Stupid cruise tricks: When you can't get on (or off)

On Monday, with Tropical Storm Fay bearing down on southern Florida, Norwegian Cruise Line decided it would avoid danger by starting a four-day cruise on the Norwegian Sky about two hours early. Instead of leaving Miami at 5 pm, it would leave at 3 pm.

Fay may have been a bust, but you can see disaster coming here. And this cruise departure was indeed a bit of a train wreck. A dozen people got left at the dock.

On its website, NCL posted an announcement of its revised sailing plan at 9:30am, less than six hours before the lines were to be cast off. But some passengers were already en route from other states by then and had no inkling of the revision. Norwegian reps also claim the company tried calling as many passengers as it could reach.

In honesty, 12 isn't a bad number for a ship holding around 1,900 (though it wasn't full). Part of that is due to the fact that in the cruise world, tons of of passengers board early to avail themselves of the free buffet in the hours before departure. And I have to wonder what the stranded passengers were thinking, anyway. They were about to hail a cruise from an area soon to be afflicted by a headline-grabbing storm. Didn't they think, as they watched the hot-pink smears of Fay crawl across CNN on the airport terminal's screens, that there might be an issue?

But on the flip side of that, when I'm spending the day in transit from a distant place, I don't often keep on top of my cell phone or e-mail messages. So if Norwegian had called me, I'm not sure if I would have gotten the warning. Even if I had, the chances were still pretty good that it would have been too late for me to do anything about it.

To its credit, Norwegian instantly made good by refunding the cruise fare those who missed the boat. They would still have to find their way back home again, or maybe spend the night in Miami at their own expense.

I know a lot of us don't buy travel insurance. But it likely would have eliminated the financial burden (though not the frustration) in a case like this. Insurance probably would have taken care of both the hotel and the new flights home. When it comes to cruising, there's so much that's out of a passenger's control. Like the weather, medical practices in foreign ports, delayed flights to the dock, and a monolithic cruise line that may not call you with last-minute news tidbits. So for cruising, where one wrong thing can topple the dominoes of the whole vacation, I'd always opt for coverage.

Even if you don't buy travel insurance, the least you can do is remain in steady touch with your cruise line in the run-up before sailing. You'd call your airline before catching a flight on a stormy day, so why wouldn't you use the same caution with a ship? I personally think that flying to some ports a whole day before departure is a little too extreme, and besides, it adds overnight expenses to your budget.

Of course, sometimes you can't get off the ship. The writer of the Without Baggage blog recently retold the tale of trying to leave an Alaskan cruise in the middle. Not for an emergency; just for work. He assumed it wouldn't be a problem, but he was halted at the door with his luggage and sent to deal with the ship's masters, who refused to allow him to go.

Apparently, the lines are governed by an arcane set of maritime laws first enacted after World War I, the Jones Act. It prevents, among other things, cruise lines from picking up or discharging passengers in America unless they have visited a foreign port on the same run. Confusing, I know, and more appropriate for cargo than people, but it's the reason so many Hawaiian cruises make long detours to distant Pacific islands in the middle of their itineraries.

Eventually, the passenger was permitted to go as long as he agreed to cover the $200 that the cruise line would have to pay as a fine for breaking the Jones Act.

So treat your cruise like a plane. Before you board, call your cruise line and check its status regularly. And once you're underway, do not attempt to get off.
Read Full Story