By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 9/26/2007 8:08:59 PM ET 2007-09-27T00:08:59

The Mueller family, of Phoenix, was looking forward to a May cruise in Alaska aboard the Norwegian Star. Sue Mueller made a great booking for her family through Hotwire — or so she thought.

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Before the cruise, Mueller checked with Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) to make sure she had all the travel documents her family would need for the trip. She knew that passport rules were changing, but like many Americans, she was unsure exactly what paperwork she would need to cruise from Seattle to Alaska.

"I contacted NCL customer service the day before the cruise to verify that we had acceptable documents," recalls Mueller. She says the agent verified that the family's documents — birth certificates and photo IDs — were sufficient for the cruise; the agent went on to explain that new passport requirements, which have sent U.S. travelers scrambling over the past year, would not affect cruise passengers until 2008.

Cruiseless in Seattle
But the next day, when the Muellers tried to board the ship in Seattle, they got a terrible shock. Sue and her husband had their birth certificates, as required, but their 16- and 17-year-old sons did not, and the cruise line would not let them board. A staff member said that the cruise line required proof of citizenship for all U.S. citizens; justifying the application of that rule to minors, the agent said that without the birth certificates, "you could be kidnapping them."

Stunned by the development, the Muellers pleaded with the NCL staff and presented their sons' high school photo IDs, explaining that the boys had needed their birth certificates to get them. No go.

The Muellers were escorted to a waiting area, where they found 20 other passengers with similar documentation issues, including some who had also booked their cruise through Hotwire. The Muellers called home and tried to have a neighbor fax the birth certificates to the pier, but the neighbor could not find them. The Muellers' cruise was dead in the water.

The family was now stranded in Seattle, Mueller says, and no one from NCL offered assistance. "We were crushed," she says. "This was to be our last family vacation before the boys went off to college, and it was especially meaningful because my husband's health is not good."

Instead of vacationing in Alaska, the Muellers spent the week at home. Mueller contacted NCL several times, but the cruise line refused to offer the family a refund or a credit to use toward another cruise. After getting nowhere, Mueller contacted Tripso for help.

A documented mess
I contacted NCL to see what the cruise line could do. AnneMarie Mathews, director of public relations for NCL, said she was sorry to hear about the family's trouble, but pointed out that the Muellers did receive information from the cruise line specifying what documentation they needed to bring.

"The cruise documents that the Muellers received from us had a link to our "Welcome Aboard" booklet that includes a paragraph on necessary documentation," Matthews says. "The requirements state that valid birth certificates are required for all U.S. citizens traveling on Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda, Alaska, Mexican Riviera, and Canada & New England cruises. We also suggest that travelers visit the U.S. State Department Web site for the latest requirements and overseas information before they sail."

NCL declined to give the Muellers any compensation, arguing that proper documentation is the passenger's responsibility. (All cruise lines take this position.) Furthermore, NCL says, if travelers show up at the pier without proper documentation, they are not entitled to a refund. Hotwire includes the same documentation information on its Web site.

Mueller did buy travel insurance through Travel Guard and she made a claim, but it was denied. None of the three big travel insurance companies (Travel Guard, Access America and CSA Travel) covers such claims. NCL's own travel insurance contains a cancel-for-any-reason clause, which would have resulted in a credit of 75 percent to 90 percent of the Muellers' cruise fare, but the Muellers did not purchase that NCL policy.

Don't miss the boat
Problems like the Muellers' will soon disappear — not because cruise lines will become more tenderhearted, but because the days of anyone cruising with a U.S. birth certificate are numbered. Passports are already required for all U.S. citizens entering the country by air. Entry by land or by cruise ship is still exempted from the passport requirement, but the cutoff date for the exemption is January 1, 2009. According to the State Department, phase-in dates for the passport requirement have not yet been determined, but passports could be required for cruise travelers as early as the summer of 2008. So for the next year, documentation requirements will be in flux.

I've received many letters and phone calls from cruise travelers with documentation problems like the Muellers'. Every one of these cases came from travelers who had booked their own cruises. While doing it yourself can sometimes save you money, you can also lose all your vacation money if you do not have the right information about documentation.

My advice for travelers booking cruises over the next year is to work with a travel agent who can advise you on up-to-date documentation requirements. Yes, you will pay for the service, but it's money wisely invested.

As for Sue Mueller, she's learned her lesson. "Hindsight!" she sighs. "Now I wish I had done more. I hope no one else ever has a similar situation."

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column.

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