Help! My cruise line requires a vaccination and now my credits are expiring

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Christopher Elliott

Can a cruise line require a COVID vaccination after you book your vacation — and keep your money if you don’t comply? That’s what Abraham Sublaban wants to know as he faces the loss of $763 in cruise credits from Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL).

And even though the answer may seem obvious to you, it has the potential to affect your next cruise — or any other trip — long after the pandemic ends.


First, an important update: Sublaban contacted us with this problem in June. A few weeks later, after I had already mediated his case, NCL amended its vaccination policy. Effective Sept. 3, you can board an NCL cruise without being vaccinated. You’ll have to show proof of a medically supervised negative PCR or Antigen test taken no more than 72 hours before embarkation. NCL joined most of the other cruise lines in lifting its vaccination requirement (see full list below). Problem solved.

What is the vaccination required for my cruise?

Most major cruise lines have dropped or loosened their COVID vaccination policies.

Cruise line Effective date Testing requirements
Carnival Cruise Line Sept. 6, 2022 Unvaccinated guests or those who do not provide proof of vaccination must present the results of a negative PCR or antigen test taken within three days of embarkation.
Disney Cruise Line Sept. 2, 2022 For sailings departing U.S. and Canadian ports, Disney Cruise Line requires guests ages 12 and older to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at the time of sailing. Fully vaccinated guests must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result taken one to two days before setting sail to be exempt from embarkation testing at the terminal.
Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) Sept. 2, 2022 Guests ages 12 and older will be allowed to board unvaccinated. Unvaccinated guests age 12 and older will be required to show proof of a medically supervised negative PCR or Antigen test taken no more than 72 hours prior to embarkation.
Princess Sept. 5, 2022 Unvaccinated guests or anyone who does not provide proof of vaccination will need to self-test within three days of sailing and upload proof of a negative test into the MedallionClass app before boarding.
Royal Caribbean Sept. 5, 2022 Fully vaccinated guests must bring a negative test result for a COVID-19 antigen or PCR test taken within the 3 days before boarding day on sailings that are 6 nights or longer only. Testing is not required for fully vaccinated guests on shorter itineraries. 

Note: Requirements can change without warning, so check with your cruise line or travel advisor before sailing. This information was updated on Aug. 18, 2022.

Read the requirements carefully before you set sail. A COVID vaccination is still required for some cruises. So with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Sublaban’s cruise problem.

“I can’t go due to not taking the vaccine”

“I am extremely upset with NCL,” he says. In 2019, long before COVID, he booked a seven-day western Caribbean cruise on NCL. At the time, he met all of the requirements for taking a cruise. His passport was in order. He wasn’t more than 24 weeks pregnant. There were no health issues that would have caused NCL to deny him boarding.

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Then COVID happened and NCL canceled his cruise. He accepted NCL’s future cruise credit and rescheduled his vacation, but then NCL canceled his vacation again.

And now he finally could reschedule — except for one teensy detail.

“Now I can’t go due to not taking the vaccine,” he says.

So why is Sublaban furious? NCL told him not to worry, that he’d get a full refund because of what they termed the “situation.”

“I submitted a refund request,” he says. “But they denied it. They kept pushing me away, thinking my solution was solved. Every agent just lied.”

Sublaban is worried that his cruise credits will expire before he can use them. (Again, that’s not an issue because NCL changed its policy. But it was a valid concern.)

Can a cruise line force you to get vaccinated?

But wait, can a cruise line — or any travel business — force you to get vaccinated? Can it keep your money if you don’t comply with a new rule?

A look at NCL’s latest ticket contract suggests the answer is yes:

(b) Agreement to Abide by Current COVID-19 Policies and Procedures.

Carrier’s COVID-19 Policies and Procedures are subject to guidance and directives of established health authorities in the U.S. and other destinations where the Vessel visits, including the CDC and other international, national and local health agencies when the Vessel is within those agencies’ jurisdiction.

Guest acknowledges that these directives may change from time to time and that Carrier’s COVID-19 Policies and Procedures may therefore change. Guest expressly agrees to comply not only with the COVID-19 Policies and Procedures as they are described herein, but also as they are set forth on Carrier’s website at https://www.ncl.com/safe, at all times including pre-embarkation, while onboard, during port calls and shore excursions and/or final disembarkation. In case of any conflict between the COVID-19 Policies and Procedures described herein or on Carrier’s website, the website governs.

Guest’s agreement to abide by Carrier’s COVID-19 Policies and Procedures constitutes an integral part of this Ticket Contract.

But that wasn’t the ticket contract he agreed to in 2019 when he originally booked the cruise. In fact, there was no mention of COVID-19.

NCL’s 2019 ticket contract did, however, give it a broad license to “refuse or revoke passage” for any reason. So, in a sense, it has given one reason in its 2022 ticket contract update: failure to get vaccinated.

Also, he would have had to agree to the new policy when he booked his new cruise. So NCL has covered itself legally.

Can a cruise line keep your money if you refuse to get vaccinated?

Is NCL within its rights to keep Sublaban’s money? Again, the answer appears to be yes.

He booked a new cruise under NCL’s revised ticket contract. The standard cancellation policies apply, according to the cruise line.

NCL can require a passenger to be vaccinated against COVID, monkeypox, or any other infectious disease. If the passenger refuses or is unable to comply, NCL can keep the passenger’s money.

As I note in my ultimate cruise guide, the government allows cruise lines to set their own policies and lightly regulates refunds. NCL seems to be well within its rights — even though passengers may not like it.

What is the right thing to do?

Sublaban’s case opens a Pandora’s box for future cruises and tours. If a business can retroactively apply a requirement on its customers and refuse a refund if they don’t comply, what does that mean for you?

It isn’t a question of if, but when the next pandemic will happen. We’re bound to see more cases like this, where someone couldn’t or wouldn’t get vaccinated and then lost a vacation.

Should businesses be allowed to force their customers to comply with health restrictions? If not, should businesses be forced to refund a cruise or tour, even if the vacation is nonrefundable?

As a consumer advocate, I would answer those questions one way. A Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. shareholder would probably answer differently.

But what’s the right answer?

Are there any legal protections for passengers when the rules change?

Sublaban could have argued for a refund from his credit card company, but it would have been a long shot.

I detail the procedure for a credit card dispute in my guide to disputing credit card purchases. Sublaban would have had to persuade his bank to initiate a dispute for a purchase made in 2019, which is possible, but probably would have only happened on appeal. (I explain why it’s possible in the article.)

Sublaban might have also argued that a vaccination requirement was never specifically contained in the original cruise contract. And, since NCL now requires a vaccination, and since he’s unable to comply, it is in breach of contract. But that would have required hiring a maritime lawyer, who probably would cost more than the value of Sublaban’s cruise credits. And NCL knows that.

Bottom line: There are no real legal protections for customers who object to new health requirements for a cruise. NCL could require every passenger to wear a mask, or a clown nose, on a future cruise, and the way I read its cruise contract, it would be well within its rights.

What do I need to know about cruise vaccination requirements?

If you’re taking a cruise this fall, you might find all of these new vaccination rules a little confusing. Do you still need a COVID test? What about the kids? And, could the rules change again at the last minute?

Generally, the new rules allow unvaccinated passengers to cruise. But as of now, they will have to show a negative COVID test.

The requirements vary between cruise lines. For example, I spent the last week cruising between Kirkenes and Bergen, Norway, on the Hurtigruten. There were no testing or vaccination requirements for the vessel.

Here are a few things you should look for:

Kids under 12 often have different vaccination or testing requirements

For example, Disney Cruise Line recently dropped vaccination requirements for passengers under 12 but kept the requirements for older guests. Pay attention to the passengers’ ages.

Vaccine and testing requirements vary by length of cruise

Longer cruises can mean more rigorous testing or vaccination requirements. For Royal Caribbean, the cutoff for stricter requirements is six days.

Where you sail matters

Many cruise lines have separate testing or vaccination requirements based on where you’re traveling. That’s because some countries still have COVID testing requirements that the cruise lines must respect.

“I finally got my money back”

I didn’t ask Sublaban why he wouldn’t get vaccinated. It shouldn’t matter. Maybe he is immunocompromised and thinks he can’t handle the vaccination. Then again, maybe he’s a vaccine skeptic and refuses to get the jab.

What does matter is that NCL was threatening to keep his money if he didn’t get a vaccination. That seems unfair to this consumer advocate. If it had already promised him a refund, then it should do what it said.

I contacted NCL on his behalf. A few days later, I received an email from him:

“I checked my account and noticed this morning I finally got my money back,” he wrote. “I appreciate your help. I’m happy with the outcome.”

Me too. I’m happy that this is a theoretical discussion, now that NCL has changed its vaccination requirements. Happy, too, that NCL did what it said it would.

But I’m not happy about the lack of legal protections for cruise passengers.

When you cruise, you have almost no rights

If anything, Sublaban’s case underscores the fact that you have almost no rights when you take a cruise. Your ticket contract gives the cruise line a broad license to add and delete any new rules it wants to. You have practically no remedies.

The cruise industry doesn’t want anyone to know about your lack of rights. For example, earlier this year it managed to downplay the most significant revisions of the Passenger Vessel Act in a century. The update forced cruise lines to refund a cruise if delayed by more than three days.

I reviewed the comments on the federal rulemaking, and it’s clear that someone went to great lengths to bury this rule. Had more people known about it, then the cruise lines wouldn’t have gotten such a sweetheart deal — a refund after only a three-day delay. Imagine if your airline did that!

What kind of rights do passengers deserve? Well, that’s easy.

A refund for a health-related cancellation

If you can’t take a cruise because you have a contagious disease or you can’t meet the health requirements to board, you deserve a full and immediate refund. You can accept a credit if your cruise line offers you one, but you shouldn’t have to.

A refund after a 24-hour delay

If your cruise line delays a cruise by more than 24 hours, you should get a full and immediate refund now. Three days is far too lenient.

An immediate refund of all fees

Likewise, you should receive all fees if there’s a delay of more than 24 hours — not three days.

If you want to take a vacation where you have the legal rights of someone on land, I suggest you stay on land. Cruise lines have their own laws — and their laws favor them.

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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 weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes 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 Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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