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Cruise Contracts: The Fine Print Is Stacked Against You

Forget Stephen King: If you really want scary reading on your next cruise, check out the cruise line’s contract. That’s the document that establishes the legal framework for what you get—and don’t get—from the cruise line. Lots of supplier contracts are stacked against consumers, but cruise line contracts are among the worst offenders I’ve ever seen. Although each cruise line uses its own contracts, they conform to a general pattern. And although much of the content is legalese, a few key points are extremely important—points that limit your options and make it difficult for you to obtain recourse in the event of a problem. Here are some typical catches, subject to some line-by-line variations: {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}Prices and fees. The cruise line can increase base rates without prior notice. If you’ve paid in full, you’re exempt from such increases, but not if you’ve just made a partial deposit. In addition, most cruise lines “reserve the right” to pass along government fees and taxes, however assessed, and impose fuel surcharges, sometimes with a specified maximum.

Itinerary changes. In an itinerary deviation subject to the cruise line’s control, you can get full cash refund or accept an alternative voucher offer. But if you decide to cancel because of a deviation due to force majeure, some cruise lines assess regular cancellation penalties; others are a bit more generous. Once at sea, the cruise line owes you nothing in a deviation for any reason. And if a ship can’t continue, the cruise line may dump you at an intermediate port, without further compensation.

Cancellation fees. In general, you lose 100 percent if you cancel less than 15 days in advance, and lower-level penalties start to kick in as early as 90 days in advance. You can avoid such penalties by buying either a cancellation waiver (cheaper, but poor coverage) from the cruise line or third-party trip cancellation insurance (more expensive, but better coverage).

Baggage and personal property. Unless you buy extra insurance, the cruise line imposes a strict limit on liability for damaged, lost, or stolen property. This limit can be as low as $50 per traveler, $50 per bag, or $100 per stateroom regardless of the number of travelers or bags.

Alcoholic beverages. You may not board with any alcoholic beverages, except for one bottle of wine, and the cruise line can search your baggage. You may buy “duty free” beverages in low-tax ports, but the cruise line keeps any you buy and returns it to you just before debarking.

Liability limit. If your cruise does not touch any U.S. port, the cruise line’s liability for death or personal injury is limited by an international convention at about $60,000. And the typical cruise contract exempts the cruise line from “pain and suffering” or “emotional” damages. The cruise line denies liability for any accidents of subcontractors. Cruise lines typically impose strict time limits for filing any damage suits.

Law and forum. When you cruise outside the United States, the contract may require that any liability must be based on the laws of a foreign country and any action must be in a court of that country—countries with typically far lower settlements than U.S. law. Even within the United States, most cruise contracts limit any legal action to a single “forum,” usually Florida or California. Some lines exempt small claims actions from this limit; others don’t. Also, contracts typically say you can’t become part of any class action. And they typically require that instead of going to court you must submit many disputes to binding arbitration. Taken together, these requirements make it extremely hard for you to pursue legal remedies, no matter how justified.

Enforcement. As I read the literature, some courts have held some of these limits valid; others haven’t. In a serious situation, you obviously need a good lawyer. But, in general, the contracts stack the cards against you. The upshot is simple: If everything goes well on your cruise, you don’t need to worry. But if anything goes wrong, you’ll have a tough time making it right.

Your Turn

Have you ever run into trouble with your cruise contract, and how did you handle it? What do you think are the most important points to remember? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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