The story of a slow boat, a missed plane and a $200 change fee

The case came in on a Saturday afternoon, just as a brutal winter storm descended on the East Coast. Richard Pryzeki reported that his son and family were stuck on the Carnival Paradise, which was trying to dock in Tampa. Could I help them?

The problem: The passengers had non-refundable tickets to fly back to Chicago on Spirit Airlines that afternoon (OK, get the groaning and eye rolling out of the way), and it looked as if they would miss the plane. Spirit wanted to charge a $200 change fee to rebook them on a future flight.

Anyway, I’ll just play the transcript:

Pryzeki: I’m writing on behalf of my son, his wife and their three kids, who are currently stuck on the Carnival Paradise ship in a cargo port in Florida. The ship is unable to dock at their regular port due to high winds. They have tickets on a 2 p.m. Spirit Airlines flight back to Chicago.

The cruise line cannot tell them when they will be able to dock and leave the ship. Spirit Airlines wants to charge them a $200 per person change fee. The other option the airline is giving them is to rebook their tickets at a cost of $260 per person. Please help — the kids do not have that kind of money.

Me: I’m really sorry to hear about this. Do they have travel insurance?

Pryzeki: No, they don’t. They are on a pretty strict budget and didn’t have the extra money.

Me: Unfortunately, I can’t think of an elegant solution to this problem. Carnival will not dock unless it’s safe. Unless the cruise was air-inclusive, in which case you would be protected, Spirit will charge the change fee. Do you know if the cruise was air-inclusive?

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Pryzeki: No, unfortunately, they booked their own cruise and flights online. Do you have any suggestions for really cheap airfare?

Me: Only that you would need to keep an open mind about your return ticket. Spirit may not be the least expensive option. You might be able to find a less expensive one-way ticket through another carrier.

Pryzeki: What about the “flat tire” rule?

Me: I’ve never seen it applied to a situation like this, but it’s worth a try. Where are they now?

A few hours passed. Then I received an update from Pryzeki. “The kids are docking now,” he said. “They can’t make the flight. After all kinds of research and checking options, we found that we had to pay the rebooking fee.”

I was saddened, but not surprised, by the outcome. How could this have been avoided?

Before we go any further, I know what some of you are thinking: Why didn’t Pryzeki’s son use a travel agent? Why not book an air-inclusive cruise? Or, at the very least, get travel insurance?

The answer is pretty simple: He’s taking a Carnival cruise. He’s flying on Spirit. That tells me he’s probably watching every penny of his hard-earned vacation budget.

I don’t blame him — nor should you — for thinking he could DIY his way through this cruise. It’s companies like Carnival and Spirit, and relentless coverage from DIY blogs and talking heads in the media, that leave people like Pryzeki’s son with the impression he’ll be fine.

I’ve sat across from airline executives and asked them directly about the “flat tire” rule. They’ve strongly suggested it only applies to something that happens on the way to the airport — a car accident, a flat tire, a closed road. It’s true I’ve never seen it applied to a late-arriving cruise, but then, it’s also true that I’ve never seen the rule successfully invoked with Spirit.

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Could I have offered more or better advice? Perhaps. Remember, this was happening in real time, even as I juggled three kids and house guests. In retrospect, anything can be done better if you have the time and resources.

Mostly, I’m upset that Pryzeki’s son had two bad choices: To spend hundreds, maybe even thousands, more for a fully-insured, air-inclusive cruise he probably couldn’t afford, or to take his chances on an iffy cruise vacation.

Am I the only one who thinks that’s wrong?

Who is to blame for this vacation disaster?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.


    I was on a cruise that week as well which had to deal with some of those same issues. I was on the Carnival Glory. We had a very mediocre cruise due to a passenger needing to be airlifted off the ship Sunday morning (the boat had to turn around to do this) and then having our entire itinerary flipped. All of our ports were in the opposite order. Many excursions were cancelled. Also, because of the issue, we hit all of the rough seas we would have bypassed. Sunday became sea sick day for about 80% of the ship due to the weather. I was stuck in our cabin with the rocking so bad, our drawers were sliding open and closed by themselves for the ENTIRE day.. We embarked and disembarked in Miami so we got to and from port on time but the rough seas were unavoidable. I am sorry but he should have bought travel insurance or booked a later flight.

  • sirwired

    You get what you pay for. If they can’t afford the “safer” version now, they wouldn’t be able to afford it if it was included in the base price. Insurance would have been a good thing to have here (you need it for medevac coverage anyway), and it would have taken care of the problem, assuming they left enough of a cushion between scheduled arrival and the flight.

    As a side-note, cruise air has changed radically over the last few years; most lines now just act as an OTA front-end, (similar to using an airline’s website to book a hotel), and the tickets are sold to you at whatever the going rate is.

    (The old system, with the occasionally-cheaper fares, but the bizarre system of waivers, itineraries that would make Priceline embarassed, etc. went away with the new rules about airfares not changing after booking.)

  • flutiefan

    you’ve never seen an airline waive the fee for a cruiseship issue? i showed this to Roomie, who then showed me the internal memo sent to the Southwest call centers advising of some of the ships being unable to dock, and to waive any fare differences.

  • flutiefan

    gee, how dare that passenger have a medical issue and cause you to have “a very mediocre cruise” because of it.


    You didn’t need to be rude about. I was simply stating a fact. Our cruise was completely changed for the worse because of what happened. Not anyone’s fault but it happens. You would be a little more than irritated also if you had a not very good cruise and had paid a couple $$$ for a balcony cabin. I know – not your money so why should you care???

  • Nathan Witt

    Just out of curiosity, what should Carnival have done for you? Below, you indicate your frustration that you spent money for something and didn’t get what you were expecting, and yet when the OPs son spent money and didn’t get what HE was expecting, you have no sympathy and say he should have had travel insurance. “I know – not your money so why should you care???”

  • Tanya

    We arrived late back on a cruise with DCL one time. From what I could tell, DCL was working with the airlines for everyone on board and almost no one had to pay a change fee, or DCL covered it. I know United came through for us and we did not have a change fee. But we also had trip insurance in case something happened. I know of other guests on Southwest who were also not being charged a change fee and AA was not either. I don’t know about Spirit. I also don’t know if DIsney had something to do with the no change fees or not. They have a huge presence in Florida, but do not make up much of the cruise industry there. Of course, I also don’t know what class of fare everyone purchased. There could be many reasons that a number of airlines were waiving change fees for travel that day. I just know what we experienced.

  • AJPeabody

    Spirit is not Southwest, in many ways, this being one of them.


    Unlike most people, I did not expect, demand or ask for anything from Carnival. I chalked it up to bad luck and wrote it off as a not great vacation.

  • Rebecca

    Exactly what I was thinking. And apparently they live in Chicago, there are at least a dozen flights a day for MDW (which is a million times better than ORD anyways). I guarantee there were cheaper flights on Southwest, when you take all the Spirit fees into account.

  • Rebecca

    I’m honestly surprised the poll is against the customer here. I didn’t expect it to be so skewed, although I do agree with the majority. The fact of the matter is, if you can’t come up with $1000 for an emergency, you should definitely not be taking this vacation. I’ve been broke and I get it. But I certainly didn’t take a cruise when I was broke. What if my car broke down or something? Priorities.

  • Joe Farrell

    No one is ever responsible any longer for their choices . . .

    One of the risks of booking air back home after a cruise on the same day is that you will miss the flight for a bunch of reasons – customs, weather, broken down cabs, the list is endless. That is a risk you assume by purchasing airfare home the same day.

    The alternative would be selecting a flight that was very late in the day – after the scheduled departure of the ship on its next voyage – virtually guaranteeing the ship will at least have docked by then and you will be bakc on US soil allowing you to catch the flight. The down side is that you may have a 12 hour wait at the airport. . . .

    Thus, it becomes a balancing act.

    When people make the choice they become subject of the vagaries of travel.

    The obvious undertone here was that ‘someone’ should have paid the change fee for them. Why? Spirit is operating the flight – as scheduled – which is a miracle in itself. RCCL is operating the cruise safely so as not to injure people or damage the vessel. . . .would you rather they risk injury to thousands of people so you don’t have to pay $200?

    Spirit has NEVER followed the flat tire rule anyway . . .

  • Joe Farrell

    I did not get that conclusion at all . . . .it seems little harsh to go there first.

  • Joe Farrell

    The ONLY reason Spirit still exists is for people who are math and logic challenged. They see that ‘cheap’ airfare and jump on it and then get misdirected by the thousands of possible add on fees that arise later. . . . so they end up spending more money for a crappy experience and never seem to figure it out until one day they have an ‘ah-hah moment – and never fly Spirit again but send Chris an email looking to refund some fee they did not expect.

  • Kerr

    IMHO, the issue isn’t the lack of insurance (though that would have helped) but rather the timing. DIY is fine but as Joe points out below, choosing a later flight would have given them a bigger cushion. OP didn’t state exactly how many people were in the traveling party but the more folks involved, it make sense to increase the time cushion for transfers (on both ends).

    CE offers live support? Cool! ;)

  • LDVinVA

    I certainly consider it risky to fly in the day a cruise departs, but have never been concerned about flying home the day the cruise ends. Don’t tell me this is another thing I have to worry about!

  • Alan Gore

    Experienced travelers know to stop reading at “Carnival” and “Spirit,” but a newbie traveler should have been told by the cruise line how much padding to put into the schedule fore and aft of the voyage. And yes, booking all-inclusive would have saved the day. It would have cost a little more, but even with insurance it would be less than insuring a two-ticket trip like this.

  • Skeptic

    People who live in developed countries are living lives so far removed from the natural world these days that they just can’t seem to grasp the fact that ships and planes are subject to the laws of nature. Take it from an oceanographer: the sea is a very powerful entity. I don’t care how big your vessel is (actually, the bigger, the more windage, making it harder to dock in a storm) or how many pitch and roll stabilizers it has. There are going to be times when equipment fails (salt water is murder on metal and electronics) and/or when the wind, waves and currents are more powerful than the boat can handle. Same deal with aircraft. We have created such safe flying environment that it’s easy to forget that there is still uncertainty involved.

    Teach your children not to get too rigid about schedules when weather is likely to be involved, That goes for trains and automobiles, too!

  • Michael__K

    Those who tout “travel insurance” as the simple answer here need to read the fine print.

    Many policies require an interruption of 12+ hours or 24+ hours to qualify for trip interruption benefits. With some policies, trip interruption coverage terminates when the cruise/tour ends.

    Missed connection coverage is usually specfically for flight-to-flight and flight-to-cruise connections, not cruise-to-flight.

    If the ‘high winds’ qualify as ‘severe weather’, then at least that criteria is satisfied. If the cruise ship was late (by less than 1 full day) for non-severe-weather reasons, I don’t know of any policy that would cover this scenario.

    And even when there is coverage, the maximum benefit is somewhere between 100% and 150% of the original trip cost. The change fees plus fare difference on last minute flights could easily exceed that.

    So, yeah, the travel industry is offering half a product. Or at least a product with enough holes in it that passengers can’t robustly “plan” for situations like this.

  • Joe Farrell

    appears to be . . . . they could not make a 2p flight despite most cruises actually arriving at the dock around 6a –

  • Joe Farrell

    nah – the cruise line prob had a ton of pax on flights anywhere from 1p-7p . . . so its interesting these folks missed it – how late did their ship come in?

  • KanExplore

    Actually that surprised me too. I think it’s commendable of him, but really people shouldn’t go to him to fix on the spot emergencies, unless he is now offering that as a regular service.

  • Alan Gore

    That’s funny. We keep hearing that travel insurance requires coverage of the full trip, not just part of it, so that the missed connection caused by a late docking would be covered.

    Or should that be, coverage of the full trip when it benefits them, right?

  • John McDonald

    never ever book at flight within hours of a cruise returning.
    Have done a few cruises in & out of Sydney Australia. All arrived back in Sydney at around 6am (think all cruises do).
    Sydney has 2 cruise terminals. Main one is beside the Harbour Bridge opposite the Sydney Opera House.
    We hired a car from Avis, a few hundred metres away at the Marriott in the city (or could have got a cheaper one, a bit further away).
    Spent the day “doing” sights of Sydney, then got an evening flight to Queensland.
    The hire car was cheaper than a taxi to the airport or the cruise line organised coach.
    If the cruise had been 12 hours late, we still could have made the flight. If it had been 15 hours late, we might not have made our flight. How often are cruises more than 12 hours late docking ? Almost never.
    Incidentally, Sydney airport, the busiest in Australia has an 11pm to 6am curfew. Crazy !!!

    NOTE: have been talk of a 2nd Sydney airport for 50 years. It looks like they might get one out west in about 10 years time. Things happen very slowly in Australia due to the millions of public servants(Australia can’t afford) who have to approve everything.

  • Carchar

    In 1960, I was on a “student ship” carrying students from Le Havre and Southampton back to the U.S. Due to an intense hurricane Donna, we arrived in NY, where I lived, a full 24 hours late. Because of that delay, I always plan an extra day in town at the end of a cruise or a complicated trip, when I have to catch a plane….and I buy travel insurance. Overkill, but comforting.

  • Michael__K

    Some policies do specifically require that you fully insure all non-refundable trip expenses.

    But even so, a claim needs to fall under a Covered Reason. And the devil can be in the fine print.

  • judyserienagy

    Aw, this family just got unlucky. Trouble-free travel is often a matter of luck, no matter how well you research and plan. The money was a nasty blow, but think how much worse it could have been. It would be very interesting to know the other passengers’ experiences on other airlines getting home, since Spirit is a no-frills airline. I too am grateful for this information, actually, I always fly in the day before, but wouldn’t have thought to add a day at the end “just in case”. And I’d lose my advocate hat if I didn’t say: always buy insurance for pre-paid travel expenses.

  • 42NYC

    Thank you Chris, i feel like youre taking less of a ‘the customer can do no wrong’ tone this year. I find it refreshing.

    I appreciate that money is tight for the OP and that they tried to book as affordable a trip as possible but now are paying a penalty for something that is no fault of their own. 9 times out of 10 travel plans go out without a hitch, its the 1 in 10 where you have a problem where you’ll wish you had the insurance.

    The situation stinks, I feel bad for the OP, but they booked things themselves to save $$ and it came back to haunt them. I can’t blame them for flying spirit or cruising carnival because even if they were on a nicer cruiseline and flying Delta this incident still would have happened.

  • Sandra

    I guess I’m really of the “old school” in that if you can’t afford to take a vacation/cruise etc. with the proper coverage, save your money until you CAN. When I was on a budget, I did road trips, staycations and day trips near home. When I got to the point where I had disposable income, I then took more elaborate trips. Trying to get a cheapie trip that approximates a “real” cruise is risky…and this is one of those times. Not anyone’s fault except for people who feel they need to opt for things thary can’t easily afford rather than waiting until they can.

  • flutiefan

    i was simply responding to the line that he’s never seen any airline do this, and that’s simply not true. apparently SW does it all the time.

  • flutiefan

    i had one dock at 8am or so, and after 12noon no one had been able to disembark. they were having Customs issues. many people were grumbling about missing their flights home. ever since, i have made sure to schedule my return flight in the afternoon, and if i have to wait at the airport, so be it.

    then again, i’m the checkin person at my airline, and the cruise people who get to the airport early for their late-afternoon flight often yell at me for not being able to get on an earlier flight, when they bought a non-changeable ticket.
    they made a responsible decision by booking a later flight to ensure they’d make it, but they don’t actually want to take that flight.

    I can’t win.

  • flutiefan

    her exact line was that she had a very mediocre cruise because of the passenger having to be airlifted. there is no other conclusion!

  • Fishplate

    flutiefan: Yes, but she did not say it was the passenger’s fault – you did.

  • Lee

    Oh, I so hate coming off as hard hearted but this is an expensive (and unexpected) world we live in and, when I cannot afford to take a vacation and cover myself with travel insurance, I wait until I can do so. We can’t all get what we want and when we do plan poorly, consequences can be very costly which is what this man learned the hard way.

    Hopefully, he won’t take such unnecessary risks in the future. I wonder – did he stop for a moment and wonder what would happen if he or one of his kids, say, broke a leg or an arm in an accident (or something equally bad and unexpected) – do people really think that magic protects them just because they are on vacation? How would he have handled that situation which would have been a heck of a lot more costly than what they had to shell out for the change fees.

    I had read last week that many (if not most) airlines were allowing changes without fees during the blizzard but I wonder if Spirit was just being its cheap self or if the timing for such a fee-free change was already past.

    I do feel bad for him and his family; just, hopefully, going forward they will make more careful choices when leaving home.

    One other issue: I think it is always wise to book flights home for the day AFTER one arrives from a cruise (or the day before when taking a cruise) so as to best avoid unexpected delays that cause such connection problems.

  • Lee

    It might be that in your case, the delay was the fault of the cruiseship liner vs. intensely bad weather, which might well make a difference as to whether the liner will try to make such arrangements for their passengers.

  • Lee

    Bottom line is you need to read the terms and conditions of any travel insurance extremely carefully and anything, anything at all that is not crystal clear – call and have them clarify and email that clarification to you – especially any provision that includes the word “may” in it – as in: “may” cover for such and such.

    That is quicksand and some are written as clear as mud to be as unclear as possible. I always call and then always get an email explanation. They are tricky devils –

  • mencik

    I travel Carnival for most of my cruises, and generally fly Southwest for the cheaper airfares. Guess what? I always purchase travel insurance too. The cost of the insurance is usually no more than 5% of the cost of the trip. If you don’t buy the insurance, you are gambling the cost of your trip. If you aren’t willing to go into a casino and gamble that much money, then buy the insurance. It really is that simple.


    I never said I blamed the passenger. What I said was that “because of the passenger’s issue, our cruise was negatively impacted.” I do NOT blame them but it did change our ENTIRE cruise.

  • DChamp56

    Funny how weather delays only work in favor of the Airlines, not the passengers!

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