Does a “full refund” for a cruise include crew gratuities and port fees?

Just what constitutes a “full refund”? James Peterson is asking this question after Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) canceled his cruise.

Unfortunately for Peterson, when a travel company promises a “full refund” to its passengers, it can define the term to exclude any costs it sees fit, such as gratuities and taxes — and passengers trying to recover any unrefunded costs may find themselves adrift.

Peterson contacted us following a 12-day cruise in Australia and New Zealand on the Norwegian Star, a ship with a troubled propulsion system that had resulted in changes to the itinerary of the previous cruise.

Apparently the propulsion system problems had not been adequately addressed when the Star set sail again from Sydney, on course for Auckland, New Zealand. On the fourth day of the cruise, the propulsion system failed entirely off the coast of Melbourne, Australia, requiring the ship to return to port for repairs and to cancel all its remaining ports of call. The ship arrived in Auckland just in time for the end of the cruise.

As on the previous occasion, NCL offered the Star’s passengers a refund of their cruise fares. Everyone on the cruise received a letter signed by the captain and NCL CEO Andy Stuart, hand-delivered to their cabins, which promised that “all passengers onboard [sic] will receive a full refund.” The passengers were also offered a 50 percent future cruise credit with a number of restrictions.

Several weeks later, Peterson saw a credit for the cruise fare on his MasterCard statement. But that was the only cost NCL refunded to Peterson. There was no credit for $900 in taxes, port fees, gratuities, and other expenses NCL required the passengers to pay before boarding the ship.

Related story:   We bought trip insurance, so where is our refund for our canceled cruise?

Peterson submitted a claim for $900 to NCL. A representative of NCL replied that “our records indicate that the refund amounts issued is [sic] correct and that no further refunds are due. Please note we are not refunding the port taxes….Regrettably, we are unable to honor your request for additional compensation and extend our apologies.”

According to Peterson, “In our case, $900 isn’t going to make or break us financially. It may not even dissuade us from sailing again with NCL. It simply is the principle of the matter — NCL promised one thing, in writing, but delivered something less.”

Peterson might have escalated his complaint using our executive contacts for NCL, especially given that the promise of a full refund was in letter signed by the CEO. He asked our advocacy team for help in securing a refund of the remaining $900 in cruise costs.

Unfortunately for Peterson, NCL’s Guest Ticket Contract absolves the cruise line from any liability for canceled or changed itineraries:

Itinerary Deviation: The Guest agrees that the Carrier has the sole discretion and liberty to direct the movements of the vessel, including the rights to: proceed without pilots and tow, and assist other vessels in all situations; deviate from the purchased voyage or the normal course for any purpose, including, without limitation, in the interest of Guests or of the vessel, or to save life or property; put in at any unscheduled or unadvertised port; cancel any scheduled call at any port for any reason and at any time before, during or after sailing of the vessel; omit, advance or delay landing at any scheduled or advertised port; return to port of embarkation or to any port previously visited if the Carrier deems it prudent to do so; substitute another vessel or port(s) of call without prior notice and without incurring any liability to the Guest on account thereof for any loss, damage or delay whatsoever, whether consequential or otherwise.

As far as NCL is concerned, it didn’t owe the passengers a single penny of compensation for their canceled cruise and Peterson should feel lucky to get back anything.

Related story:   Is 5,000 miles enough compensation for exposure to "hazardous bodily substances"?

But Peterson is also correct that if NCL intended to refund only the base fares, then the letter the Star passengers received should have contained language that indicated that only the base fares would be refunded and the other costs would not. Using the term “full refund” for what was actually only a partial refund was misleading and poor customer service – on top of placing the passengers on a ship that wasn’t fit to sail.

Our advocates invited Peterson to post about his case in our forums, but he hasn’t done so as of this writing. We also reached out to NCL on Patterson’s behalf, but nobody at NCL has responded to our inquiries. Sadly, Peterson’s quest for the remaining $900 has foundered.

But is a refund of only the base fare and an offer of a heavily restricted 50 percent discount on a future cruise sufficient compensation for putting the passengers on an unseaworthy ship?

We think not.

Should NCL compensate James Peterson and the other Star passengers for the additional costs they incurred that were not refunded?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for

  • AJPeabody

    “Full” means what it says, and $900 less than full is not full. The letter, signed with authority, was not adhered to, so I voted “yes.” However, 50% off for someone who plans to cruise with them in the future is worth a lot more than $900, so if the question was “Is this enough compensation?” as billed, I would also have voted “yes.”

    The ship should have offered “full refund of your base fare and 50% off your next cruise or instead full refund of base fare and all required supplements.” I bet the OP would have chosen the same compensation he actually received.

  • Leslie

    If he was on the ship even though he did not hit some of the ports and he did eat in the dining room and had his room cleaned then he certainly should be paying these gratituties. As Judge Judy would say'”Did you eat the steak”? Yes-then no refund for these charges. I certainly can see a refund for the port fees for the ports not stopped at but I think that is greedy to want all that he/she is requesting considering he got the cruise for free and 50% off another in the future.

  • mmbNaples

    Yes, 50% off the next cruise is generous, except is it 50% off full fare or is there a different interpretation of that too?

  • Noah Kimmel

    Im not so disappointed that they didn’t return port fees (for visited ports) or tips (as housekeeping still worked). While I think it would be a nice and appropriate gesture to do so, I am not sure I think it is necessary. However, I do agree that the letter should be more clear. Knowing that your customers will notice the difference, creating that mismatch of expectation will only upset people and drive customer service complaints, the opposite reaction NCL must have been hoping for. A little more thought to detail would make a big difference.

  • Tygar

    “Hell YES”!

    Again, what planet do the 12 voters that said no come from.

    ALL problems were NCLs fault & it shouldn’t even be a question that “all” expenses should be repaid!

    I am almost convinced that “travel” expenses should be re-imbursed! What do you guys think?

    It’s time these companies were held accountable for their actions & failures!

  • cscasi

    I certainly would enjoy the cruise sitting in port while the ship’s propulsion system was repaired; Not! However, you are right, we can assume he ate on the ship, had his room cleaned while he sat on the ship in port. But, that’s not while I would accept as cruising.

  • The company knowingly set sail with a mechanical problem. They should be responsible for ALL costs related to that problem. That includes paying the crew.
    People cruise to get the entire experience and that includes a working boat and the ports of call. A partial cruise is like a half cooked steak. No one would expect you to pay for it.

  • Donald Filiault

    Norwegian is incorrect, and regardless of what the passengers have signed, it’s still bogus. I do not (and will not) sail on Norwegian, but on cruises that I’ve taken on Princess, RCI, Celebrity and Holland America, we’ve missed ports due to rough water or bad weather, and the cruiselines, without asking, have refunded the port taxes that would have been assessed if the ship was unable to dock.

  • Bill___A

    They should have to refund the whole thing. I realize 4 days worth of port fees would have been uses as well as 4 days worth of gratuity, but those other 8 days, the passenger did not get value for due to the ship’s malfunction, so yes, it should be refuned. This whole “base fare” plus expenses thing is purposefully done so they can try pull tricks for this. The passengers missed out on their holiday, they paid airfare, now they have to pay hotel somewhere before they fly home. These are all costs and problems caused by the cruise line, they should pay up for sure.

  • Alan Gore

    “Again, what planet do the 12 voters that said no come from.”

    From Planet Travel, of course: ‘Hold ’em up by their ankles, shake them and grab whatever falls out’.

  • David Youngquist

    One year ago today we were sitting in port in Stockholm dealing with a propulsion problem on the Star that delayed the cruise and created chaos for all passengers departing flights. At what point does a cruise line become criminally negligent by continuing to sail a ship that is not seaworthy? Does it require a breakdown at sea with a ship floundering in a storm for NCL to take care of a recurrent problem? This is the third time Elliott has helped resolve issues related the the NCL Star. Something is seriously awry at NCL.

  • disqus_00YDCZxqDV

    I’m guessing the ships themselves are built with an ‘every expense spared’ mentality because we always seem to be reading about problems with them.

  • greg watson

    They are still $900 out of pocket………just how was this resolved ??

  • MF

    Leaving port with a compromised propulsion system could foreseeably result in what happened. The cruise line took the PAX for a ‘ride’ in the truest sense of the word. NCL gets to some money, but provides only a partial cruise. I’ll bet NCL can write this off as a tax deduction while wasting the time and money of thousands of passengers. Nice!

  • jsn55

    NCL won’t refund port taxes? Since they didn’t go to the ports, no tax should have been paid by NCL, so they’re keeping the money? Prepaid gratuities is another topic … passengers were served by the crew for however many days they were on the ship, so I don’t think the crew should be penalized for NCL’s inability to keep the ship running. Receiving a 50% discount on a future cruise is far more appeasing than the $900.

  • Annie M

    Wait….the port fees are paid to the ports AFTER the ship has ported there. If the ship skipped ports because they couldn’t get there, there are no port taxes due to those ports and rightfully should be paid back to the consumer.

    If they were on the ship for the full number of days that it was supposed to sail, then those gratuities are due the staff. They were still servicing the passengers as long as the ship is still sailing.of the

  • MF

    They ate steak for 4 nights on a 12 day cruise, that would be 1/3 gratuity earned, not full gratuity. Port charges, sure pay for the ones visited, not all that were not visited. NCL took a gamble on a hasty repair, and the PAX lost…

  • MF

    Oh they wouldn’t do that, would they???

  • michael anthony

    The staff shouldn’t be penalized, since they did provide service. But not service in the traditional, advertised sense. Since NCL promised a FULL refund, NCL should be paying those gratuities. This was a disaster that could have been foreseen easily, and probably was. They rolled the dice, and they lost. They should pay their employees the gratuities. Imagine a cruise where almost nothing promised, was delivered. Yet, you’re still expected to provide gratuities.

  • Lee

    Boy, cruise ship companies are real rackets; they register in places that have little (if any) regulations for staff, etc – (they can afford to offer dirt cheap cruises because of the unconscionably low wages they pay cruise staff).

    This sort of rip-off is truly obscene – they shield themselves from so much liability while offering little protections for passengers or crew. Ugh.

    Sadly, for this passenger, I believe the language re: refunds in their contract is what will hold even above the language in the letter received from the captain as they would just state that “refund” meant the company’s definition of “refund” –

  • Lee

    Always look where the cruise ship company is registered. Most register in places that require little /barely there regulations – for a reason: money, profit. If under the U.S. flag, for example, they would be subject to far more regulations (though that too is probably going to be gutted….)

    These cheap cruises are clogging up ports around the world – They are like floating malls –

    The port fees are where the cities in which they dock make the money because it sure isn’t from the passengers themselves, who actually (on average) spend little when they dock and spend a day somewhere. They don’t care about the passengers – they know they will always attract them as long as they continue to offer rock bottom prices for “travel” –

  • John Baker

    Did you see the letter or only what the lw told you was in it? This whole case could ride on what was written.

    Does the letter say.. “Complete refund of all expenses” or “Complete refund of your cruise fare”

    They got the second but someone might read it as the first.

  • Leslie

    If you spent 12 days on the cruise you owe 12 days gratuities-port charges I agree you owe only for where you visited. The passenger took the gamble as there in nothing in the paperwork that you agree too that you are entitled to anything if you do not get to the ports listed in the Itinerary and they lost. THey were lucky they got any refunds or discounts at all. That does not mean that is the right thing to do but legally NCL does not have to give them anything.

  • joycexyz

    And the discounted price has a number of restrictions, whatever they may be.

  • joycexyz

    The discounted fare comes with restrictions, so we don’t really know how valuable it is.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    You shouldn’t be taking a gamble when you take a cruise. You should be taking a trip.

  • Tygar

    Actually, “alligator mouth, hummingbird butt”, this “idiot” has been on 8 or 10 cruises & have posted about several. This “idiot” is well aware of the totally one way, for the cruise line” contract of carriage, etc & think it is a crock of ****!

    As I said before, if you voted no, your out of your mind! These travel companies absolutely HAVE to be reined in & passengers need to have a comprehensive bill of rights that ACTUALLY protects them & not the cruise line.

    And pusillanimous morons like you should be very careful of who you bad mouth, as some of us , cum laude college grad, 26 yr vet Marines just might take offense & that is not a good thing.

    If you would like to discuss it in person, let me know, I’m about 1/2 hour south of Quantico Marine Base in VA & if your in the neighborhood, let me know. I also travel a lot training police dogs, so might be close enough to meet you, & we can discuss my intelligence & your lack of same, in talking to me in that way.

    Disagree all you want, in a respectful way, be funny, pithy or whatever, but don’t screw with me **** for brains.

    These people spent a lot of money, getting to the destination port, on the cruise + extras & deserve to be compensated “fairly”!

    NCL BROKE their ship! Sitting in port for days, getting it fixed does not constitute a cruise. It doesn’t matter that they had a “few” days cruise. 4 days if a 12 day cruise is “squat”! As is eating a few meals etc.

    You really are on planet imbecile!

    Given your ill advised post, it might be a good guess that you have your head up the butt of NCL. ??? What, do you work for them, or are you just retarded?

  • Leslie

    You ate the food and had the use of the wait and bar staff and had your room cleaned everyday you owe for that service. Every trip is a gamble-you could have bad weather, bad health, etc-it is what you make of it-if you can have fun, make new friends and enjoy new surroundings or grumble and expect the world to owe you a living. You can also gamble on the ship too and in the ship!

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Yeah, when the cruise line controls the weather, your health, or your gambling/alcohol addictions, then your arguments will make sense. They do control whether their boat is maintained and able to sail. If not, close shop and give a refund.

  • Lindabator

    always off the base fares — port charges and taxes are always in addition to the full fares of the cruise – and stipulate that in your paperwork – and have never seen a whole lot of restrictions on these, either

  • Lindabator

    Because they still used their rooms, still ate their meals, and those gratuities are what the staff depend on to make a living – and as they had to work DOUBLY hard in a situation like this, I would not begrudge them that

  • Lindabator

    but they were not refunding the entire cruise PLUS giving you 50% off a future one – and frankly, the port charges are quite small overall – the gratuities for all the services you used is a ridiculous request

  • Lindabator

    No cruise line refunds in full with a full refund unless you insure the product, and the illness or injury is to YOU or a travelling companion, or a family member – not your doctor

  • Lindabator

    correct – port charges, taxes, gratuities, other purchases while onboard – UNLIKELY

  • Éamon deValera

    I can see why taxes wouldn’t be refunded as they must be paid to the taxing authority by the cruise line. Other than that, the refund should have included everything else.

    Passengers can apply for a refund of the taxes themselves. It is a pain in the neck so I personally wouldn’t bother.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.