Cruise lines protected by contract, helped passengers anyway

- Royal Caribbean has gone out of its way to re-accommodate the passengers whose ship sailed into hurricane-force winds this week, but the Miami-based company didn't have to.

Cruise line ticket contracts are voluminous legal documents, replete with clauses and subsections, protecting the companies from having to compensate passengers in these situations.

In Royal Caribbean’s case, the contract every passenger must agree to includes more than 6,000 words. Passengers blindly accept the terms and conditions with one click of a mouse or a verbal “yes” to a travel agent.

Usually, it’s not an issue. No one refers back to their ticket contract when they’ve enjoyed a relaxing week, floating in the Caribbean.

However, when a journey veers off course, these obscure legal covenants come roaring to the forefront.

Big words, big deal 

Contained within Royal Caribbean’s jargon is a provision allowing the line to “cancel, advance, postpone or deviate from any scheduled activity, departure or destination” without notice. The language is daunting, but commonplace in the cruise industry.

Some passengers learn about it the hard way: after the deviation or cancelation has already been made.

Read the contract:

The next bit frees RCCL from having to pay refunds, no matter how sudden a change or cancelation.

“Carrier shall not be liable for any claim by passenger,” the contract reads.

This sentence can deal a crushing blow to your coveted vacation time. However, that didn't happen this week.

Royal Caribbean did offer Anthem of the Seas passengers a full refund for their troubles. Passengers also received a coupon for half-off another cruise.

Why? Goodwill.

The PR offer

Let’s be blunt: the cost of re-accommodating the Anthem’s disrupted passengers was likely less expensive than the negative publicity that RCCL would have faced for adhering to the contract and not assisting them.

The contract doesn't say RCCL can't offer refunds. It just says it’s not obligated to offer them.

When faced with tough circumstances, cruise lines have routinely deviated from their strictly-worded contracts to offer flights, hotels, and refunds as a gesture of goodwill - and, perhaps, PR - but a cruise line’s past largesse is no guarantee of what it will do next time.

It’s entirely possible in smaller-scale disruptions, the cruise line might be less lenient or generous. You can't count on goodwill.

Bill of Rights to the rescue

Members of The Cruise Line Industry Association, including the major cruise lines, have agreed to a Passenger Bill of Rights. It offers limited protection in the event your sailing goes awry, including a commitment to refunds and flights home.

However, many of the most generous protections only apply for mechanical failures as defined by the cruise line.

Nonetheless, a savvy traveler should review (and possibly print out) the CLIA Passenger Bill of Rights before they sail. It’s valuable info to know, especially if you are faced with a crew member who is unfamiliar with the Bill of Rights.

Print the Passenger Bill of Rights:

Another bit of caution: the ticket contract mentioned above is a legal document. The Bill of Rights is not.

If push comes to shove, the cruise lines have little legal obligation to adhere to the Bill of Rights. However, we must trust that they have authored and agreed to the Bill of Rights in good faith.

Suing a cruise line

Angry passengers often threaten legal action when their trip turns sideways. These days, it seems instinctive to hire a lawyer and create a class action.

However, most, if not all, cruse lines include a provision in the ticket contract that shields them from traditional lawsuits. Instead, upset passengers must take their gripe to mediation or arbitration. It’s possible a judge could overrule the mediation/arbitration clause.

Let’s hope your vacation never goes so far down the tubes that you have to ask a judge for that leeway.

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