By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 2/23/2009 2:13:10 PM ET 2009-02-23T19:13:10

On January 31, 106 passengers were denied boarding on Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Splendor heading for South America because they did not have required Brazilian visas. Sadly many watched their hard-earned vacation dollars sail off without them. How did this happen?

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Disturbing trend
As more people book their travel online a disturbing trend is emerging — documentation snafus that can turn a dream cruise into a nightmare. Most people can easily book a Caribbean or Alaska cruise without any thought to proper documentation other than a birth certificate or passport. On the other hand, a laissez-fare approach to booking a cruise vacation that encompasses multiple countries with varying foreign entry requirements can be costly.

This problem isn’t just within the do-it-yourself crowd. There is a growing problem with online agencies, too. Many are employing inexperienced travel agents that are not versed in the nuances of foreign travel documentation. That is leading to huge problems for clients of those agencies.

According to Carnival spokesman, Vance Gulliksen, of the 2,800-plus passengers embarking in Miami for Splendor’s South American sailing, 106 guests did not have the required Brazilian visa. “The vast majority of those that did not have visas visited the Brazilian consulate in Miami to get theirs and were then able to meet the ship in the first port of call, Barbados,” said Gulliksen. He noted that a handful of guests opted not to sail on the voyage.

That was the case for one retired couple I spoke with that wishes to remain anonymous since they are pursuing compensation from their travel agency. The couple admitted that they weren’t experienced enough to check on the many countries that were involved in the voyage, so they employed the services of a travel agent. “We checked with the agency to see if we needed visas and they told us we didn’t.” As for not trying to get visas and catch up with the ship in Barbados the couple said that option was simply going to be “too costly.”

It’s a shame the aforementioned couple lost their entire cruise investment even though they had travel insurance. Travel insurance does not cover instances where the policy holder fails to obtain relevant visa documentation.

Without proper documents you walk the plank
Several visa-less passengers I spoke with were quick to put the blame on Carnival. But Carnival gave its customers plenty of notice. Indeed, over 97 percent of Splendor’s passengers had obtained their visas.

Back in October Carnival notified its travel agent partners and consumers (who booked direct) via e-mail or fax regarding the Brazilian visa requirement. Subsequent notifications were sent to notify all new bookings after the initial mailing. Guests can only apply for the Brazilian visa 90 days or less prior to the visit date.

Several passengers wondered why they couldn’t just stay on the ship when in Brazil. Unfortunately, that’s breaking the law. Carnival said the fine for bringing undocumented guests into Brazil is $1,655 per person.

The cruise line feels badly for the guests that chose not to pursue getting a visa and flying to the next port. Gulliksen says, “We do really feel for those folks and are very sorry they were unable to participate on this voyage but hope they do understand that the visa requirement is a Brazilian government regulation and not a Carnival policy.”

Like all cruise lines, Carnival offers visa and passport documentation information in the “Ticket Contract” section of their brochures and on its Web site. The information clearly states that it is the “sole responsibility of the passenger to carry and have available all required travel documents.” It also says, “Guests traveling without proper documentation will not be allowed to board the vessel and no refund of the cruise fare will be issued.”

Bottom line: the visa requirement is your responsibility not the cruise line’s. Therefore do the homework necessary well before you leave home or employ the services of a very experienced travel agent whose job it is to know the requirements. You don’t want to miss your hard-earned dream cruise.

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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