise line can make passengers pay an additional surcharge, if it so decides. It can also add a fuel supplement charge without notice that could equate to about $10 per day per passenger.
- The cruise line has the right to keep passengers from boarding at any time throughout the cruise. It can force a passenger to disembark at a port of call, and no refunds will be issued.
- If the cruise line decides that your physical condition is unfit for travel, it will refuse to allow you to board. It can also ban you from participating in activities based on your physical condition.
- The cruise line is not responsible for any problems you may encounter during offshore excursions sold by the cruise line, including money lost because of cancellations, theft, injury, etc.
- The cruise line is not responsible for any personal injury or property damage that may occur by a service or medical provider on the ship.
- Cruise lines are not responsible for any financial losses you may incur from prepaid lodging, shore excursions, or a missed flight because of an itinerary change.
- With regard to cruise cancellations, the amount of the refund is based on the number of days prior to sailing and the type of cruise. You may be eligible for a full or partial refund or no refund at all. There may also be penalty fees, and you risk losing your deposit.
- For air/sea packages, even if the cruise line chooses the airline and books your ticket, it is not responsible if you miss the cruise because of a flight delay or vice versa.
There are ways to protect yourself financially when embarking on a cruise. Find out what the cruise line’s cancellation policy is before booking. An option worth looking into is travel insurance or utilizing a credit card that provides travel insurance. Before purchasing a policy or relying on your credit card for support, find out exactly what is covered and the specified reasons under the cancellation clause. Even the “cancel for any reason” policies have stipulations. Purchasing the wrong policy could leave you with no coverage at all. Check out our recent article on travel insurance, What’s not covered by travel insurance?
According to the Federal Maritime Commission, “There is no federal government agency that regulates cruise customer service issues (e.g., itinerary changes, passenger cancellations, cabin concerns etc.)” For assistance with disputes, passengers can contact the Federal Maritime Commission Consumer Affairs Division.
There is also a Cruise Industry Passenger Bill of Rights, but it would not have helped in this case since it only covers mechanical failures and shipboard emergencies. You can find this information on Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
Norwegian was not forthright when it failed to inform Altshuler and Zegar that there was a major change in their itinerary. In February, a month before their cruise, Altshuler turned to our advocates at Elliott.org for assistance. Rather than being excited about their upcoming cruise, this experience has left a bitter taste. They are hoping for some type of reasonable compensation and fair treatment by Norwegian.
The flip-side is that most cruises are a great experience and passengers oftentimes can’t wait to book another. This is usually because everything turns out as planned.
One of our advocates provided a thought-provoking comparison, “Imagine if an airline changed your itinerary like that.” This puts what Altshuler and Zegar are facing into perspective. Would you be OK if the airline arbitrarily decided to fly to another destination without your consent?
For some reason, cruise lines don’t seem to have a problem with that.