(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.
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.