What to expect if you’re expecting to cruise

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By Christopher Elliott

Bryan and Fola Nelson were excited about their upcoming five-night Bahamas cruise on the Carnival Fascination. It was to be their last vacation before the birth of their first child.

Then, not long before their scheduled departure, Carnival delivered some bad news: Not only would Fola Nelson be denied boarding, but the cruise line would also pocket her entire fare, minus port taxes.

Why? Because like many other cruise lines, Carnival bans passengers who are 25 weeks or more pregnant.

“My wife will be 10 days over that,” says Bryan Nelson, a teacher in Minneapolis. “And despite her doctor’s okay, the cruise line is sticking to its policy.”

Cruise lines’ rules on pregnancy are a common source of complaints from travelers. But like so many other cruise industry policies, this one wasn’t always a hard-and-fast rule. Had Nelson become pregnant a decade ago, the company probably would have let her reschedule her trip at a minimal cost.

Not today. And the change is something that her cruise line seems happy to let the world know about.

Cruise lines’ 24-week limit and safety measures

Carnival’s policy allows pregnant women to sail only through the 24th week of pregnancy. Every passenger who is expecting must show a physician’s letter verifying that mother and baby are in good health and fit to travel. The letter must also include the estimated date of delivery. “Carnival’s pregnancy guidelines are put in place as a precaution to protect the unborn baby and the mother,” says Aly Bello, a spokeswoman for the cruise line.

That makes sense. Cruise ships offer reasonable emergency medical facilities for guests and crew members. But prenatal and early infant care can require specialized diagnostic facilities or treatment that might not be available on a ship or in the closest port of call.

Even with the rules in place, complications can arise. This month, medical problems related to her pregnancy prompted the airlifting of a 31-year-old passenger from the Disney Magic, situated 180 miles off the Texas coast.

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Other companies have virtually identical policies. Norwegian Cruise Lines refuses to admit passengers past the 24-week mark. So does Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez says, “We make this decision because of the unique nature of a cruise ship being at sea for extended periods of time and the possibility of a guest’s medical condition becoming critical during those times at sea.

But not every pregnancy is planned, and cruises are often booked months in advance. You’d expect cruise lines to help passengers who get pregnant in the months between the booking and sailing dates, particularly if the company can re-sell the cabin to another customer.

Carnival’s firm stance on pregnancy policy exceptions

But Carnival turned down requests from both the Nelsons and their travel agent to waive its rules. Bello noted that the Nelsons should have bought the travel insurance that Carnival offered. If they had, they would have received a 75 percent future cruise credit.

That’s becoming an increasingly common response. Cruise lines appear eager to make a public example of customers who didn’t buy travel insurance. The reason? Travel protection now accounts for a significant portion of their profits, and bending a rule would effectively undermine the business model.

James Walker, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attorney specializing in maritime law, says, “I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the cruise lines to adopt pregnancy policies, particularly given the limited nature of the medical facilities on cruise ships and the absence of doctors who are experienced in obstetrics and gynecology.” “The problem arises when there is a good-faith misunderstanding by the pregnant passenger, and the cruise line takes a rigid attitude and pockets the consumer’s money.”

The lack of pregnancy policy disclosure

The Nelsons express their dissatisfaction with the way their situation was handled. Neither their travel agency nor Carnival bothered to disclose the pregnancy restrictions in a clear way before they booked, they say. “We reviewed cruise tickets from our travel agency and found nothing about pregnancy,” says Bryan Nelson.

I asked that agency, Orlando-based Cruise Vacation Outlet, what it tells its customers. Todd Elliott, the president, said that the agency directs all clients to complete an online check-in to review any terms and conditions. The agency’s welcome letter to new customers also directs them to the terms and conditions, which contain information about a cruise line’s pregnancy restrictions.

In an e-mail to the Nelsons, their travel agent, Jay Garcia, bottom-lined it: “We are not responsible for unforeseen circumstances that are beyond our control.”

Frustration with communication gaps

Nelson expresses dissatisfaction with that response, stating that the welcome letter only refers to visa and passport requirements, and he was never instructed to review the terms and conditions on the cruise line’s website. The pregnancy issue came to their attention a few weeks before the cruise when they attempted to check in online. (Related: A health crisis, a missed vacation and no chance at a refund?)

Even if they’d booked their cruise using Carnival’s Web site, they would have had to wade through four screens of information before reaching the details about cruising and pregnancy. It’s something they could have easily missed.

As someone who once had to postpone a family cruise because of the 24-week rule, I’m sympathetic to Nelson’s problem. I don’t think it’s right for him to lose his entire cruise. No one is arguing that the cruise line policy on pregnancy is wrong. But waiving a rule for a borderline case such as the Nelsons’ wouldn’t affect Carnival’s stock price, and it would go a long way toward creating loyal repeat customers. (Here’s what you need to know before planning your next cruise.)

At any rate, making an example of the Nelsons seems insensitive and opportunistic — even if Carnival’s contract allows it.

Should cruise lines waive their change rules for passengers who get pregnant?

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Update (Feb. 27, 2014): This one had a happy ending, at least for the Nelsons.

Happy to report that we received a check from Cruise Vacation Outlet as FULL compensation for the cruise sold to us while pregnant where they did not forward us Carnival’s disclosures and rules; nor did they refer us to the need to check Carnival’s rules ahead; either of which would have provided the simple prompt needed for awareness of Carnival’s pregnancy travel policies as they agreed to in their TA agreement with the cruise line.

After a reconciliation court (aka small claims court) hearing where we were pro se vs. Cruise Vacation Outlet’s representing attorney, we won judgement and even happier to report that the full amount has been given to the charity of our choice. It was less about the money, more about justice!

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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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