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Your port of call is suddenly canceled. Now what?
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Question: My husband and I booked a seven-day golf cruise to the Mexican Riviera last year on the Radisson Seven Seas Mariner. Upon boarding the ship in November, we discovered that one of the three scheduled ports, Cabo San Lucas, had been canceled. A letter posted on our stateroom door said the itinerary change was due to "unforeseen circumstances."
The captain later told us that the ship's propeller had been damaged in Alaska five months before, forcing the ship to sail at a reduced speed. We also learned that Radisson Seven Seas made similar adjustments to every remaining itinerary until the ship's planned dry docking in December. Although the cruise line had ample time to fix the problem or notify booked passengers of any possible changes, it did neither.
We expect more from a company that advertises "six-star" service. Why did it wait until the last minute to tell us about this problem? And why weren't we compensated properly?
Answer: Port cancellations seem to have become as rampant as flight delays.
Cruise lines blame the problem on the quadruple threats of weather, mechanical malfunctions, port crowding and enhanced security. But frequent cruisers grumble that lines are taking advantage of one-sided contracts that let them scrub any stop, for any reason.
"It's a complaint we hear frequently but can do little about," said Bryant VanBrakle, secretary of the Federal Maritime Commission, the agency whose responsibilities include advising passengers how to file claims against cruise operators.
Cruise passengers, unlike air travelers, have few legal rights. If the cruise line doesn't deliver the advertised itinerary, travelers are not necessarily due compensation. Adamick paid $3,000 per person for the cruise; she received $150 in shipboard credit for losing one-third of her port calls.
Adamick, however, was in a good position to argue for more: Radisson knew the ship was damaged and still decided to sail.
The Mariner, like some other ships, has fancy propellers, or "pods," that make the liner fuel-efficient, easier to maneuver and smoother to ride but also more prone to damage and breakdowns.
"In the past two years, we've seen an increase in missed ports and cancellations as a result of this," said Mike Driscoll, editor of the industry newsletter Cruiseweek. Carnival and Celebrity have been hardest hit by propeller problems and have doled out millions in compensation to aggrieved passengers. In 2003, Celebrity filed a $300-million suit against the manufacturer for these losses; the case has not yet been resolved.
When we called Radisson Seven Seas, the company conceded that it handled the Mariner situation poorly. The ship's pod, which is more exposed than older ones, scraped an iceberg in Alaska in June. The cruise line made temporary repairs, allowing the Mariner to complete the year's sailings at a reduced speed before dry docking in December.
But Adamick's Nov. 12 itinerary was "too tightly scheduled" for a handicapped ship, said Mike Conroy, president of Radisson Seven Seas. Strong headwinds and currents along the coast, congestion at Cabo and security checks, he said, typically make this sail a scramble anyway. "We talked about it three months before and knew we'd have a challenge," Conroy said.
The line chose to try the original itinerary on Adamick's cruise even after the ship ran into delays 10 days earlier.
"Based on the information from our captain, we thought we could make up the time but we were wrong," Conroy said.
Radisson Seven Seas should have given Adamick and her husband cash or credit for one lost day, or about $430 per person, said San Francisco-based travel attorney Al Anolik, author of "Traveler's Rights: Your Legal Guide to Fair Treatment and Full Value."
"The contract says the line is not responsible for itinerary changes due to mechanicals, but they're also required to keep a public service vessel in good working condition," he said.
"The cruise line just can't say, 'We'll take care of it in December.' Radisson took the shot and lost."
In the end, Radisson made good for our reader and the 646 other guests onboard. Upon receiving our phone call and revisiting the guest comment cards, the cruise line discovered that it had received about 40 complaints about the missed port and the compensation.
"In hindsight, we could have been more generous upfront," Conroy said. "We have reevaluated the situation and as a gesture of goodwill are offering all guests on published fares an additional $500 per person future cruise credit."
Although cruise passengers can't protect themselves from eleventh-hour itinerary changes, they can take steps to minimize loss. Here's how:
Choose ships, not ports. Make vacation decisions based on the ship's amenities and general destination, not specific ports of call. Be aware that port cancellations can affect weddings, meetings with relatives, golf tee times and other land-based activities, said Kathy Sudeikis, president of the American Society of Travel Agents.
Track troubles. Before booking one of the newer ships, research its track record online. Cruisejunkie.com (www.cruisejunkie.com/events.html) keeps tabs on problems at sea reported by the media and passengers. It features three years of incidents by cruise line, ship and compensation offered.
Scrutinize itineraries. If a schedule includes lots of short stops, chances are one or more of those ports, particularly the congested ones, could get cut. That's because the time it would take to disembark and clear customs might consume most of the stay.
Be wary of West Coast cruises. Lines often delay repairs until a ship repositions. And if trouble strikes, you may be on a route with fewer stops for an emergency fix, said Cruiseweek's Driscoll. The West Coast is one of those places. "For this reason, we're hearing about a lot of problems on Alaskan and Mexican Riviera itineraries," he said. A reputable cruise agent can steer you toward voyages that are least likely to encounter trouble. If problems do arise, the agent should be able to negotiate a better itinerary or a settlement.
Demand a reasonable response. Missing a port does not command the same compensation as a canceled cruise. Mariner passengers, for example, cannot expect the same compensation as recent cruisers on its sister ship the Navigator; that vessel caught fire Jan. 17, forcing a cancellation. Guests could choose between a full refund or another seven-day cruise plus $1,000 in cruise credit per person.
Protect your investment. Buying travel insurance, preferably from an independent provider, is the best way to recoup losses if problems arise. Cruise lines prefer to compensate in future credit, not cash; by paying with plastic, you may get help from your credit card company in winning a cash refund.
Register your gripes. Contact your local Better Business Bureau (www.bbbonline.org/consumer) or state attorney general's office (www.naag.org, then click on the link for "the attorneys general"). The BBB often arbitrates on behalf of travel consumers. The Federal Maritime Commission (www.fmc.gov) maintains a little-publicized consumer hotline, (202) 523-5725, where you can register a complaint. The agency gets about 200 complaints a year and often will intervene for consumers with cruise line disputes. It does not have jurisdiction over the lines, however, and cannot take action against them.
Consider suing. "Forum selection" clauses in cruise contracts may make it hard for consumers to sue because the clause generally requires filing suit in the nation or state where the line is registered, and often that's overseas. California residents, however, are protected by the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, which allows them to file suit locally, regardless of where the cruise line is located.
*Laurie Berger welcomes your questions but regrets that she cannot respond to all. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Travel Q&A, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. Please include your name, city of residence and telephone number, which won't be published but is needed for verification.
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