Cruise ship tips: Compensation and what happens when things go wrong

You're on a cruise, so what could possibly go wrong? Apart from stubbing your toe in the spa or not tipping the housekeeping staff and failing to get a towel monkey on your bed? Well, some things can go wrong. Some down to the whims of mother nature or human error, some self-inflicted.

Missing the boat

You're back on your ship after a fun cruise excursion and watching from the upper deck as the vessel prepares to sail. Suddenly a taxi pulls up at the quay and disgorges a pair of late returnees. They're running up and down in frantic dismay but the gangway is gone, the mooring ropes are off and the vessel is edging away from the quay, the gap widening with agonising slowness.

They're distressed, alarmed and working their way through the five stages of grief. First denial – this cannot be happening to me – followed by anger, and eventually will come acceptance, but that's over the emotional horizon for the time being. There's even a cruel name for these unfortunate souls. They're called "pier runners", and nothing like schadenfreude to provide smug delight and amusement to cruisers on the decks above, and possibly a starring role in a YouTube video – like this couple  in February who got back five minutes' too late during their Bahamas cruise. The video has been seen more than 5 million times.

Cruise ships, like Japanese trains, leave on time. If you aren't back on board when the time comes, that's your problem. Even though the vessel's guest admin officers will know when one or more passengers are not back at sailing time, the ship will slip its moorings, give a blast on its horn and sail away. It must be so, cruise operators say. Ships work to a tight schedule and they pay port fees depending on the time spent tied up. A late departure means penalty fees. At a busy port there might be other ships waiting for that particular berth to become vacant.

There are exceptions when a ship might delay its sailing for late-arriving passengers. One is when passengers on a ship-sponsored excursion are unavoidably delayed, which might happen if a traffic accident or a severe weather event causes road blocks.

If you're the unfortunate one, best case scenario, you might cadge a lift out to your ship aboard a pilot vessel or a tug but you'll need to board via a ladder into one of the ship's loading bays, and that's far from easy.

Chances are you're pacing the quay looking for a solution and the first thing to do is contact the onshore ship's agent. When they realise a passenger hasn't made it back to the vessel as sailing time approaches, which usually involves inquiries over the ship's PA system and a cabin search, most cruise lines will dispatch the passenger's passport and other essential items such as medications to the ship's agent onshore.

Your choice now is either to meet the ship at its next port of call or head for home. Most cruisers are going to opt for the next port of call, and the ship's agent can help you work out how to do that but they won't bail you out. Flights, road trips, hotel expenses and whatever else are down to you. Nor is your travel insurer going to gallop to your financial rescue. Missing your ship's departure is your problem and your fault and no excuse – a traffic jam, you got lost, the taxi didn't arrive, you fell asleep on the beach – is going to cut it.

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You might now have another problem and that is your legal status. Depending on where you are and which passport you're clutching – and hopefully that is somewhere on your person because if it's on-board, things might get complicated. You may need to speak to the immigration authorities and plead your case. If you are intending to re-join the ship at its next port of call and that's within the same country, you should be OK. If that port is in another country you might need a visa and that adds another layer of difficulty.

If you do get marooned, try to make the best of a bad situation. Make a plan, get your travel arrangements in place and remember you're still on holiday. Everyone loves a travel tale gone wrong, and you'll dine out on this one for months.

Engine problems

Problems in ships' engine rooms – fires and engine failure – are not that uncommon. Just recently the Viking Sea suffered engine failure in heavy seas while en route from Norway's Arctic north to the southern city of Stavanger. Buffeted by big waves, the vessel was taking on water and terrified passengers were being washed to and fro across the lounge. Since rescue by sea was impossible helicopters were dispatched and 479 passengers were winched aboard, at night in howling wind. The vessel came perilously close to rocks before the engineers were able to re-start three of the ship's engines and the captain decided to sail the vessel to the nearby port of Molde on its own engines. All the passengers and crew were safe, although some required hospital treatment, and all with a story to tell.

In 2013, sailing in the Gulf of Mexico, Carnival Triumph, a 100,000-tonne cruise ship, suffered an engine room fire that resulted in a loss of power. Passengers huddled on decks worried about their safety with no cabin lighting or air conditioning, water rationed and, since nothing could be cooked and the freezers were out of action, food running scarce. Without an operating plumbing system, toilets began overflowing into hallways, earning it the title "The Poop Cruise" in the media as the world looked on. The vessel was eventually towed into Mobile, Alabama, days late from what was sold as the vacation of a lifetime.

Passengers' rights to compensation

In the case of the Carnival Triumph disaster, passengers were given a full refund, travel expenses, credit toward a future cruise and a cheque for $US500. There is no such thing as statutory compensation in the case of cruise vessels. While cruise companies are inclined to be generous in order to avoid further damage to their brand when something goes wrong, it's up to the operators to decide how deeply they are going to dig into their pockets. Some passengers from the Viking Sea are talking about compensation. That might be forthcoming, but again, whether to offer it and the amount is at Viking's discretion.

Since this is a problem laid squarely at the feet of the cruise line, your travel insurer would not cover any additional expenses you might incur and for which you would not receive compensation from the cruise line. If you were to sue the cruise operator it's not likely that a court would find in your favour. Which court has jurisdiction in such matters depends on the country of registry and whether the ship was in territorial or international waters, and whose. Centuries-old maritime law protects the merchant in most cases, not the ship's passengers.

It can also happen that a vessel might be forced to alter its scheduled itinerary, for example severe weather might cause it to miss a port stop. That situation is usually covered in the passage contract, the legal agreement that exists between the passengers and the cruise line. This contract will usually carry words to the effect that cruise itineraries are not guaranteed, and weather, mechanical difficulties, civil unrest or other unforeseen circumstances might cause a vessel to change its itinerary. If that happens, passengers will not be offered compensation.

See also: Scrapped, sunk or reborn: Where old cruise ships go to die

See also: Cruise ship insider secrets revealed: 25 things you never knew about

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