By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 11/7/2008 1:55:37 PM ET 2008-11-07T18:55:37

Last June, Beth Lawless-Walsh and her friend were looking forward to escaping the rainy Pacific Northwest on a seven-day Carnival Cruise Lines’ cruise in the Caribbean. Lawless-Walsh booked the cruise through a Florida-based online cruise booking site called Winston and Sons Cruises, a Joystar-affiliated agency. Lawless-Walsh had worked with the agency before and felt comfortable booking with them again. The friends opted to book their own airline tickets separate from the cruise — Lawless-Walsh cashed in frequent flier miles and her friend purchased tickets through Orbitz.

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A few months after booking the cruise vacation her travel agent left the business and transferred her reservation over to another Florida-based online agency, DrewsCruise.com. Everything seemed to be taken care of, or so she thought.

Travel agent mess
In late October, six months ahead of the sailing, Lawless-Walsh signed on to Carnival’s Web site to fill out customs forms and discovered some shocking news: The Carnival Victory cruise had been canceled. Upset, she called her new travel agent to find out what happened. The agent was just as perplexed as Lawless-Walsh because there had been no record of a deposit refund to Lawless-Walsh’s credit card.

The travel agent immediately contacted Carnival where the line informed him that the April 22, 2009 sailing aboard the Carnival Victory had been canceled on August 15 to make room for a charter group. Additionally, the line stated that a fax had been sent to Winston and Sons Cruises regarding the cancellation and that the agency had canceled the booking upon receiving the fax. Unfortunately, that important piece of information was never passed along to the new travel agency nor was Lawless-Walsh’s deposit credited.

Lawless-Walsh and her friend still wanted to take the cruise and were willing to do so on a different date. Problem was the date they wanted to sail was a higher fare than their original cruise and they wanted Carnival to pay the airline reservation change fee of $150 per ticket.

The new travel agent was having no luck getting Carnival to honor the same fare and airline change fee. Carnival was willing to pony up $100, but not the extra $50. Lawless-Walsh contacted the cruise line herself and got nowhere. That’s when she contacted me for help.

Bumping heave-ho
You may have heard of being bumped off an airline flight, but did you know you could be bumped off a cruise ship? Indeed, you can. The usual reason is overbooking, and sometimes, as in this case, to make room for a charter group.

According to Carnival’s vice president of group sales and administration, Cherie Weinstein, charter contracts are contracts from corporations, travel agencies, or other promoters or buyers with very large groups that buy out 100 percent of a sailing’s inventory with 100 percent of payment at the time of contracting. “Charters are non-cancellable in that even if the charterer would sail with less than a full ship or would refuse to operate the sailing, there is no refund or credit. As a result, charters are solid business for cruise lines,” says Weinstein. So, when does a cruise line decide to charter? Weinstein says when Carnival (any any other cruise line for that matter) evaluates a charter request, they will look at the date, the amount of business on the books, the strength of demand for the sailing and then decide if it makes sense to offer the charter to a customer.

For displaced cruise guests there are no federal or state laws prohibiting a cruise line from bumping passengers because of a charter. Each cruise line has its own bumping policies, which are stated in the terms and conditions of its passenger contract.

In the case of Carnival, the passenger contract has a special provision for the line canceling a cruise. It states: “Carnival has the right without previous notice to cancel this contract at the port of embarkation or any time during the voyage and shall thereupon return to the Guest, if the Contract is completely canceled, his passage money, or, if the Contract is partially canceled, a proportionate part thereof. Under such circumstances, Carnival shall have no further liability for damages or compensation of any kind.”

Language like this should give a traveler pause. It plainly states that the company will accept no liability for any passenger loss of “any kind.” “Any kind” is a word you really don’t want hanging around your cruise vacation, yet you will find it in most every cruise line’s passenger contract.

Even worse there is no travel insurance policy that covers getting bumped off a cruise. Travel Guard, one of the largest travel insurers, specifically excludes from its cruise coverage any travel arrangements changed or canceled by the cruise line.

Doing the right thing
So what is the poor bumped cruise traveler to do? First, dig in your heels as Lawless-Walsh did. You don’t have to go down without a fight. Her persistence paid off with a suitable remedy.

According to Carnival spokesman, Vance Gulliksen, all guests who were booked on the April 22, 2009 cruise, including Lawless-Walsh and her friend, were provided with full refunds. Additionally, guests who booked their own air transportation were provided with $100 per person to cover their airline deviation fees. “In the case of Mrs. Lawless-Walsh and her guest, the fee was $150 per person and Carnival covered the entire amount as a gesture of goodwill,” said Gulliksen. Carnival also allowed Lawless-Walsh and her friend to book another Carnival Victory cruise departing May 27, 2009 at the same rate. Lawless-Walsh and her friend were happy with the outcome.

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. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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