Royal Caribbean charged me $1,556 to leave my cruise early. Can I get my money back?

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By Christopher Elliott

When Antonia Lorenzi’s brother-in-law suffered a stroke on the Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas, there was no question that she would leave the ship to be there for him and her sister.

But there was a question about how much her early departure would cost her.

Lorenzi knew she would lose the value of the rest of her seven-day cruise from New York to the Bahamas because she was long past the refund window. But she never expected Royal Caribbean to charge her an extra $1,556 — a government penalty for disembarking in Florida, according to the cruise line.

Travelers often get charged for extras, but can a cruise line charge you more to leave your cruise early? As a matter of fact, it can. But should it charge you? That is what we’re here to find out.

Lorenzi’s cruise fiasco raises several questions:

  • What law allows a cruise line to charge you more for leaving the ship early? And how often do passengers have to pay?
  • Are there any exceptions to these rules?
  • How can you avoid getting charged extra if you need to exit your cruise early?

Let’s dive right into this case.

If passengers leave a cruise because of an emergency, are they liable for fines?

Are you allowed to leave a cruise early?

You can leave a cruise early, but it might cost you. 

An 1886 law called the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA) restricts the transportation of passengers between American ports. And since most cruise ships are foreign-flagged vessels, that means if a cruise line takes you between two ports in the United States, it has probably broken the law.

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Royal Caribbean warns guests that they are not allowed to “pre-plan or purposely embark or debark a ship” in a U.S port. If they do, they accept responsibility for any resulting government fines.

The penalty for the unlawful transportation of passengers between coastwise points is $778 per violation, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). A cruise line will charge you that fine if you leave the ship early in violation of the PVSA.

But there are exceptions. For example, a cruise to nowhere that starts at a U.S. port and ends at a U.S. port does not violate the law. There’s also an exclusion for national defense. And a cruise line may apply for a waiver, according to published government guidelines.

Many industry experts believe the PVSA is an antiquated law that should be scrapped. In a situation like this, where there’s an onboard emergency and a passenger needs to interrupt their cruise, it is punishing a victim. (If you have an opinion on these unusual maritime laws, scroll down to take today’s poll.)

Was leaving Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas illegal?

Did she break the law when she left her cruise early?

Lorenzi was on a Caribbean cruise with her husband, his brother, and his brother’s wife. On the second day, while the ship was docked in Port Canaveral, Fla., her brother-in-law suffered a stroke and was rushed to the hospital with his wife. 

“We still did not know the extent of my brother-in-law’s situation but were very concerned both for him and for his wife, who was understandably upset,” Lorenzi recalls. “We decided to leave the cruise to be there for both of them.”

When she contacted guest services, a representative said they were “overreacting and did not need to leave the ship,” she says. (Related: Help! American Queen Voyages canceled my cruise but kept my $10,126.)

“My husband and I could not leave not knowing how serious his condition was,” Lorenzi recalls. “When we persisted, we were told we would have to pay $778 each to get off the ship because of the Jones Act.”

(The Jones Act, another maritime law, is often confused with the PVSA. The Jones Act bans the transport of goods between two U.S. ports by non-US-flagged ships. In other words, the PVSA is for passengers, the Jones Act is for cargo.)

A tour of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, a ship filled with sensory overload experiences.

The Oasis of the Seas sails under the flag of the Bahamas. No question about it: Lorenzi had disembarked her ship in violation of the law and was forced to pay a hefty fine. 

Case closed? Not quite.

The Oasis of the Seas’ guest services department accused Lorenzi of “overreacting” when she tried to leave the ship to care for her sick brother-in-law.

How about a little consideration for a customer in need?

But something about the incident didn’t sit right with Lorenzi. After taking care of her brother-in-law, she revisited her case.

She did some research and found that it’s up to the cruise line to ask for a CBP waiver, absorb the cost of the fine, or pass it along to the customer. She and her husband had already lost most of their cruise; they were on day two of a seven-day cruise and were not covered by travel insurance. That’s a big financial hit.

“We did not ask for or expect a refund of the unused portion of the cruise,” she says. “However, we did request that Royal Caribbean show some consideration for our circumstances and refund the $1,556.”

This isn’t the first complaint we’ve received about NCCL. Lorenzi wrote a brief, polite email to the cruise line asking for help.

Here’s the email she received:

Thank you for reaching out to us. My name is . [sic] I’m your dedicated Guest Experience team member and I look forward to assisting you.

Please keep in mind that depending on your inquiry or concern my response time may vary. In the meantime, I wanted to provide you with some helpful information that may help resolve your inquiries. And, as a reminder, if you booked through a Travel Advisor, we recommend reaching out to them to help guide you through our programs as they understand your travel needs.

That was followed by a series of links to frequently asked questions on the site.

Whoa, did that person just identify themselves as “.”? I believe so. It helps to fill in your name when you’re responding to a customer.

The receipt Royal Caribbean gave Lorenzi incorrectly referenced the “John’s Act.”

What do Royal Caribbean’s executives have to say about this request?

Lorenzi appealed to Royal Caribbean’s executives, asking them to consider her request. But three weeks later, she still hadn’t received a response. 

Royal Caribbean was being dismissive, no question about it. She asked if it could provide proof that it had paid the government fine. But all it had offered at the time of her departure was a barely legible receipt with a handwritten notation that she’d paid for the “John’s Act.”

“I have no proof that these amounts were paid to the proper government agencies,” she says.

Lorenzi was well within her rights to ask for proof of payment. Royal Caribbean should have responded to her promptly instead of sending her a form email from “.” and then ignoring her.

“I think what upsets me the most is that they’ve never had the decency to address my complaint,” she says. “I’ve tried contacting them by phone and by email. I received no response.”

But that wasn’t her last option. There was at least one more place she could turn to.

The Federal Maritime Commission tried to help Lorenzi recover her money.

Can the Federal Maritime Commission help?

Lorenzi contacted the Federal Maritime Commission’s Office of Consumer Affairs & Dispute Resolution Services for help.

The FMC helps passengers who bought their ticket directly from the cruise line and boarded a passenger vessel in a U.S. port. However, the commission does not have statutory authority to force cruise lines to take any particular action to address complaints — or even to respond.

Lorenzi sent a short email to the FMC, outlining her request. If it could not help her get a refund for her fine, could it at least ask Royal Caribbean to prove it paid the government and did not just pocket her money?

The FMC contacted Royal Caribbean. The response? Silence.

Lorenzi asked if the FMC could try again, to which she received the following answer:

Our office was able to assist many passengers that cruised with Royal Caribbean, but occasionally they choose not to respond to a specific case and we cannot force them to do so. 

I did not receive a response regarding your request and I have sent several reminders. 

I need to close the matter, but you are welcome to contact the Better Business Bureau or your state’s consumer protection agency to see if they may have a better result. 

I regret that I could not get a response for you.

Wait a second. Royal Caribbean is blowing off the government? The same government to which it just supposedly gave $1,556 of Lorenzi’s money?

Now you’ve got the A-Team’s attention, Toni.

How to avoid a fine for leaving your cruise early

Violations of the PVSA happen when a cruise line transports passengers between two U.S. ports without first stopping in a foreign port. So when you see two U.S. ports of call n a row on your itinerary, you need to know about this law.

Wait until the next port

Obviously, the best way to avoid a PVSA violation is to remain onboard and continue the cruise. Some passengers simply want to get off the ship because they’re having a bad cruise. The fines are a great reason to remain on board until you can exit penalty-free.

Know about the exceptions

Cruise lines generally do not charge passengers for exiting a cruise in violation of the PVSA when there’s a legitimate medical emergency. Also, cruise lines can apply for a waiver of the PVSA. It isn’t clear if that would have allowed the cruise line to avoid a fine.

Negotiate a fine-free exit

The government fines cruise lines, not passengers. So if you can negotiate disembarkation that doesn’t involve a fine, the time to do it is before you leave the ship. The cruise line can retroactively charge a fine to your credit card if you simply leave the ship. (Which you could, of course, dispute with your bank if you wanted to.) Lorenzi was past the 60 days she had to file a chargeback. 

Unfortunately, none of these strategies would help her recover her money. That ship had already sailed. 

Or had it?

Can we help her get her $1,556 back?

Finally, in desperation, Lorenzi turned to us

 “We would like a refund of the $1,556 we paid to leave the ship,” she said.

My team hasn’t done a cruise case in a while, and there’s a long story behind that which I will share with you soon.

But this one we just couldn’t refuse.

Why? No, it wasn’t because she disembarked for a legitimate medical emergency. Or because Royal Caribbean treated her like a number to be processed and then discarded. Or that the executives ignored her appeals.

In the end, what made my advocacy team damn the torpedoes was that Royal Caribbean would not prove that it paid the government fine. We can’t even begin to imagine where that money went, if not to the CBP.

I reached out to the cruise line on her behalf. It responded to her before getting back to me.

Dear Mr. Elliott,

I just got a call from Royal Caribbean. They said we should have never been charged the $1,556 for leaving the cruise early due to a medical emergency. They are going to issue a credit to our Visa.

It’s been ten months since the incident, and I hadn’t had any luck getting a response from Royal Caribbean. Your intervention seems to be the only thing that forced them to not only respond but to refund our money. Thank you very much for your help!

Toni Lorenzi 

The next day, my Royal Caribbean contact gave me an official statement:

Our highest priority at Royal Caribbean is the safety and security of our guests.

In this instance, when the guest requested to disembark our Guest Relations team advised her that there may be a charge because of a violation of the Jones Act, which does not allow guests to disembark in a port other than the original homeport. 

At the time, the guests’ comments did not reflect that a member of her family had been disembarked for a medical emergency. After further investigation, we realize that this had been an error on the part of our team and have refunded the guest.

I’m pleased that Royal Caribbean finally responded to its customer. But because of this case, Royal Caribbean is teetering on the verge of a downgrade to a responsiveness rating of 2 out of 5.

There’s a bigger issue here. Have laws like the Jones Act and the PVSA outlived their usefulness? Scroll down for today’s comments. I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on whether cruise lines are keeping the fine money. I think Lorenzi suspected that, but I wonder what you think.

Should we repeal the Passenger Vessel Services Act?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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