Cruise rescheduled because of swine flu — what are my rights?

One of the most common swine flu-related questions I’ve been getting relates to rescheduled cruises. Many cruise lines are diverted their ships to avoid Mexican ports.

What if you don’t want to go? Should you be able to get a refund? Or at least, to reschedule?

Common sense says: yes. You’re being offered a different product. It’s kind of like buying a gallon of nonfat milk but getting a container of whole milk.

But common sense doesn’t necessarily apply to this situation. For starters, there’s the cruise contract, which says ports can be changed for any time and for any reason. This cruise line policy is rigidly enforced — unless the courts get involved.

Now that swine flu is spooking every would-be visitor to Mexico, we’re seeing that policy tested again. Kathy Langley wrote to me yesterday with the following question:

I am scheduled, along with a friend, to leave Los Angeles May 2 for a seven-day cruise advertised on the Princess Web site as “Mexico-Riviera”. Due to the recent CDC warnings, they are now going to San Diego and Catalina.

They are sticking to their standard cancellation policy (no, we did not buy insurance) even though they are no longer going to “Mexico-Riviera”.

Any clue as to how I can get them to just let us change our dates to next fall or spring? We are not asking for a refund, just the ability to reschedule based on their availability.

I put the question to Princess. Here’s the answer from spokeswoman Julie Benson:

I fully appreciate the question. And just for clarification, instead of calling at Mexican ports, on the May 2 voyage Sapphire Princess is visiting Santa Barbara, San Diego and San Francisco (it’s a roundtrip LA cruise).

We can understand her disappointment, however we have a policy that we don’t provide refunds or allow changes to bookings for situations that are beyond our control (like swine flu).

The reason for this it’s simply not fair to the over 3/4 of our passengers that spend their money to purchase travel protection, to provide a benefit to passengers who choose not to purchase this.

For our passengers that did purchase Princess Vacation protection, they would be able to “cancel for any reason” and receive a 75% (or 100% depending on the package purchased) of their fare in a future cruise credit, meaning they could move to a different sailing.

I know this is not quite what Ms. Langley was hoping to hear, but I hope this at least provides you with our rationale.

So there you have it. If Langley had purchased vacation protection, she’d be able to cancel and receive credit. Princess believes offering her any kind of credit would be unfair to passengers who bought travel insurance.

I completely understand Princess’ argument, but I’m not sure its fairness to insured passengers is the issue here. It’s more the fact that the cruise line advertised a Mexico cruise, and that Langley booked a cruise with the expectation that she would actually cruise to Mexico — not San Francisco.

I think customers like Langley understand when a cruise line has to drop one port because of a propulsion problem or a virus outbreak. But heading north instead of south is completely different cruise.

Update (noon): Princess released the following statement.

In light of the travel warning by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommending against non-essential travel to Mexico because of concern over swine flu, Princess Cruises has modified its itineraries to suspend calls to Mexican ports through the few remaining voyages of the spring season, which concludes next month.

We are sorry that circumstances beyond our control have caused these itinerary changes, and we recognize that these modifications may cause some disappointment among our passengers. However we hope our passengers will also agree that adhering to the recommendations of the CDC is the best course of action for the safety of our passengers and crew.

Three of the seven affected cruises were sold as voyages exclusively to Mexico, and we therefore realize that these passengers are not receiving the cruise vacation they had anticipated. Therefore as a goodwill gesture we are offering these passengers a 50% future credit on their cruise fare paid, for any sailing through April 2011.

These sailings are:

Sapphire Princess H918 (departed April 25)

Star Princess 9910 (departed April 27)

Sapphire Princess H919 (departing May 2)

The other four cruises with modifications feature Mexico as a smaller portion of the itinerary, and these passengers will either visit alternative ports or spend an additional day at sea.

Our ships and medical staff are already well equipped to prevent and contain the spread of contagious diseases, including swine flu. Even though the risk of contracting this illness is very low, we will be taking extra precautions, and will be guided by advice from the CDC and other health authorities.

In an abundance of caution, some of the measures we are taking onboard all our ships worldwide include:

* We are enhancing our screening practices for passengers and crew embarking our ships.
* We are adhering to CDC guidelines for reporting and treatment of persons with suspect swine flu.
* We will isolate and treat passengers and crew with suspect swine flu. Anti-viral medications that effectively treat the swine flu are currently available onboard all Princess ships.
* We will continue our rigorous cleaning and sanitization of our ships to minimize the spread of any contagious disease. Our ships are routinely cleaned with a disinfectant proven to be highly effective against the flu.
* We are communicating to our passengers and crew that they should take extra care to practice healthy habits such as washing their hands often.
* We are asking passengers and crew to report to the medical center immediately if they exhibit any symptoms of flu.

As always, we will continue to do everything possible to protect the health of our passengers and crew.

For US passenger inquiries, contact 1-800-PRINCESS.

For UK passenger queries, contact Reservations on 0845 3 555 800.

“This is a disaster”

If you’re nervous about the recent swine flu outbreak and want to cancel an upcoming vacation to Mexico, you might want to read this before calling your travel agent.

In the last 24 hours, I’ve received several e-mails like the following one from reader Aaron Kyle.

I have booked a vacation package to Cancun from Phoenix through Travelocity and now need to cancel my trip due to the swine flu outbreak. I contacted Travelocity’s customer service department and they said that they needed to contact the hotel in order to see if a refund is available.

When I tried to contact the hotel myself, the Fiesta Americana Condesa said that I will need to get a refund through Travelocity! I am going around in circles trying to get a straight answer.

They didn’t allow the $100 shuttle fee to be refunded by Olympus Tours, and they said I will have to contact the airlines on my own to make changes.

This is a disaster….can you help?

Here’s the problem: As of now, the US government isn’t advising citizens to avoid Mexico. The US embassy in Mexico has limited hours, but there are no calls as of yet to avoid the entire country.

The United States has imposed no additional constraints or limitations on travel between the United States and Mexico. Travelers are encouraged to comply with suggestions by Mexican public health officials and to be alert to good health and sanitation practices.

Personally, I think it’s too soon to cancel a Mexico vacation unless you’re visiting an area that’s directly affected by swine flu. If the outbreak is contained, a trip to Cancun will probably be infection-free.

Travelocity is listing the airlines with flexible change policies on its site, but it isn’t saying what it would do to help a customer cancel a vacation. In fact, it would be impractical to allow customers to call off their vacations now, because travel agencies would then have to allow customers cancel trips to California, Kansas, New York, Ohio and Texas, where the swine flu has made an appearance.

The next 24 to 48 hours will be interesting. If swine flu is contained, we can all get on with our lives and continue traveling.

If it isn’t, then all bets are off. Everything will come unraveled, and even if you booked your vacation through an online travel agency, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where you won’t be forced to deal directly with each airline, hotel and car rental agency to negotiate a refund or a re-do.