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Archive for September, 2008

Is NCL’s F3 ship hitting the fan?

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On September - 17 - 2008

There has been a lot of buzz in European shipyards the past two weeks about a dispute between Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) and Aker Yards S.A. of France regarding NCL’s order for the first of two F3 vessels. The 150,000-ton, 4,200-berth ships are the biggest ever commissioned by NCL. The first F3 ship is scheduled for delivery in March 2010, the second ship is scheduled to arrive in summer 2010.

The keel for the first F3 ship was laid on April 24 and sources told cruise industry publication Seatrade that “the first F3 newbuild is not going ahead.” Seatrade spoke with Aker Yards corporate spokesman Torbjørn Andersen who stated that he would not comment on legal issues and the company is continuing discussions with all its clients, including NCL.

NCL issued the following statement to Expert Cruiser.com: “NCL Corporation Ltd., in response to reports that one of its subsidiaries may be involved in a contractual dispute with Aker Yards S.A. of France regarding a shipbuilding contract, will not comment on commercial or legal disputes.”

So, what’s going on?

NCL is jointly owned by Star Cruises and private equity firm Apollo Management. Apollo infused $1 billion in cash to NCL in January, so, there should be plenty of money for the F3 ship, right? Maybe not.

For the past two years NCL has been in the red. Despite significant growth in revenues the company lost $227 million in 2007 and $130.9 million in 2006. The biggest financial drain has been taking delivery of new ships, which NCL has done each year for the past seven years. However, the F3 project is turning out to be the ultimate expense.

The F3 ships were initially ordered for NCL’s parent company, Star Cruises each at a cost of $735 million Euros (close to $1 billion) per ship, but the costs have reportedly increased significantly. NCL opted to change the original vessel plans and make it an all-balcony ship with “New Wave” staterooms . Additionally, NCL announced with much fanfare in Las Vegas that it would introduce a radical nightclub scene on the F3 ships complete with pools and ice bars.

Clearly, these options are very costly. How costly no one is saying but sources say that increasing costs are the crux of the dispute between NCL and Aker Yards.

What will happen to the F3 ships if NCL does not take delivery? In today’s issue of Cruise Week it was noted that Aker Yards also builds ships for Royal Caribbean and MSC and both lines seem to be “likely
contenders to take over the F3 project.”

Stay tuned for more information.

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Bumped off the ship

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On September - 17 - 2008

(First published on April 3, 2006)

Rebecca Douglass booked her river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest directly from Viking River Cruises nine months in advance and was eagerly counting off the days until embarkation. Then, six weeks before departure, Viking called her with a surprise: She and her friends had been bumped off the ship to make room for a charter group.

You may have heard of being bumped off an airline flight, but did you know you could be bumped off a cruise ship? Indeed, you can.

The most publicized case of cruise bumping occurred last fall when Carnival Cruise Lines canceled sailings for three ships over a six-month period so the vessels could house New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Carnival offered its bumped customers full refunds and the opportunity to rebook their cruises on any Carnival ship. Guests who rebooked received a $100-per-person shipboard credit. Carnival notes that the majority of guests understood the extraordinary circumstances and booked other Carnival cruises.

But most bumps don’t go so gently, especially when some passengers get bumped and others don’t. So who gets bumped — and why?

The usual reason is overbooking, sometimes (as in Rebecca Douglass’s case) when a charter group turns up. Other reasons include itinerary changes on multi-segment cruises and changes in vessel availability. According to travel agents, the luckless “bumpee” can be just about anyone. The decision can depend to how a passenger booked his cruise, what cabin category he’s in, and even how he booked his airline tickets.

The law is on the side of the ship owner

There are no federal or state laws prohibiting a cruise line from bumping passengers because of overbooking. Each cruise line has its own bumping policies, which are stated in the terms and conditions of it passenger contract.

In the case of Viking River Cruises, the passenger contract has a special provision for charter bumps. It states: “In the event of charters of the vessels, truces, lockouts, riots or stoppage of labor from whatever cause or for any other reason whatsoever, the Owner or Operator of the vessel identified in this brochure may, at any time, cancel, advance or postpone any scheduled tour and may, but is not obliged to, substitute another vessel or itinerary and shall not be liable for any loss whatsoever to passengers by reason of any such cancellation, advancement or postponement.”

Language like this should give a traveler pause. Not only does it specifically name “charters” (which are voluntary business opportunities) in a list of otherwise uncontrollable conditions, it plainly states that the company will accept no liability for any passenger loss “whatsoever.” “Whatsoever” is a word you really don’t want hanging around your cruise vacation, yet you will find it in most every cruise line’s passenger contract.

Travelers find ways to get what they want

So what is the poor bumped traveler to do?

First, dig in your heels. You don’t have to go down without a fight.

“If the cruise line calls to bump my client, my client does not have to accept it,” says Ben Catalina of Cruises Inc. in San Antonio, Texas. Catalina has had about a dozen clients involved in a cruise bump, and each time it was because the cruise line needed more rooms in a particular cabin category.

Catalina advises all clients to either refuse to be bumped or to negotiate for upgrades, refunds, shipboard credits, pre-cruise lodging — or whatever compensation would make the client happy. “It’s just like an airline bump, but much more is involved and it is a bigger investment,” he points out.

As it turns out, only one of Catalina’s clients accepted a bump, and that was after the cruise line offered her an upgrade to a suite and a refund of $500 to take a sailing two weeks after her scheduled cruise. Catalina believes this client was singled out for the bump because she had purchased her airfare through the cruise line and so would not incur any fees to change her tickets.

But for those travelers whose vacation schedules aren’t flexible — and for those who just don’t want to be bumped — Catalina says, “Stand firm.” Usually, the cruise line will accept your decision and move on to the next candidate.

Doing the right thing

In the case of the Viking River Cruises charter bump, the cruise line took a proactive stance, offering the Douglasses a suitable remedy.

“As with airlines and hotels, cruise ships on occasion become overbooked,” says Lisa Juarez, vice president of marketing communications for Viking River Cruises. “From time to time, but not as regular practice, Viking River Cruises also has itinerary departures that become oversold,”

Juarez notes that Viking typically offers customers another sailing of similar value or similar duration. “We try to accommodate clients’ needs and work with them to fulfill their travel expectations,” she says. “Each situation is evaluated based on circumstances and handled on an individual basis.”

The Douglasses rebooked on a similar itinerary and were upgraded to a higher cabin category. They were also refunded the difference in cost between their initial cruise and hotel package and the new one. Moreover, Viking made custom air and hotel arrangements for them for a pre-cruise stay in their departure city.

“We don’t offer custom packages, but we wanted to accommodate them the best we could,” says Juarez. In fact, the Douglasses were pleased with Viking’s offer.

Bump insurance?

There is no travel insurance policy that covers getting bumped off a cruise. Travel Guard, one of the largest travel insurers, specifically excludes from its cruise coverage any travel arrangements changed or canceled by the cruise line.

The best defense against an unwanted bump is a good travel agent — one who will advocate for you and throw the weight of his agency’s future business behind you. After all, cruise lines worry about getting the heave-ho, too.

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Galveston cruisers cars a “total loss” to Hurricane Ike

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On September - 15 - 2008

Real bad news for those that drove their cars to Galveston for the September 7th sailing of the Carnival Conquest and the September 11 sailing of the Carnival Ecstasy.  According to the Galveston Daily News all the cars that were parked at the port are ruined. “Cars left in port parking lots by cruise ship passengers are most likely a total loss,” said city spokesperson Alicia Cahill.

According to the paper the cruise terminal was flooded with 2 to 3 feet of water, and the wall next to the water was torn down. As ExpertCruiser reported earlier cruise ships scheduled to return to port Sunday and Monday were diverted to New Orleans.

Know someone that parked a car in Galveston? Tell us your story here.

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Carnival cancels cruises out of Galveston

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On September - 14 - 2008

With the devastation in Galveston following Hurricane Ike, Carnival Cruise Lines has opted to cancel the September 14 sailing of the Carnival Conquest and the September 15 sailing of the Carnival Ecstasy.

Carnival has been closely monitoring the situation in Galveston and said it did not have a lot of information about the status of the shipping channel, cruise terminal or the port access infrastructure. Carnival says that local communication has been very challenging and there are restrictions against incoming traffic into the Galveston area.

“We do not expect the Port of Galveston to be open on Monday and there is tremendous uncertainty about when the port will be available to us next week. Due to this situation, we will now cancel the following cruises:

Carnival Conquest September 14, 2008 departure that was re-scheduled to a 6 day cruise departing on Monday, September 15.

Carnival Ecstasy September 15, 2008 departure

Guests will receive a full refund of cruise fare and we will process these refunds within three weeks.”

Meanwhile, the Carnival Ecstasy, which left Galveston on Thursday, will disembark passengers in New Orleans on Tuesday. Likewise the Carnival Conquest will disembark passengers in New Orleans pm Monday. However, guests of both ships can opt to remain on board and sail back to Galveston with the ships. However, Carnival said it is uncertain about when the Port of Galveston will re-open.

Stay tuned for more information.

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How cruise lines weather tropical storms

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On September - 12 - 2008

Cruise line operations managers are seasoned sailors employed by cruise lines to make daily operational decisions. They also have a reputation for being unflappable in stressful situations. But managers for Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Lines have been getting the ultimate test of their cool under pressure these past two weeks with three hurricanes in a row and a tropical storm in the Pacific.

War room

“We’ve gone through 36 hurricane seasons,” says Tim Gallagher, Carnival’s vice president of public relations, “So it’s not really new to us.” Carnival activated its emergency command center last week when Hurricane Gustav strengthened and threatened the line’s homeports of Galveston and Mobile.

Gallagher says the command center is a conference room located in a “hurricane resistant” area of Carnival Cruise Lines’ complex – an important factor if the storms directly impact the South Florida area. The entire building is supported by generator backup so the command center has an uninterrupted power supply.

Inside the situation room are multiple large-screen televisions with information from the National Hurricane Center, NOAA, satellite weather information, and a map showing the locations of various ships. Additionally, there are multiple computer connections for laptops and phone land lines so Carnival can speak directly to any ship’s bridge and its captain.

Gallagher says meetings between various departments are convened three times a day — more if necessary. Carnival’s command center is headed up by the vice president of port operations, Captain Domenico Tringale. His department monitors the storms, stays in touch with the U.S. Coast Guard, and keeps tabs on ports to come up with the safest strategy for all affected vessels.

In turn, port operations coordinates with the various departments at Carnival. For example, notifying the air/sea department who may have to change flights or ground transportation for affected customers. In addition, public relations will get the word out to the media, post information on the company’s Web site, and work with affected ships in communicating port changes to the guests.

Likewise, Royal Caribbean International has a very similar operation set up to Carnival. ”I remember a few times when we had sleepovers in the office keeping track of all the ships while hurricanes were blowing outside,” said Michael Sheehan, associate vice president of corporate communications at Royal Caribbean.

He notes it’s a complex operation that requires enormous teamwork. “There is no one way to deal with a hurricane,” says Sheehan. He says each storm is dealt with on a case by case basis with factors including size, speed, and direction in order to figure out how it will impact an itinerary. He goes on to say there are a “myriad of issues” involved including how far the winds go out from the storm that could affect ports not directly impacted by the storm. “We try to minimize the itinerary changes, but safety always comes first,” he said.

Ship shuffle

The good news for travelers on cruises affected by hurricanes is that unlike a hotel, a ship can move out of the way. Cruise lines work hard to keep guests onboard their ships entertained and safe like a normal cruise. Guests are kept updated on the storm situation and the captain tries to keep the vessel in good weather.

Currently, Hurricane Ike has redirected six Royal Caribbean ships to revise itineraries and substitute some ports of call. Carnival has eight vessels that are affected with revised port schedules with several having to skip Grand Turk due to extensive damage to the cruise center there. That port is expected to reopen in October.

Nevertheless, the big story for Carnival is its Galveston homeport near where Hurricane Ike is expected to make landfall. Despite the mandatory evacuation in Galveston, the Carnival Ecstasy sailed on schedule Thursday evening — albeit in a different direction than originally planned — to avoid Hurricane Ike. The new itinerary calls for the ship to visit Veracruz, Mexico on Saturday instead of Cozumel. Carnival says the Carnival Conquest is still expected to sail on Sunday from Galveston.

Not all the storm action is Caribbean-based. Tropical Storm Lowell is wreaking havoc with Mexican Riviera itineraries out of San Diego and Los Angeles. The Carnival Elation had to skip Cabo San Lucas and Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas had to skip Mazatlan.

Passenger rights

So, what happens to guests on current cruises that are affected by the storms? Whenever a cruise is canceled, passengers are entitled to a full refund. All cruise lines reserve the right to skip or change ports during a cruise — a normal occurrence in hurricane season. Cruise lines aren’t required to compensate passengers in those instances, but some do offer partial refunds, shipboard credits or discounts on a future cruise. Carnival allows customers to cancel without penalty if a ship’s departure port changes and passengers on Royal Caribbean who chose to cancel will be given a credit toward a future cruise, but not a refund.

For guests sailing who find their travel plans interrupted by a storm, both lines allow passengers to call family and if needed help with changing flight arrangements. However, sometimes a ship may not be able to return on schedule, which was the case last week for the Carnival Fantasy out of Mobile. Hurricane Gustav forced the ship to extend the voyage by two days. The ship returned too late for guests to catch their flights, so Carnival paid for hotels rooms along with changing airline reservations.

In the end, it’s all about doing the right thing. “We apologize to all of our guests who have had their vacations disrupted by itinerary changes as a result of hurricanes, but our focus throughout is the safety of our guests and crew,” says Carnival’s Gallagher.

Carnival speaks: No mutiny onboard the Carnival Miracle

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On September - 5 - 2008

Yesterday we posted a story that was in USA TODAY regarding a ‘mutiny’ onboard the Carnival Miracle because the ship could not sail to the Caribbean due to Tropical Storm Hanna. According to Carnival Cruise Lines’ vice president of corporate communications, Tim Gallagher, there is no mutiny onboard the Carnival Miracle. “The term mutiny is an overstatement,” he says. Gallagher goes on to state the opposite, in that, the vast majority of the passengers understand that the itinerary changes were made because of the storm and in their best interest. Many passengers are telling the crew that they think they are handling the situation well and thanking them for their efforts.

Nevertheless, there is still a group of guests who are still venting their disappointment. Gallagher says Carnival has “made every effort ” to keep guests informed about the hurricane/tropical storm and it’s movements. He says they’ve been putting color posters of the storm track and forecast in the lobby. Additionally, the captain has made many announcements and is staying visible around the ship.

Carnival has apologized to all of their guests who have had their vacations disrupted by itinerary changes as a result of hurricanes. Still Carnival says their focus is safety for the guests and crew.

Gallagher says, “In every instance we are seeking to find alternative ports that will allow us to keep the vessel in fair weather so that our guests may enjoy their cruise as much as possible.”

One last thing: All the posts and quotes that USA TODAY used in their story have been removed from Cruise Critic. Apparently, the board atmosphere was ripe with angry posts and insults and Cruise Critic decided it was too much and deleted threads.

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