Though cruise vacations are usually a safe and popular choice for travelers, what is less known is how severely restricted their rights are when something bad happens. In the process of buying a cruise ship ticket, the consumer automatically agrees to a boilerplate contract that limits what can be done to seek redress. And to make matters worse, there’s really no shopping around, all cruise companies use the same type of contract with the same restrictions. After all, no cruise ship company attracts their customers by advertising how much more lenient and generous their boilerplate contracts are compared to the competition. If anything, cruises can get away with this because the vast majority of travelers are unaware of what they are signing, and may be operating under a false sense of security. Even now, the public is unaware of how little protection exists for cruise ship passengers under maritime law.
Can anything be done? Before that question is answered, it is a good idea to take stock of what the fine print specifies. According to maritime lawyer James M. Walker, the choice-of-forum clause is something every potential cruise passenger should be aware of because “you have to file suit in the location specified on the contract on your cruise ship ticket.” In the United States, most cruise ship companies are headquartered in Miami and will specify that a consumer can only sue in Miami, which can be a huge obstacle for passengers who do not live in Florida. Given that cruise ship vacationers often fly to the ports of departure to board their ship, this clause is especially effective in discouraging lawsuits because of the added cost, time, and travel just to file a case.
But even without the choice-of-forum clause, just buying the cruise ship tickets means that you have already agreed to a list of restrictive terms and conditions that prevent legal remuneration. Added Mr. Walker, “So many people call us and tell us they were treated badly on a cruise and 90 percent of the time we have to tell them that because of the terms and conditions of the contract, they don’t have a case.”
One way to deal with legally bulletproof cruise ship contracts is to buy comprehensive travelers insurance that includes coverage for lost luggage as well as emergency medical care. This can be a pricy alternative, but for those who can afford it and want to reduce risk in their cruise ship experience, it can be an option.
However, the legal invincibility of the cruise ship industry may be waning. In the wake of the highly publicized Concordia disaster and the negative publicity stirred up by the breakdown of the Carnival Triumph, cruise companies have finally responded to public outcry by approving a Passengers Bill of Rights. Fortunately, the newly approved guidelines are more than just public relations window dressing, because it is legally enforceable if the cruise company violates it. Among the guaranteed rights are: access to certified medical emergency attention, emergency backup power should the ship’s generator fail, complimentary overnight accommodations if the passenger is forced to stay overnight at an unscheduled port, the right to leave a docked ship if necessities cannot be accessed on board, and much more.
Though this “Passenger Bill of Rights” is not codified under modern maritime law, it is still enforceable because it is now standard for cruise ship contracts when a traveler buys a ticket. The path to true accountability is a long and winding road. But with the weight of public opinion affecting the bottom line, cruise companies will continue to do what is necessary to keep their customers, even if it means giving up their legal invulnerability.