By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 7/17/2009 1:55:05 PM ET 2009-07-17T17:55:05

It was to be the family trip of a lifetime for the Succes family of Chicago — a seven-day cruise around the Caribbean on the Costa Fortuna.

The voyage was the family’s first and was made even more special since they were celebrating Christmas together with their ailing grandmother.

But a missed flight and misinformation from the cruise line turned the dream vacation into a bad Chevy Chase vacation movie.

Travel hell
Corteza Succes took it upon herself to book the family vacation. Since the trip was over the busy Christmas holiday along with the unpredictable Chicago weather, she felt it was best for the family to drive two hours to Indianapolis and fly to Florida. The family’s Southwest flight from Indianapolis to Tampa was on time. However, the connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was delayed due to weather and would not arrive until 7 p.m. That would be too late as the Fortuna was to set sail at the same time.

Succes immediately contacted Costa Cruises to find out what to do. Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful in contacting Costa’s customer service representatives. She even tried to contact the port — again to no avail. After arriving in Ft. Lauderdale the family took a taxi to the pier and was informed by a guard that the ship had left. He suggested they try to board at the ship’s next port, Key West.

The family then rented a car and drove to Key West where instead of getting a hotel they slept overnight in the rental car. A sympathetic port guard contacted the Fortuna’s purser to let them know the Succes family had arrived. The guard then informed the family about the Jones Act law and told them they could be required to pay a penalty if they were allowed to board the ship. The guard stated only the captain was empowered to make an exception, but he noted that other ship’s captains have done so in the past. The Succes family was prepared to pay a penalty if required, but they were skeptical — was there such a thing as the Jones Act?

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Keeping up with the Jones Act
Actually, there are two laws that affect cruise passengers — the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (commonly known as the Jones Act) and another law called the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA). In 1886, the U.S. government enacted the PVSA law that prohibits a foreign or non U.S.-built vessel from picking up passengers in one U.S. port and disembarking them in another. However, the PVSA does allow ships to pick up and return passengers to the same U.S. port providing they call at a foreign port in the course of the voyage. It may also pick up passengers at a U.S. port and disembark them at another U.S. port providing it calls at a port deemed to be distant by the government. The Jones Act law was designed to protect and regulate the American shipbuilding industry as it has cabotage provisions that restrict the carriage of goods or passengers between U.S. ports to U.S. built and flagged vessels.

In today’s world this law is very outdated — and sadly, still in effect. Anytime the PVSA or Jones Act is violated the ship operator is subject to a fine. In the case of cruise lines past fines have been approximately $300 per passenger, but to pay the fine and board has always been at the captain’s discretion.

Captain’s call
Later in the morning the Fortuna’s purser arrived at the port office to talk with the Succes family. The purser stated he was very sorry, but the captain was refusing to allow the family to board. “He informed us that he didn’t think there would be a problem and in an effort to be proactive he drafted the declaration for the family to sign agreeing to pay the $300 per person penalty. He told us the captain refused,” says Corteza Succes. The family begged to speak to the captain, but was told that was not possible. “I was in tears because our scheduled vacation for my mom was ruined.” The purser apologized and told the family that the captain had consulted with Costa’s Miami office when making his decision. There was nothing more he could do. The only other option was for the family to fly to the Fortuna’s next port of call two days later — the Cayman Islands.

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For hours, Succes talked with various personnel at Costa trying to get on Fortuna in Key West or at least receive a refund for the cost of the cruise ($2,144) — she got nowhere. Seeing her mother’s disappointment at missing their first cruise she contacted Carnival Cruise Lines to inquire about a sailing that day. The family ended up booking a 4-day cruise on the Carnival Imagination — total cost $2,326.

The following day when checking her cell phone voicemail Succes had received a call from a Costa manager inquiring if the family was able to catch a plane to the Cayman Islands. She returned the call and informed the manager that after their experience in Key West they were worried that they would be turned away again by the captain and didn’t want to incur the expense to make the attempt. The manager then offered the family another cruise that was scheduled to sail on Sunday, December 28. Succes told the manager that they were unable to do it at that time because she was scheduled to return to work and the grandmother had scheduled medical treatments. Succes asked if the family could sail at another date, but the manager stated this was a “one time offer.”

The family was devastated at losing their hard-earned money.

Costa speaks
The Costa captain’s call is confusing, especially in light of the Purser’s stating he had drawn up a declaration for the family to sign. It is in Costa Cruises Passenger Services Contract (section 17) which states that passengers are responsible for paying any fines assessed when they violate laws or governmental regulations of any kind. Why wasn’t the family allowed to pay the fine ($300 each) and board the Fortuna?

I contacted Dana Dominici, director of public relations for Costa Cruise Lines North America to see if there was anything that could be done for the Succes family. Dominici felt bad for the family. However, she said the company refused to violate the Jones Act. “Exceptions to this law may only be allowed with permission from Federal officials and in general, are only permitted with extreme medical emergencies,” said Dominici.

She added, “As we are built and flagged as an Italian vessel, we would be in direct violation of federal law, for the embarkation or debarkation of guests in a U.S. port prior to visiting foreign ports and subject to fines. We apologize on behalf of the port staff that relayed incorrect information.”

Travel common sense
The Succes’ story is a sad one. But much of the misery could have been prevented if they had consulted with a travel agent. Simply put, a travel professional would have talked them out of their crazy flight planning. Driving to Indianapolis doesn’t make a lot of sense since there are far more non-stop flight options to Fort Lauderdale from both of Chicago’s airports — O’Hare and Midway.

Additionally, a travel professional would have told the family that if they were indeed worried about bad weather the best option would have been to travel the night before the cruise. That way if there were problems there would be more options and most importantly more time to get to the ship. An agent also would have highly recommended travel insurance protection for the family to cover unexpected delays or a missed cruise. Most importantly, an agent would have been the Succes’ biggest advocate in dealing with the cruise line and would have provided proper information and viable options for the family.

Sadly, the Succes’ family vacation serves as a cautionary tale as booking a cruise directly with the cruise line is always a tricky business. In fact, 90 percent of cruises are booked through travel agents, and there is good reason to do so. Agents do all the legwork with the cruise lines including dealing with problems like a missed embarkation. While booking your own cruise can sometimes save you money, you can also lose money — as the Succes family did in a big way.

My advice: Unless you are an experienced cruise traveler, it is best to book your cruise through a travel agent.

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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