When Holland America says “no problem” maybe there’s a problem

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By Christopher Elliott

Elmer Purkey suspected there might be trouble with his birth certificate on his planned seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise on Holland America’s Eurodam. He’d been born at a U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, to an American father and a German mother, which made him a natural born U.S. citizen.

But what would the cruise ship employees say when he showed them his birth certificate? So Purkey tried to find out. He contacted Holland America. He got its response in writing.

It didn’t matter. The cruise line denied him boarding anyway, saying it wasn’t enough to board.

“I was left abandoned on the dock like discarded garbage as the ship sailed away,” he says. “It was a very disappointing and traumatic experience.”

Holland America’s paperwork requirements are crystal clear on its site. It states:

It is your sole responsibility to obtain and have available the proper travel documents that are necessary for your travel, including all costs related to arrangements to obtain entry to countries you visit and re-entry to your destination country. Boarding may be denied or fines may be levied against those guests without proper documentation.

Can I travel?

That’s exactly what Purkey says he tried to do.

“I was obviously concerned about the potentiality for confusion with my documentation,” he says. “That is why I contacted Holland America directly a month prior to our departure. After explaining in detail to them the exact nature of my documentation, and being reassured by a HAL representative, and her supervisor, that there would be no problem with going on this cruise with this birth certificate, any hesitation was relieved.”

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He sent me the chat transcript.

Here’s an excerpt:

Purkey: I have the original birth certificate. Will this be OK?

HAL: YES, that is totally fine.

After Purkey was turned away when he tried to board — an event he describes as “humiliating” — he asked the cruise line to help him with a do-over.

No way, it replied. If he wanted to pay for another cruise, Holland America would offer him an upgrade. But it said that having the right birth certificate was his responsibility, and it’s sorry for the inconvenience. (Related: A problem with my Holland America cruise: Raw sewage in my cabin!)

“It only added insult to injury,” he says.

Holland America speaks

The cruise line’s rebuttal is interesting, and it suggests that we’re missing the full story. Here are the relevant parts of its response:

We empathize with everyone who faces denial of entry onto our ships and share in their disappointment. However, information regarding visas, passports, and immunization requirements is the responsibility of each and every passenger. Guests and their agents must familiarize themselves with current requirements in advance of boarding any cruise entering foreign ports of call.

Upon our review with both ship and port officials, it was discovered that Mr. Purkey had already been in dialogue with us and advised that his documentation was not sufficient.

He was directly told he would need to get a passport (Polar booking notation made on December 3, 2012). Further review was made with port officials regarding their dialogue with this guest. They responded that the guest was instructed to contact our Guest Relations office for review and possible compensation allowance under their unfortunate circumstance of being denied boarding.

The letter goes on to suggest that Purkey should have purchased Holland America’s cancellation protection plan, which is kind of funny, since I doubt it would have covered him in this situation. (Related: A problem with my Holland America cruise: Raw sewage in my cabin!)

This isn’t our first complaint about Holland America. Interesting that a travel company is now at a disadvantage because it failed to get a paper trail. At any rate, if what Holland America claims is true, then it suggests Purkey simply took the transcript and decided that if he were denied boarding, he’d use it as leverage to get a make-over cruise. (Here’s our guide to taking a cruise.)

I find that difficult to believe. As a side note, you can follow a fascinating parallel conversation about this issue on Cruise Critic. I wonder how many commenters will tell him to get a passport before the thread dies?

I want to help Purkey, but I don’t know how. I’ve seen the “final” rejection letter from Holland America, and it looks pretty final. I wonder if any of the lawyers who frequent this site have any ideas about next steps?

Does he have a leg to stand on? Is there something he could say — or my advocacy team and I could say — to fix this? Or is this case a lost cause?

Should I mediate Elmer Purkey's case?

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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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