5 On Your Side

Cruise ship passengers have few rights

Posted April 15, 2010 1:46 p.m. EDT
Updated April 16, 2010 11:17 a.m. EDT

A sea turtle in Grand Cayman, horseback riding on the beach, a Jamaican sunset – those are vacation moments Donna Pair would have liked to have photographed while on a Carnival cruise in January.

Although Grand Cayman and Jamaica were on the itinerary for the five-day trip aboard the cruise ship Destiny, Pair never got to see those sights.

"It's just nothing spectacular about what we did take pictures of," she said.

Pair and her husband took the trip with four other couples. Their problems began in Maimi, she said, when they left four hours later than scheduled. Later that night, they were told that the ship was running slower than normal because of a propulsion issue.

"They canceled Jamaica, told us they were going to take us to Grand Cayman, (but then) submitted another letter under our door: 'Sorry, couldn't fix the propulsionary system, so we'll not be going to the Grand Caymans,'" Pair recalled.

Instead of swinging around the western Caribbean, Destiny spent only a day at Nassau, Bahamas, which is less than 200 miles from Miami. The other four days, Pair and her fellow travelers were on the ship.

"If I'm going to go on a cruise, I want to go somewhere," Pair said.

As reimbursement, Carnival gave each passenger a $75 credit to use on board. Pair says that made her feel "disgusted," especially since she has learned that it wasn't the first time Destiny had propulsion problems.

WRAL's 5 on Your Side found a propulsion problem dating to 2000. Guest complaints started picking up last September and continued even after Pair's cruise. In February, Carnival canceled two weeks of cruises to repair the problem.

Because of the history of issues, Pair believes guests deserve a partial refund.

"I think at least 50 percent, because we didn't make our ports," she said. "The port they took us to was very disappointing."

Multiple calls and a meeting with Carnival representative, though, didn't help.

Carnival spokeswoman Joyce Oliva apologized in an e-mail to WRAL and called the ship's mechanical problems "infrequent events." She did not answer questions or respond to calls.

Oliva wrote that the guests' "shipboard experience" was normal. She refused to refund any of the $1,400 Pair had paid.

So what rights do customers have when their cruise doesn't go as planned? Not many, 5 on Your Side found.

Based on the fine print on tickets, cruise ship passengers don't have any right to compensation if the ship's itinerary is changed.

Passengers can file a complaint with the Federal Maritime Commission, but that agency can only pass along the complaint to the cruise line. The agency cannot make a cruise line do anything.

The Federal Trade Commission also accepts complaints about cruise lines. The agency, however, does not get involved in resolving individual complaints. The FTC examines the complaints for patterns that could trigger an investigation.

Pair said she doesn't plan to take another cruise on Carnival.

"Vacations are supposed to be fun. They're not supposed to be stressful," she said. "We spent a lot of money, and it's like, who cares?"