The ship sailed, but they didn’t

At the dock without my glasses. / Photo by bimiers – Flickr Creative Commons.
When Antonia Giannasca called Carnival Cruise Lines this year to book a vacation to Mexico for her extended family, the sales representative assured her that she had all the travel documents necessary to board the ship.

Under the U.S. government’s “closed loop” rules for cruises, her 3- and 11-year-old sons needed only their birth certificates. She and her husband were required to bring a valid ID and a birth certificate. Her mother, Vittoria, a naturalized citizen born in Italy who would be celebrating her 71st birthday during the voyage, needed her naturalization form and an ID, the representative told her. Passports wouldn’t be required.

But those assurances gave way to a sinking feeling as they tried to board the Carnival Imagination in Miami. When Giannasca’s mother arrived at the dock with the family on June 18, a Carnival representative examined her paperwork and shook her head. “Uh-oh,” the agent said. “This is the wrong form.”

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Vittoria Giannasca should have brought a naturalization form with a raised seal, a little detail that the Carnival sales agent apparently had failed to mention. An emotional confrontation between family members and cruise line employees followed, with Carnival offering to let the passengers find the required form and board the ship in Key West, Fla., for an extra $1,500 — money they didn’t have.

They missed their cruise.

Giannasca, a restaurant server in Boynton Beach, Fla., says that her family was traumatized by the lost vacation and by Carnival’s treatment. The cruise was to be their first, and she and her husband had saved for nearly a year for the special event. But being denied boarding wasn’t the worst part. When they asked Carnival to refund the $3,275 they’d spent on the cruise, the company turned them down flat, she says.

“We sincerely regret any misunderstanding regarding acceptable forms of travel documentation,” Carnival said in a form letter. “While I wish I had better news, we can’t respond favorably to your request for compensation.”

How many passengers are left standing on the dock like the Giannascas? No one keeps industry-wide statistics on denied boardings, the way the federal government does for airlines. But I’ve been hearing recently about more cases like the Giannascas’, some of them involving cruise line employees who provided inaccurate or incomplete information about travel documentation. After the ship sails, there’s little hope of getting any money back, except for refundable taxes and port fees.

I spent nearly two months working to secure a better answer than a form letter for Giannasca. If Carnival had recorded the conversation — and an automated message does notify callers that to “ensure high-quality service,” their call might be recorded — it could easily determine whether a sales agent had misled the passenger. A review of her paperwork turned up evidence of what Giannasca sees as Carnival’s negligence: The cruise line sent Giannasca a receipt for her purchase but no cruise contract, the legal agreement between Carnival and its passengers, and no details about the required travel documents.

I contacted Carnival on Giannasca’s behalf, but it merely reiterated its position. “We strongly recommend that consumers familiarize themselves with the required documents when considering a cruise vacation,” Aly Bello, a Carnival representative, told me.

“How could we have known that we needed a form with a raised seal?” Giannasca responded.

The short answer: She probably couldn’t have.

Carnival’s Web site is vague, saying only that it requires guests to provide “proper travel documentation” and noting that it “assumes no responsibility for advising guests of immigration requirements.”

A look at the State Department’s online notice about closed-loop voyages wouldn’t have added much clarity. Even its definition of a closed-loop voyage (“U.S.-based cruises with itineraries that both originate and terminate in the United States, returning from contiguous territories or adjacent islands”) is enough to confuse the average traveler.

“In my experience, cruise lines are quite arbitrary in their enforcement of these rules,” says James Walker, a maritime lawyer based in Miami. What’s more, he says, there’s little consistency between cruise lines as to the types of certificates that are allowed: One line will accept a faxed copy of a birth certificate from a courthouse, while another one insists on a notarized document. There’s simply no way to know what will pass muster.

As always, there’s probably more going on here than meets the eye. Before 9/11, companies routinely offered passengers who were denied boarding a credit, if not an opportunity to make up the cruise. A first-timer like Giannasca would have been a good candidate for either; after all, a voucher might have enticed her to book another Carnival cruise and perhaps to become a repeat customer.

But the economics changed about a decade ago. Tighter security led to stricter travel document requirements. At about the same time, travel insurance became a significant source of revenue for the cruise industry and travel agents. (Carnival had offered Giannasca a $600 policy, which she decided not to buy and which she says wouldn’t have covered her anyway.)

Today, well-publicized stories about families being denied boarding are likely to benefit a cruise line, because they underscore the value of the company’s profitable travel insurance products. Online forums and discussion groups are filled with shouting matches between disgruntled passengers and cruise line apologists who insist that the aggrieved customers should have bought pricey travel protection policies.

It’s difficult to see how a cruise line would benefit from sailing with an empty cabin. That would deny it the revenue from optional beverages, restaurant meals and tips. But there’s certainly some incentive to deny passengers an opportunity to cruise later at a discount or at no additional charge. And public turndowns like this one, which passengers like Giannasca are sure to take to every cruise forum on the Internet, are just free advertising for optional travel insurance.

Regardless of the reason for the increase in denied-boarding cases like Giannasca’s, the solution is simple, says Janice Hough, a veteran travel agent based in Los Altos, Calif.: “Bring a passport.”

Even though you’re allowed to travel on a closed loop with a valid birth certificate and an ID, you might need to disembark in a foreign port and cut your cruise short. If that happens, you’ll need a passport to get home, says Hough.

Carnival concurs with that advice. In fact, when it comes to travel documentation, that’s one place where it’s uncharacteristically direct. “It is recommended that all guests travel with a valid passport during their cruise,” its Web site says.

Looking back, it would have cost the Giannascas $615 for new passports, just $15 more than travel insurance — and it would have been all the assurance they needed that they’d be able to board their birthday cruise.

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