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When a good cruise goes bad

Rogue waves, mechanical problems, bad weather. Not every cruise is perfect. And when things go wrong, passengers are sometimes surprised that they are no more likely to get a refund than if they went to the beach for a week and it rained every day.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rogue waves, norovirus, mechanical problems, bad weather. Not every cruise is perfect. And when things go wrong, passengers are sometimes surprised that they are no more likely to get a refund than if they went to the beach for a week and it rained every day.

The only difference is — you can drive away from the beach. But once you're on a ship, you're stuck there until the cruise is over.

"There are things that can happen on a ship, like rogue waves, that don't happen on a land-based vacation," said Brad Hatry, cruise consultant at Pisa Brothers Travel in New York. "The biggest unknowns to most first-time cruisers are weather-related problems. The cruise companies are likely to be very unsympathetic if you're complaining about rough weather, and if you read the fine print, they have no liability to refund your money."

Passengers were so angry about a December cruise on the Norwegian Sun that one of them created a website,, to air their grievances. The ship lost power in one engine and skipped scheduled port calls in St. Thomas and St. Martin as it limped back to Florida, stopping instead at two tiny islands. As compensation, Norwegian Cruise Line gave every stateroom $100 onboard credit and passengers also got credit toward a future cruise of 30 percent of the price of the original cruise.

Pat Werdin, of Hayesville, N.C., was one of many passengers who felt the compensation was inadequate. "We finally got a letter from NCL, but it basically said, 'If you read the fine print, we did more than we had to, so that's too bad,'" said Werdin, who missed a business meeting in St. Martin because of the changed itinerary. She also said the credit she received — 30 percent of the $399 she paid for the seven-night cruise — does not go very far toward rebooking. On the other hand, she added, "nobody died, nobody lost a finger. We had nice weather and good cruise food."

Options for cruisers
Anthony Klang, an American Express Travel Services representative and cruise planner, says "it is extremely rare to get a full refund and a free cruise" as compensation for cruise trouble.

But occasionally it happens. The Carnival Splendor lost power in November after an engine room fire, stranding passengers at sea with no electricity, overflowing toilets and substandard food. Passengers received a full refund plus transportation costs and a free future cruise priced at the same amount paid for the Splendor trip.

Passengers aboard Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas also got a full refund after the ship listed several times in rough weather in the Mediterranean last year, resulting in passenger injuries, broken furniture and damage to public areas of the ship.

In both of these high-profile cases, full refunds were "smart customer relations," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of "Unhappy passengers can really wreck a marketing plan."

Douglas Ward, author of "Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2011," says you're more likely to get help with a cruise problem if you booked through a travel agency and ask your agent to plead your case. "If you book your cruise online, it may be difficult to get compensation when things go wrong," he added.

Ward also recommends travel insurance. Cruise companies typically offer cancellation insurance when you book, but examine the policy carefully: It may not offer much more than a future cruise with the same line if you cancel for a covered reason.

'Row with the oars you are given'
In contrast, a policy from a third-party insurer will typically give you cash back rather than credit, according to Carol Mueller, spokeswoman for Travel Guard insurance. Among other things, such policies typically compensate you if you cancel your trip because of illness or a death in the family; if an airline delay causes you to miss your cruise departure and you have to book a new flight to catch the ship in the next port; or if you become ill onboard and the cruise line quarantines you, Mueller said.

Third-party travel insurance typically costs between 5 to 7 percent of the trip, Mueller said. You can either buy the insurance yourself by contacting an insurer directly within 15 days of booking your trip, or, if you book with a travel agent, the agent can add the policy to your purchase.

Insurance can't help you, though, if weather or mechanical problems result in a changed itinerary or a less-than-perfect trip.

Lorri Hafer, who with her husband worked as a musician on cruises for 10 years, has faced "norovirus, missed ports, mechanical trouble, political turmoil, and rough seas." Her advice on how to cope is philosophical: "In bad situations that you cannot control, as a wise captain once said to us, 'You row with the oars you are given.'"