Can you trust the cruise lines’ new passenger “bill of rights”?


Maybe it was the string of customer-service disasters, starting with the Costa Concordia tragedy last year and leading up to the recent Carnival Triumph “poop” cruise, on which passengers were left adrift in the Gulf of Mexico for five days without working toilets.

Maybe it was the threat of government regulation from Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.), a vocal critic of the cruise industry, that made it move.

Then again, maybe we should just take the cruise industry at its word on its decision, announced just before the Memorial Day holiday, to introduce a passenger “bill of rights.”

But here’s what we have: a promise by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) to add a list of “rights” to its ticket contracts, the legal agreement between passengers and the cruise line.

These include the right to leave a docked ship if it can’t provide essentials such as food, water, bathroom facilities and medical care; the right to a full refund for a trip canceled because of mechanical failures, or a partial refund if a trip is cut short for the same reason; and the right to timely updates about any changes in a ship’s itinerary caused by a mechanical failure or an emergency.

None of these rights are new. Instead, they codify “many longstanding practices of CLIA,” according to Christine Duffy, the organization’s chief executive. “The cruise industry is committed to continuing to deliver against the high standards we set for ourselves in all areas of shipboard operations,” she adds.

But would the bill have affected the outcome of any recent customer-service meltdowns, including the Triumph fiasco, or even the latest disaster, a fire that cut short a sailing on Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas last month? Stewart Chiron, a consultant who founded a marketing company that specializes in cruises, says that the answer is “no.”

Rather, he thinks that the reason for the bill is political. Late last year, CLIA merged with several trade groups, including the European Cruise Council, the Asia Cruise Association and the Passenger Shipping Association, and is just taking the new organization on a “test drive” with this bill.

“It made sense to quickly agree on a consistent cruise passenger bill of rights,” he says.

Perhaps too quickly. Although CLIA representatives claim that they collaborated closely with Schumer on the bill, the senator appeared to be caught off guard by the sudden announcement, made at a time when no one was likely to pay attention to it.

In a letter to CLIA, Schumer pressed the association for specifics on its new pledge. Who determines that essential provisions such as food and water can’t be provided? What exactly are the cruise lines’ current reimbursement practices? How will passengers be notified of changes to their itinerary?

Schumer has called the bill “a step in the right direction” but has stopped short of endorsing it. “I still have many remaining questions, both on the content and how the bill of rights will be enforced,” he told the Associated Press. A CLIA representative said that the organization will answer him “soon.”

Passengers are skeptical, too. Some say that they’d prefer deeds to words when it comes to passenger protections. “If the cruise lines had any brains, they’d forgo some of their billions of profits yearly for their good name and get their guys trained in damage control,” says Richard Johnson, a retired naval officer who lives in Cedar Hill, Tex. “And firefighting.”

To others, the existing passenger contract is something of a joke, and adding passenger rights language is little more than a punch line.

Bruce Helenbart, an engineer from Hazelwood, Mo., says that he recently had to wade through a 20-page cruise ticket contract and sign it before setting sail. It included disclaimers stating that the cruise line wasn’t responsible for the ship’s doctor, provisions limiting Helenbart’s ability to sue the cruise line, and a clause that allowed the company to alter the itinerary any way it chose to. What’s more, the agreement was what’s known as an “adhesion” contract — a one-way agreement that bound him. If he didn’t sign it, he couldn’t board.

“It’s all there except about the volunteering to be turned into a manipede,” he says.

James Walker, a maritime attorney based in Miami, says that customers are correct to disbelieve the cruise industry’s new customer-service rhetoric. “It’s actually a step in the wrong direction,” he told me. “What this bill of rights does, in fact, is limit the liability of cruise lines.”

For example, if this bill had been in effect during the Triumph disaster, then Carnival would have been obligated only to refund part of the passengers’ payment — not to repay the cost of the entire cruise, cover passengers’ transportation expenses, zero out their onboard bills, issue a voucher for a future cruise and pay them $500 each, as Carnival did, he says.

“I would view this as a PR move that effectively limits the rights of passengers,” he adds. “They are proposing rights that are beneficial to the cruise lines, but not to their customers.”

The cruise industry needs the positive publicity that would probably come from an uncritical industry press. But more importantly, says Walker, it hopes to keep likely legislation by Schumer, which would have the force of law, from ever reaching the Senate floor.

Bill or no bill, the fact remains that you’re still giving up a lot of rights when you sign up for a cruise. Maybe too many. The only way to avoid that — at least for the foreseeable future — is to stay on dry land.

Is the cruise lines' new "bill of rights" good for passengers?

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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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  • sirwired

    While these appear to be a list of common-sense practices (like giving you a refund if the ship breaks down), maybe the cruise industry should try and figure out why they put statements to the contrary in their passenger contracts to begin with. And does this mean they’ll be removing those odious (and entirely unused) contract terms?

  • EdB

    “For example, if this bill had been in effect during the Triumph disaster, then Carnival would have been obligated only to refund part of the passengers’ payment — not to repay the cost of the entire cruise, cover passengers’ transportation expenses, zero out their onboard bills, issue a voucher for a future cruise and pay them $500 each, as Carnival did, he says.”

    This is EXACTLY what I thought when I was reading the story. The cruise lines were only covering their posteriors with this so called Passenger Bill of Rights. And the part about ” the right to leave a docked ship if it can’t provide essentials such as food, water, bathroom facilities and medical care”. If you leave, will you be entitled to any type of a refund?

    I have only been on one cruise and I really enjoyed my time on it. However, with the way things are going these days, I’m not sure I would want to again.

  • John H.

    Until these so-called “rights” become law via U.S. Senate action, I will do as advised and stay on land. I have no intention of signing anything that gives away my rights to a shipping line.

  • Bill___A

    Although it is difficult to trust any travel provider, the cruise ship companies are the ones I distrust the most – by far. A plane only has you “hostage” for a few hours. You can generally switch hotels,. restaurants, or car rental companies. However, generally with a cruise, you are stuck with them for the duration.

  • cjr001

    The fatal flaw of this is it’s the cruise lines getting all of the say and the passengers getting none.

    Congress shouldn’t step back and continue to let the cruise lines have all the control but instead step forward and give passengers a “bill of rights” that actually means something.

  • TonyA_says

    Read it yourself and ask if you have the right to be treated as a human being?


    The Members of the Cruise Lines International Association are dedicated to the comfort and care of all passengers on oceangoing cruises throughout the world. To fulfill this commitment, our Members have agreed to adopt the following set of passenger rights:

    1. The right to disembark a docked ship if essential provisions such as food, water, restroom facilities and access to medical care cannot adequately be provided onboard, subject only to the Master’s concern for passenger safety and security and customs and immigration requirements of the port.

    2. The right to a full refund for a trip that is canceled due to mechanical failures, or a partial refund for voyages that are terminated early due to those failures.

    3. The right to have available on board ships operating beyond rivers or coastal waters full-time,professional emergency medical attention, as needed until shore side medical care becomes available.

    4. The right to timely information updates as to any adjustments in the itinerary of the ship in the event of a mechanical failure or emergency, as well as timely updates of the status of efforts to address mechanical failures.

    5. The right to a ship crew that is properly trained in emergency and evacuation procedures.

    6. The right to an emergency power source in the case of a main generator failure.

    7. The right to transportation to the ship’s scheduled port of disembarkation or the
    passenger’s home city in the event a cruise is terminated early due to mechanical failures.

    8. The right to lodging if disembarkation and an overnight stay in an unscheduled port are required when a cruise is terminated early due to mechanical failures.

    9. The right to have included on each cruise line’s website a toll-free phone line that can be used for questions or information concerning any aspect of shipboard operations.

    10. The right to have this Cruise Line Passenger Bill of Rights published on each line’s website.

  • Tincanrider

    Agree with you, but who trusts anyone inside the beltway to do the right thing?

  • Miami510

    Over the years I’ve heard so many bad stories about cruises in addition to stories from two travel agents, that I’m going to stay on land as well. The foreign registry as well as the odious contracts put passengers at a great disadvantage. Many stories of rapes, molestations, theft and ill passengers experiencing no, or poor medical care, never make the news.

  • EdB

    Got to love 9 and 10. You have the right for them to give you a toll-free number and publish the list. Doesn’t say they *HAVE* to do it. Just that you have the rights for them to do it. Just like you have the right for them to publish fares on their website. Meaningless dribble the whole thing.

  • TonyA_says

    Sometimes the best way to tell what an organization is all about is to figure out which of their top management actually had (or has) a pro-consumer background

    Again read it for yourself. and ask which one of them you think will take YOUR SIDE if you have a cruising problem.

    Key Personnel

    Christine Duffy – President and CEO
    Tom Fischetti – CFO
    Margaret Murphy – Senior Vice President, Marketing and Trade Relations
    Mike McGarry – Senior Vice President, Public Affairs

    Christine Duffy
    Past: President, Maritz Travel Company at Maritz Inc.,
    President, COO at McGettigan Partners

    Thomas Fischetti
    Past: Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President at IAAPA, Proprietor at Thomas D. Fischetti, CPA, Administrative Controller at National Treasury Employees Union, Executive Director at Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, Supervisor, User Systems Acceptance Testing at Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp

    Margaret Murphy is Senior Vice President of Marketing and Training for Cruise Lines International Association. Prior to joining CLIA, Margaret was president of 21C Communications Consulting. Her background also includes leading a global Business Transformation practice as a managing principal of the IBM Consulting Group and heading the Atlanta public relations offices for GolinHarris (IPG International). She is a graduate of Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business.

    Mike McGarry has led strategic communications initiatives that advance organizational priorities, improve the bottom line, and mitigate risks to reputation. He has developed award-winning programs for world-leading brands, and he was an external affairs leader at a Global Fortune 2 multinational. McGarry has deep experience in both the business and public policy arenas. Prior to the private sector, he served as Communications Director at a major U.S Congressional Committee where he led media strategy and served as spokesperson during consideration of historic legislation and high-profile investigative hearings that garnered international media coverage.

  • Citizentraveller

    The cruise line industry is only one of many businesses worldwide that include “customer rights and responsibilities” in their terms of contract. Unfortunately the contracts are all written by the business and the customer is faced with a take-it-or leave-it situation. In most cases the specified customer rights are no more than what would be expected by a reasonable person, while the customer responsibilities often far outweigh the customer rights.

    Most customers of course buy a ticket and hope for the best. I just had a look at the Qantas conditions of carriage which made me realise how many conditions the airline imposes on passengers and how few rights passengers have unless there is some law to protect those rights. And that is the crux of the matter – most businesses will only make gestures to protect the rights of customers in an effort to avoid legislation being enacted.

  • Joe Reynolds

    I have not read the ‘Passengers Bill of Rights”

  • Cybrsk8r

    And what, exactly, is “food” in the cruise lines’ opinion? They could very well point to a row of vending machines and say, “There was food”. Bathroom facilities could be a bucket.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I actually love #7. Due to cabotage laws, the cruise line would have no choice BUT to transport you back to your original point of disembarkation, or face a hefty fine.

  • AH

    not if they’re flying you back or providing transportation in some other way.

  • PsyGuy

    Businesses in general don’t do anything that costs them money unless some government authority makes them. Passengers have no rights, the cruise industry wrote the contract, they didnt pay an expensive legal team to write a contract that is in the customers favor, but theirs. That’s how it works, you want to sail, we want to make money, and we want to minimize the potential of having to give you any of that money back. If you don’t like it don’t sail.

  • cjr001

    Aye, I know, I’m asking far too much of our collection of Congresscritters.

  • Steve Rabin

    can you say “self-serving”?

  • Cat

    There is only one way passengers will ever get a fair “bill of rights”. Make the agreement reciprocal. What ever applies to the airline also applies to the passenger. Miss your flight because of weather? Act of God. Want to change your flight plan willy nilly? So long as you start and end up at the same place within a day or two of your original travel plans, this will be OK. Airlines want to charge you for making changes to your ticket, OK- but passengers get paid the same for any changes to our tickets too, different aircraft, times, routes, etc.

    How very very different the airlines policies would look if they had to play by their own rules!!

  • Lindabator

    There ARE no vending machines on a cruise