by Chuck Colman
1. "Our Engines Break Down All the Time."
In December 2009, engine problems caused the Regent's Seven Seas Voyager to skip a scheduled port stop in Antigua, and instead head straight to San Juan for the engine to be repaired. And a propulsion issue on Carnival's 2,124-passenger Legend ship last week affected its sailing speed, causing it to skip one of its scheduled stops.
"Engine and weather-related problems are very common," says Ross Klein, editor of CruiseJunkie.com and author of Paradise Lost at Sea: Rethinking Cruise Vacations. Savvy consumers also should look for "shoulder season" departures, just before or after holidays, and off-peak rates in various regions. A record Klein maintains on his web site shows that in 2007, roughly 5% of ships that had to cancel some or all port calls did so because of engine or mechanical problems. Those problems have become less frequent, however weather-related cancellations have become more common.
As many disappointed passengers realize too late, they have little recourse. According to Ron Murphy, managing director of the Federal Maritime Commission, "Almost all tickets allow cruise lines to change itineraries at their discretion."
2. "The Weather Might Mean Missed Stops."
Itineraries aren't always adhered to, and if the ship skips a port for a weather-related reason, they don't have to offer passengers a refund -- and they rarely do, says Neil Gorfain, chief executive of the Cruise Outlet, a cruise-only travel agency. If the entire cruise is canceled because of the weather, passengers are entitled to a full refund. But if a hurricane changes course midcruise, remuneration is rare -- you might just have to spend a little more time in the casino.
Although each cruise line addresses this issue differently, generally, if a ship misses a scheduled stop because of a mechanical problem, the line will issue some kind of onboard credit or refund. They're usually pretty generous and "you don't have to fight with them like you would with an airline," says Gorfain.
3. "This Ship Is a Health Hazard -- It's Just Crawling With Viruses."
Cruise ships are an ideal breeding ground for germs: thousands of people in close proximity, eating food made in the same kitchen, inhabiting enclosed spaces that just a few days before housed someone else. In December 2002, the norovirus made waves in the media after a series of outbreaks on Holland America, Disney and Carnival lines, in which hundreds of passengers were infected. The problem has not disappeared. Fifteen cruise ship outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness (as defined by 3% or more of passengers having been diagnosed) were recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2009, down from 23 in 2007.
The CDC posts outbreaks on its web site. But this information accounts for only a portion of outbreaks worldwide because the CDC monitors only ships that include a U.S. port in their itinerary. Short of remaining ashore, the best way to stay healthy is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, the CDC says.
4. "Sure, We Can Take Care of Your Plane Reservations, but You'd Do a Whole Lot Better on Your Own."
Many cruise lines offer to book customers' airfare, with the guarantee that -- should there be a flight delay -- they'll hold the ship or fly them to the next port. But customers pay a premium for this security. Mike Cordelli, a manager of information systems in New York City, has been on a dozen cruises and says he has had the cruise line book his plane tickets about half the time, but only after checking other available fares. "You often don't get to choose a flight, you may end up with some fairly lousy connections, stuff like that," Cordelli says. On several occasions he has saved enough money by booking on his own to arrive in a port city a day early and spend the night in a hotel.
Booking airfare independently will be cheaper most of the time, says Gorfain. But when the cruise lines book it, they will oversee the flight. That means if there are weather delays and you miss the ship, the cruise, in tandem with the airline, will arrange to get passengers to the next port of call, he says.
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