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One controversial way to get a free or discount cruise

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 31 - 2000

If you’re after a free cruise or a discount on a future cruise, you could do worse than to sign up for the inaugural sailing of a new or refurbished ship. In the past several years, Carnival, Princess, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), Cunard, and Disney have seen their ships come in either late or unfinished. When this happens, the cruise lines must offer affected passengers some sort of compensation.

In the past decade, the number of people cruising has increased by 50%. According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) , approximately 6.5 million passengers will take a cruise by the end of this year; that’s up from 3.7 million in the early 1990s. This explosive growth in cruising has cruise lines ordering new ships at an unprecedented rate. Currently there are 47 ships on order, which are expected to be added to the North American fleet over the next four years. This full-steam-ahead pace has the world’s shipbuilders frantically trying to get ship orders out on time. Often they are unable to do so.

Recently, the P&O line’s new flagship, Aurora, broke down on her maiden voyage. The Aurora hobbled back to Southampton, England, just 18 hours after she set sail. Granted, while most passengers onboard were disappointed by the sudden end to their cruise, they will at least receive a full refund. In addition, each passenger will also get a free cruise. Ships breaking down on their inaugural sailings are extremely rare. However, such unprecedented circumstances often mean exceptional compensation.

“Not all cruise lines give free cruises,” says cruise expert Linda Coffman. “Each cruise line approaches these situations differently depending on the circumstances,” she adds. Coffman goes on to state, “If they are aware of a delay early enough, they don’t offer a lot in compensation….It’s become so commonplace to see an inaugural sail late that a lot of people joke they want to book on it to get a free cruise.”

Whether or not to offer a free cruise when an inaugural is cancelled or delayed is clearly a PR decision. In the small print of most cruise lines brochures can often be found a clause intended to protect the cruise lines from excessive liability. For example, the P&O lines brochure states, “After departure P&O cannot guarantee that the cruise ship will call at every advertised port or follow every part of the advertised schedule. P&O reserves the absolute right to decide whether to omit any such ports. P&O shall thereby have no liability to the passenger.” Other cruise lines have similar conditions; Carnival’s brochure says that it “shall not be liable for any loss to guests by reason of such cancellation or substitution”. More often than not, these clauses are originally intended for weather and other problems the cruise line has no control over.

Nevertheless, the goal for the cruise line is to make customers happy. The majority of cruise lines will give a full refund for the cancelled cruise plus a discount offer of 10-25% off a future cruise. On a $3,000 cruise, a 25% discount adds up to significant savings. Often times they will offer onboard credits or a cabin upgrade. Again, it all depends on the circumstances and how far in advance of the inaugural sailing the cancellation takes place.

While most people scramble to book an inaugural cruise because of the romance associated with inaugural festivities, some are doing just the opposite. Lucy Hirleman, President of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, NJ, has clients who book inaugurals in the hopes that they are indeed cancelled. She says, “I tell my clients who ask to do this it’s a ‘sleazy’ thing to do.” “There are a lot of considerations playing these discount games,” she adds. “Cruise lines are becoming more savvy about announcing their inaugurals because it’s an expensive proposition to change an inaugural, and it’s a PR nightmare because the press plays it up,” she says. Hirleman goes on to say, “If clients insist on booking on that premise my agency has a stiff cancellation fee to discourage this because I consider it a moral issue.”

Hirleman recommends that anyone who wants to cruise on an inaugural to book his or her air travel with the cruise line instead of on their own. By booking an air/sea package with the cruise line, your risk is minimized because you are protected if the cruise is canceled. People using frequent flier miles or booking the flight separate from the cruise line often end up eating up the cost of the ticket as well as the fees associated with changing it.

Editor’s note: This article was written in 2000.

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