The Hidden Pitfalls Of The Fine Print On Your Cruise Ship Ticket

Information for Passengers

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.

 In the United States, most cruise ship companies are headquartered in Miami and will specify that a consumer can only sue in MiamiCan 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.

Cruise Ship Safety: The Legacy of the Costa Concordia Disaster

Maritime Articles

Cruise ship safety: cruise ship on the rocks It is generally understood that the captain is the ultimate authority of any vessel, and is expected by the general public to put the well-being of his or her passengers first by being the last to leave a sinking ship. What made the Costa Concordia disaster so infamous was the fact that the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, chose to abandon ship and leave his passengers to their own devices.

Maritime Law and inadequate cruise ship crew behavior

But despite tradition and common practice, international maritime law has no fixed penalty for the cowardly and selfish act of abandoning ship. However, since the vessel was flying the Italian flag and sailing in Italian waters with an Italian captain, the jurisdiction lies under Italian maritime law—which means Captain Schettino can be prosecuted by the Italian government and sent to prison. Abandoning ship is still considered a maritime crime in Greece, Spain, and Italy, in contrast to other nations that have removed it from their books.

Where are maritime crimes prosecuted?

When incidents occur in international waters, obtaining complete investigations and prosecuting offenders can be difficult, since the efficacy of enforcement depends on the flag state of the ship. Many U.S. Corporation owned cruise ships sail under Panama or the Bahamas, so any incident that involves these ships would be investigated not by the U.S., but by Panama or the Bahamas. In addition, the vessel may be subject to the laws of any country where it docks.

Unfortunately, this left little recourse to American passengers who have gone missing or were victims of crimes at sea. As a result, many victims were forced to hire specialty maritime lawyers in Miami, Florida and file civil suits against cruise lines, which left little impact on international maritime law and enforcement. Finally in 2010, the International Cruise Victims Association lobbied Congress, resulting in the ratification of a new law compelling U.S. based cruise lines to report maritime crimes to the FBI.

Another concern highlighted by the Concordia disaster is the way modern cruise ships are built. Today, all active vessels are built according to the regulations specified by the Solas (Safety of Life at Sea) conventions, which are created and enforced by sovereign member states of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). All ships sailing through ports belonging to member states are subject to regular surveys and inspections, which should ensure widespread international safety compliance. 

Vessel size may compromise cruise ship safety

As they say, hindsight is always 20/20. There are concerns that the large size of the Concordia may have compromised cruise ship safety by making evacuation more prolonged and difficult. However, there were many factors that contributed to the Concordia disaster, such as: Captain Schettino’s questionable decision to sail without first conducting a safety drill; his alleged non-compliance of the established route; his neglect in issuing a mayday signal soon after the accident; his choice to abandon ship without warning the passengers; and his refusal to return to the ship to assist with rescue efforts.

According to Nautilus, the maritime professionals’ union, there needs to be a re-evaluation of current cruise ship safety guidelines. With last year’s sinking of the Concordia still fresh in people’s minds, many would-be cruise ship passengers are finding themselves in agreement with that assessment.

In response, IMO Secretary General Koji Sekimizu pledged to review the current regulations on large passenger ships: "We should seriously consider the lessons to be learnt and, if necessary, re-examine the regulations on the safety of large passenger ships in the light of the findings of the casualty investigation. In the centenary year of the Titanic, we have once again been reminded of the risks involved in maritime activities.”

According to the IMO’s interpretation of maritime law, all cruise ships must carry enough lifeboats for all passengers on board. But enough lifeboats aren’t much help if they are inaccessible during an emergency, as the doomed Concordia passengers found. Standard cruise ship safety regulations aside, it could be said that the biggest danger to a passenger’s well-being are ship and crew personnel that don’t care enough to follow established rules. Captain Schettino was found to be non-compliant of many standard safety procedures, which helped seal the fates of the unlucky passengers of his ship.

Precautions to take before embarking on an international cruise

Fortunately, maritime disasters like the Concordia are extremely rare. While passengers have no control over the skill and conscientiousness of their captain, there are still some measures they can take to ensure their safety. If you are an American citizen who wants to travel internationally, you can register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) or go through the U.S. Embassy, which will make it easier for the State Department to help you during times of emergency.

Before travelling out of the country, it is a good idea to make a copy of your passport and store it electronically on a cloud drive, so you can access it anywhere with an internet connection. Always bring a bag with essentials, such as your prescription medication and toiletries. And once you board the ship, make sure to locate your life vest and attend the muster drill.

For everything that went wrong with the Concordia evacuation, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the ship’s passengers were able to leave the ship safe and sound. Overall, cruise ships are still one of the safest vacation options travelers can choose—and as long as the cruise industry stays vigilant, there’s no reason for another Concordia type accident to happen again any time soon.