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Ask the Editor: Cruise Line Policies

Can U.K. passengers book a cruise with travel agencies based elsewhere, such as the U.S.?

Who pays when a cruise ship has to bypass a planned port stop?

What recourse do I have if a hurricane warning is issued during my cruise?

Are kids allowed to come to dinner on cruise line formal nights?

Can U.K. passengers book a cruise with travel agencies based elsewhere, such as the U.S.?

This is a complicated question. The answer is yes. And it's also no. It just depends.

More specifically, there are no U.K. laws preventing you from booking your cruise through a travel agency in another country. But that's not necessarily the case in the U.S. According to Sandy Cleary, president of U.S.-based CruCon, "technically, non-U.S. passengers cannot book if they don't have an in-country location. We are working with the cruise lines currently on trying to change that."

On the other hand, Bill Kraus, who runs Cruise Club of America told us he regularly makes bookings for U.K. and other European passengers. "For the most part the answer is yes, we will book non-U.S customers, but only if they are booking a cruise-only and not the airfare."

It does help to have a U.S. address to call upon -- a friend or family member, perhaps. But remember, when you use your credit card to pay for your cruise, you'll need to be honest about the billing address or it may not go through.

Finally, a cautionary note from the U.K.'s Association of Cruise Experts, which works closely with the country's travel agencies and, admittedly, would prefer that Brit cruisers buy through Brit travel agencies). "There are no laws preventing UK travellers from booking cruises through travel agencies in the U.S.," says Andy Harmer, development director.

"However, ACE strongly urges customers not to do this, because if they book through a U.S. travel agency, they are not protected by U.K. or EU consumer protection for package holidays (European travel directive). If the travel agency were to go in to administration or a cruise was cancelled but the customer had difficulty getting their money back from the travel agency, the customer would have to go through the U.S courts in order to get their money back."

I read about a mutiny onboard a Carnival ship because the vessel skipped a port. Who pays when a cruise ship has to bypass a planned port stop?

This is a question with both a black and white answer -- and one that comes in a whole lot of shades of grey. Technically, when a ship misses a planned port of call due to mechanical difficulty, i.e. when the line is responsibility for the problem, it pays. What it has to pay is the port tax that was included in your cruise fare and typically cruise lines pony up another $50 - $100 per person. It's usually put on your onboard account rather than paid out in cash.

For any other reason -- weather, emergency illness requiring detour or evacuation, or any other factor beyond the cruise line's control -- it doesn't have to pay a cent. The disclaimer is part of the legalese that comes with your cruise ticket.

Carnival's situation -- the mutiny occurred on Carnival Conquest after the emergency medical evacuation of a crew member caused such a delay that the vessel had to skip a visit to Jamaica -- is unusual because the line actually did provide cruise travelers with a $25 onboard credit. Seems pretty skimpy but, compared with the nothing it was required to pay, it's at least something. In fact, Carnival actually has a written policy about missed port calls: "If safety, scheduling or other concerns prevent the ship from calling on an alternative port, Carnival shall promptly provide written notice of the elimination of the scheduled port to the passengers as well as announcing the change in the Carnival Capers and via the public address system. The written notice shall also offer a shipboard credit of $20.00 (U.S.D.) per person to be reflected on the sail and sign account."

It's important to remember that, while scheduled ports of call are certainly adhered to in most cases, you should be careful about scheduling once-in-a-lifetime events (such as weddings in port). If the ship doesn't make it -- you miss out on your special day (and probably won't get a refund of any deposits you made). Cruise lines won't reimburse you for that, either.

With hurricane season in full swing, what recourse do I have if a hurricane warning is issued for my itinerary on the week I'm cruising? (Remember: A "warning" notes where the storm is headed; this is more definitive than a hurricane "watch," which means conditions could be ripe.)

The most likely effects of a hurricane warning are a change of homeport, change of itinerary (substituting Eastern for Western Caribbean, for example) and complete cancellation. There are two questions here: What can you expect from your cruise line, and what will your travel insurance carrier do?

With regard to the cruise line, you have to separate the question into two discrete issues: What the cruise line will likely do, and what they are obligated to do. As for the latter, if you read your contract for passage (usually located in the last pages of your cruise documents) you may be shocked to learn how few obligations there are when it comes to weather or other factors out of the cruise line's control. However, when it comes to the former, most cruise lines will bend over backward to get you aboard with a minimum of delay, hassle or cost. After all, they would much rather have you onboard cursing the licentious slot machines than standing on the shore shaking your fist at the silhouette of a ship steaming toward the horizon.

How much they are willing to do and how much of the tab they'll pick up depends on a number of factors. For example, though weather-related travel delays are usually outside their area of obligation, unofficially, cruise lines are often more likely to go the extra mile for air/sea passengers than for those who booked their air independently.

Regardless, there are few circumstances where the cruise line will give you a refund because of itinerary changes or missed ports if the cause is weather-related.

Of course, that's what travel insurance is for. So, what will your insurance carrier do if a hurricane warning is issued for your destination? Access America will only compensate you if the destination is uninhabitable or unreachable. CSA, a little more liberal, will cover you if your destination is unreachable or there is a mandatory evacuation order. Travel Guard somewhat nebulously states that they will not cover you for hurricane warnings "unless [a] hurricane impacts travel or your destination." (Note: All these provisions were accurate at the time of this posting, but are subject to change.)

However, there are some aspects that no amount of compensation or accommodation can fix. Never, ever plan on cruising to a destination in the hurricane zone for a major event -- wedding, family reunion, etc. -- expecting the guests to arrive on their own and rendezvous with you there. Hardly a year goes by we don't hear from a Cruise Critic reader who arranged to cruise to Bermuda to be married, with all the family and guests booked to fly down there for the ceremony, only to find that a hurricane has forced the cruise to change the itinerary to Canada/New England!

Are kids allowed to come to dinner on cruise line formal nights?

Absolutely! All passengers are welcomed in ship's main dining rooms on all nights of the cruise and frankly, formal nights (typically there are two on a seven-night trip) can be quite magical. Waiters often wear fancier-than-usual gear, the menu's typically more elaborate (lobster is often the star of the night) and passengers are decked out in elegant duds (as per the cruise line's dress code).

The trick is that kids have to dress up too (though mini-tuxes and tyke-sized cocktail gowns are not necessary).

If the concept of formal nights is the antithesis of your dream vacation, you have options. One is to dine at the ship's buffet venue. Or opt for an entirely different type of cruise via lines like Island, Norwegian Cruise Line and Ocean Village where casual ambience in every sense of the term is the prevailing mood.

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