By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/1/2010 9:25:16 AM ET 2010-06-01T13:25:16

There’s something for everyone on a cruise. And I don’t mean that the same way your travel agent or cruise line does.

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Whether it’s a silly upsell, like asking you to pay extra for fine dining on your “all-inclusive” vacation, or dumb laws that prevent you from boarding or disembarking your vessel, you won’t fail to find something absurd at sea.

Just ask Shirley Ann Schultz, a sales assistant in Tampa, Fla. When she boarded a recent cruise, the ship’s security confiscated a five-inch knife she uses to prepare food. “Then, a couple of hours later, they handed us a steak knife — with a six-inch blade,” she says.

No one ever claimed the security rules made any sense.

For better or worse, cruise ships are unlike anything else in the travel industry. These enormous floating hotels don’t play by our rules, thanks to maritime laws and ports of convenience, which ensure minimal regulations while they get to pocket the maximum profits.

But none of that explains the absurdity of some cruise line practices. Nor does it begin to help you prevent these bizarre policies from sinking your next cruise vacation. Here are six more practices that defy explanation, and how to get around them:

Nonsense maritime laws
When James Dixon missed his cruise in Miami because of a flight delay, he tried to catch the ship in Key West, Fla. But when he arrived, a cruise line representative informed him that because of the Jones Act, he and his party couldn’t board. “I was in tears because our scheduled vacation for my mom was ruined,” he says.

I asked my colleague, cruise expert Anita Potter, what was going on. “Yes, there is such as thing as the Jones Act — this law was designed in the 1800s to protect and regulate the American shipbuilding industry and ensure a fleet of United States-flagged ships,” she told me. “In today’s world this law is very outdated — and sadly, still in effect.” Top 10 cruises in 2010

In Dixon’s case, the Jones Act forbids foreign ships, which includes most major cruise line fleets, to transport cargo or passengers between two United States ports without first stopping at a foreign port. How do you avoid it? Don’t try to board a cruise ship anywhere but its homeport.

The restaurant upsell
Most cruise ships now offer “premium” dining that cost extra. Of all the fees that they charge passengers, these are probably the most maddening. Cruise lines like to present these upsells as options: If you want a “special” restaurant experience, they say, why not go out for a steak dinner?

But frequent cruiser Candice Sabatini has a different take. “I’ve already paid $5,000 on an all-inclusive cruise,” she says. “Also, I think it [implies] the cruise line will serve sub-standard food in the main dining room.” She avoids cruise ships that don’t include all meals for that reason.

It’s difficult to do that, but there are still some cruise lines out there that are truly all-inclusive. You have to look long and hard — and sometimes you have to pay a lot more — to get them. But if you don’t like being charged for something that should be included in your cruise, it’s worth the effort.

Nickel and diming
It isn’t just the best restaurants that are extra, of course. That margarita you ordered with lunch is $8. Sodas are extra, too. So are excursions, and pretty much anything else that isn’t bolted down on the ship.

Even amenities that you think would be included, aren’t. For example, Diane Hansen found that her luxury cruise didn’t allow her to use the sauna and steam room without paying a surcharge. Most cruise ships allow you to use the spa at no extra charge. So she blogged about her experience and then decided to take her business elsewhere. “We were going to get a couples massage on board,” she says. “Instead, we opted for one on shore and didn't spend any money at all in the on board spa.”

Air deviation fees
When you buy a cruise, most travel experts recommend booking your airline tickets at the same time, since you’re more protected if you miss a connection. “But you have no idea what your flights are going to be, nor what they will cost,” says Peter Mescher, a computer engineer from Raleigh, N.C. “When the cruise line reveals your itinerary, if you don't like it, you call them and pay an air deviation fee.”

Even then, you don’t necessarily get the flight you want, but instead choose from a basket of possible itineraries, some of which may still have inconvenient connections.

Why bother with a deviation fee? Part of it is the money, but part of it is the perception that you’ll be better off booking an “air inclusive” cruise if you miss the boat. But is the money you save worth the hassle, or are you better off buying the airline tickets yourself and finding a good vacation insurance policy that would help you if you had to cancel or get delayed? Probably not.

The cruise contract
If you thought airline contracts were bad, check out a cruise contract. They seem to be written by a team of maritime lawyers who want to take your money and give you nothing in return.

Think I’m kidding? Reader Melissa Aakre just returned from a cruise to Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. “On the first day at sea, we were told that the ship had a propulsion problem and that we were not going fast enough to get us to Jamaica, and that they were hoping we could get to Grand Cayman,” she recalls. “On day three we were told we would only make it to Nassau, Bahamas, which is just 90 miles from Miami.” What did she get for the missed port? A $75 credit.

The cruise line should have refunded her port fees, but a review of her cruise contract — the legal agreement between her and her cruise line — shows it didn’t owe her much more than that. It had no obligation to keep her advertised schedule. The contract is full of other clauses and traps that you should familiarize yourself with before you set sail.

Top 10 cruises in 2010

Jewelry and art sales
Smart cruisers stay as far away from onboard jewelry seminars as possible.

Look out for art auctions, too. “These events are tagged as educational seminars that also include tip sheets on where to buy while in port, and on some cruise lines includes a ‘buyer’s guarantee’ that is supposed to help the passenger with refunds in the event that they are unhappy with the purchase,” says Jacci Dewdney of Advanced Jewelry Appraisals in Des Moines. “What continues to amaze and frustrate me is that passengers either are not told, or do not understand, that the jewelry stores on the list have paid a premium to be listed, and are essentially paying the cruise line to funnel passengers to them.”

Unfortunately, travelers are often caught up in the romance of the moment, and feel a false sense of security because of the cruise line’s guarantee, adds Dewdney. When they get home, they realize that their jewelry is worth less than they thought and that the cruise line is unwilling to help.

These absurdities are enough to make you rethink your next cruise vacation, aren’t they? But if you decide to cruise, you might consider a few preventative measures that will ensure you don’t get the short end of the stick.

After all, it’s a cruise. And there’s something for everyone.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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