By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 5/1/2009 5:35:01 PM ET 2009-05-01T21:35:01

Christopher Ambler and his family were excited to escape the cool Seattle climate and catch some much needed sun on their Royal Caribbean cruise to Mexico. Imagine his horror to learn the family’s entire Mexican cruise was no longer going to Mexico and that it would be cruising to the Pacific Northwest with a stop in, you guessed it, Seattle.

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Cruise lines scrambling
The swine flu outbreak in Mexico has cruise lines, airlines and hotels scrambling to accommodate guests. Most airlines and Mexican resorts are waiving change penalties for guests changing dates. Cruise lines, too, are trying to work with passengers.

Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line have suspended stops at Mexican ports over concerns about swine flu.

In a statement, Carnival said it has canceled all calls at Mexican ports through May 4, and in many cases will be able to substitute the canceled stop with an alternative port. Royal Caribbean had said it was monitoring the situation but telling passengers not to worry because the outbreaks are inland, not in the Mexican coastal cities popular with cruise tourists. But on Tuesday the company said it was suspending port calls indefinitely in Mexico until more is known about the swine flu outbreak.

Vacationers stressed out
Ambler and his wife have been completely stressed out by the situation. “I’m so livid I can’t see straight,” he said. The Amblers realize that the health issue is out of the cruise line’s control, but taking the cruise back to their hometown of Seattle is “idiotic” to them. “We’re expected to fly to Los Angeles to cruise home and to ports within driving distance and then fly back. Almost $5,000 of hard-earned vacation money for a trip nobody in their right mind would ever take,” said Ambler.

Royal Caribbean has tried to soften the blow for the Amblers and other guests onboard the May 10 Mariner of the Seas sailing by offering several options: full refund or onboard credits and future cruise credits. In the Ambler’s case they were offered $550 in onboard credits and a $350 per person credit towards a future Mexican Riviera cruise. If the Amblers take the full refund the cancellation will be their choice. If Royal Caribbean had canceled the cruise their travel insurance through CSA Travel Protection would have kicked in. “If we choose to take the refund we will lose over $1,500 in air, hotel and rental car as well as two days pre-paid at Disneyland,” said Ambler. He noted the cruise line is telling him he’s out of luck. “I have to take what they give me, according to my contract,” he says.

Indeed Royal Caribbean’s cruise ticket contractstates that the cruise operator can make changes or cancellations for ten stated reasons — hostilities, blockages, labor conflicts, weather conditions, congestion, docking difficulties, breakdown of vessel, medical or life saving emergencies — and, for that matter, “for any other cause whatsoever.” Apparently, the swine flu is in the “whatsoever” category.

Insurance policies differ
Most basic travel insurance policies like the one the Ambler’s purchased do not cover passengers who cancel or delay a trip merely because the itinerary has changed or they are concerned they might contract an illness, such as swine flu. There are some insurers and cruise lines like Royal Caribbean that offer a ‘cancel for any reason’ add-on to a regular travel insurance policy. Depending upon the insurer, cancel-for-any-reason policies provide a cash payout of a portion of a canceled trip’s cost or for a cruise line a voucher for use on a future trip.

Basic insurance will kick in only if the traveler actually contracted swine flu or some other illness before or during a trip, each insurer’s terms for medical care would kick in, providing for reimbursement for the canceled trip or the ongoing portions of a trip that are delayed and for medical care away from home.

Slideshow: Swine flu drawn out Clearly, swine flu (now known as influenza A - H1N1) is nothing to sneeze at. The World Health Organizationraised its pandemic alert level to phase five from phase four on a six-point scale, indicating that it believes the likelihood of a pandemic, or worldwide epidemic, has increased. With that outlook the cruise lines have no choice but to take prudent action to avoid infected areas and protect their guests.

Still, for the Amblers the outbreak has been heartbreaking. The family is still weighing their options — they may opt to take the cruise refund and still take their flights to Los Angeles and visit Disneyland with their children. A cruise in cold weather has zero appeal to them.

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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