All the arrangements for Daniella Carlesimo's wedding at sea -- from printed invitations to the travel plans of guests -- were in place. Until Princess Cruises notified her that Caribbean Princess had been chartered and she'd have to make new arrangements. The invitations had to be reprinted, travel plans shuffled and the wedding bands -- already been engraved with the date of the wedding -- redone.
Carlesimo, not to mention her fellow passengers on Caribbean Princess, had been bumped.
While it's little consolation to those impacted, being bumped from a cruise is, fortunately, a somewhat rare occurrence, typically limited to four main scenarios: a charter, redeployment, an accident necessitating shipyard repairs or an overbooked cruise. And virtually every cruise line has the right to bump anyone involuntarily for any reason.
It's written in the passage contract all cruisers agree to when they book a cruise; for example, Norwegian Cruise Lines' contract says, "In the event of strikes, lockouts, stoppages of labor, riots, weather conditions, mechanical difficulties or any other reason whatsoever [italics added], NCL has the right to cancel, advance, postpone or substitute any scheduled sailing or itinerary without prior notice."
That standard cruise contract even gives the line the right to bump passengers without any compensation beyond refunding the cruise fare; however, lines will often offer the option to rebook comparable cruises, (possibly) take care of flight change fees and throw in some onboard credit as a "gesture of good will." Still, passengers who are bumped might be stuck with taking care of travel expenses for things like transportation and hotel stays, which is why Cruise Critic has long advocated purchasing a third-party travel insurance policy (see tips below).
In the end, chances are slim that you'll ever be bumped from a cruise, but it's important to know that it can happen, and when it does, it's up to the individual passenger to work with the line to make alternative arrangements. Here are the four main reasons you could be bumped:
The Ship Has Been Chartered
The Situation: If Nickelodeon wants to slime a few thousand people at sea, the company will charter a ship. Sometimes, a cruise line will give Nick a ship and sail date that has already-booked passengers. That's exactly what happened when Nickelodeon chartered Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas in 2008. Passengers already booked on that sailing had to find another date to cruise. Same went for passengers booked on an October 2013 Asia cruise aboard Silver Shadow. The line resold a 10-night cruise from Shanghai to Tokyo to a corporate client, effectively pulling the hull out from under already booked passengers.
Cruise lines usually gives a certain amount of lead-time -- often a year or more -- but when a charter offer materializes, some will jump at the massive (up-front) charter fee, especially if a large percentage of the space is still unsold.
On rare occasions, the charters can be last-second, as when, in 2006 during Hurricane Katrina, Carnival chartered three vessels to the Military Sealift Command on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (Read more about chartering here.)
Compensation for Being Bumped: Standard industry practice calls for an offer of a full refund, as well as some form of onboard credit for those who rebook one of the options offered by the line. Some lines will offer discounts, say 10 percent, on a rebooked cruise.(Rebooking options might include the same ship on a different date or a similar itinerary on a different ship.) For example, Carlesimo, whose aforementioned wedding cruise was cancelled when the ship was chartered by an international political convention, was offered $250 in onboard credit for the cabin if she rebooked another Caribbean Princess cruise. Passengers affected by the Katrina relief efforts were given $100 per person if they rebooked on another Carnival cruise.
The Ship Has Been "Redeployed" to a New Destination or Cruise Line
The Situation, #1: Say Australia suddenly looks like the next hot cruise market. A line may decide to take advantage of the situation and shift its hardware from Baltimore to Sydney, as Celebrity Cruises did in 2011 with Celebrity Century. The redeployment forced the line to cancel a number of the ship's Caribbean cruises out of Baltimore. Although Celebrity gave plenty of lead-time in this case -- well over a year -- a number of already-booked passengers were impacted.
The Situation, #2: When Celebrity announced it was sending Celebrity Mercury to German line Tui Cruises beginning in early 2011, it meant that the ship's 2011 season of cruises from Charleston had to be eliminated. Again, there were passengers booked on a number of Mercury's cruises out of Charleston who were forced to shift plans.
Compensation for Being Bumped: In both examples, passengers were presented with the standard option: either get a refund, or rebook and get a little onboard credit ($200 per cabin or $400 per suite for Century; $75 to $200, depending on cabin category, for Mercury). In the case of Celebrity Century, the ship's redeployment meant that, beginning in fall 2011, there are no longer any Celebrity cruises out of Baltimore. Passengers were given the option of receiving full refunds or rebooking a number of options offered by the line (Caribbean, Hawaii, Panama Canal).
The Ship Is Heading Into Dry Dock
The Situation, #1: Cruise vessels are marvels of modern engineering, but they're not immune to breakdowns. If the damage is significant enough to warrant a trip to the repair yard, cruises may have to be canceled. Queen Victoria, for instance, was suffering from propeller issues so problematic that the line had to cancel a sixteen-night cruise.
The Situation, #2: Every few years, cruise ships head into dry dock to have the barnacles scraped off their hulls (in other words, for regularly scheduled maintenance). Typically lines try to limit or eliminate the impact to booked passengers by scheduling these routine dry docks far in advance before itineraries are published, but bumping does occasionally occur. For example, in July 2010, Carnival canceled a pair of Carnival Pride sailings in November -- just four months prior to sail date -- to send the ship into dry dock. Pride was originally scheduled to head to the repair yard for routine maintenance in January 2011, but Carnival opted to move the dates up and complete the work earlier.
Compensation for Being Bumped: As in the other bumping examples, passengers could get a full refund or the option to rebook a comparable cruise. As Carnival's cancellations were made only four months prior to sail date, the line also opted to cover flight change fees up to $200 per passenger. The Cunard-ers were able to cancel or rebook; whichever they chose, they were also given a 15 percent future cruise credit.
Cruise Ship Overbooking
The Situation, #1: It may be a little-known fact, but like airlines, cruise lines overbook their ships. The thinking is the same: cruise lines want to sail full, but know some passengers will always cancel at the last minute. As a result, they've developed sophisticated means of determining how many passengers are likely to cancel cruises before making final payment -- so they have a very good idea of how much inventory they can oversell without making bumping a likelihood. Nonetheless, no system is foolproof, and overbooking does occur.
The Situation, #2: In a related case, if a line finds that it needs more space in certain cabin categories, you may be "bumped" from your stateroom to another. In Carnival's passenger contract, the line states that it "reserves the right to move guests to a comparable stateroom for any reason." If two passengers are booked in a quad-occupancy cabin, for instance, and the line needs more quads, the pair may be asked to switch cabins.
Compensation for Being Bumped: If a line finds that it has too many bookings, it'll begin offering incentives for passengers to rebook on another cruise or in another cabin category -- usually in the form of a discounted fare, free upgrade, onboard credit or money toward a future cruise. If your schedule is flexible, being voluntarily bumped can often be a good deal. One Cruise Critic member was contacted by Oceania Cruises, which had overbooked a 24-night Bangkok-to-Beijing itinerary. The member ended up on a 35-day Hong Kong-to-Athens itinerary -- at the same price. In another case, Holland America overbooked a 33-day Hawaii and South Pacific cruise on Rotterdam. A couple of weeks before the sail date, HAL offered a 54-night cruise on Prinsendam, roundtrip from >Fort Lauderdale, departing at a comparable date -- for the same price -- to passengers willing to "bump" themselves. The line also threw in $1,500 in onboard credit.
When the Moon Turns Blue: Cruise Line Error
The Situation: Bill Kaiser booked a dream cabin for his first-ever Alaska cruise -- almost a year in advance. Then Royal Caribbean let someone else move in instead. Here's what happened: In April 2011, Kaiser booked a coveted corner aft junior suite on Rhapsody of the Seas' May 18, 2012, Alaska cruise. Seasoned cruisers know that these accommodations vanish quickly thanks to their huge wraparound balconies with unobstructed views of the trailing wake and any starboard-side scenery. Perfect for Alaska. What's more, the cabin cost the same as other "standard" Junior Suites in the category, which feature smaller, uni-directional balconies. In March 2012, Rhapsody was refurbished. The ship gained 21 cabins on Decks 7 and 8, prompting the line to renumber those decks' accommodations. Kaiser's cabin had shifted. The problem was, no one told him, and Royal released his original digs to the public. His suite was promptly rebooked. Once Kaiser found out, Royal refused to return his room. No doubt about it: He got hosed. Read the full story here.
Compensation for Being Bumped: Kaiser was given a take-it-or-leave it offer of $200 onboard credit or the chance to cancel the cruise.
So, What Do I Do if I Get Bumped?
In the unlikely event that you do get bumped, here are a few tips for making the best of the situation:
Don't Panic. When you get that fateful call or e-mail, the best advice we can give is not to get too upset. Take a deep breath, and remember that you can still salvage your vacation.
Know Your Options. In most cases, you'll have to choose from the basic options of accepting a refund for the now-canceled cruise or rebooking a comparable sailing, whether that means on the same ship but a different date or a different ship on a similar itinerary. (Other options may apply.) The line will often include onboard credit for those who rebook and, possibly, airline change fees.
Negotiate Pleasantly and Patiently. While the line will send passengers or their travel agents an e-mail outlining the options, what you ultimately get may depend on your ability to negotiate. If not explicitly offered, ask about reimbursement for nonrefundable fees or cancellation penalties you may incur for things like already-booked hotel stays, car rentals or airfare. If you don't like the options for what the line deems a "comparable" cruise, come prepared with your own alternatives. "If there's something that's truly reasonable, it certainly never hurts to ask," says one former head of corporate communications for a luxury line. "I think the key is to ask ... but also be nice," he adds. "That person that you're dealing with is probably under a lot of stress as the result of high call volume. They might well feel like they just messed up your vacation, so it's never ever a happy occasion."
And Finally ... Learn to Protect Yourself
Want to minimize the hassle of being bumped, either by being prepared in advance or by reducing your chances of getting bumped in the first place? Use the following tips to set yourself up for success:
Buy Travel Insurance. As previously mentioned, Cruise Critic has long suggested purchasing a third-party insurance policy. Make sure it covers not only the cost of the cruise itself but also airfare and any other major expenses -- like hotel and transportation costs -- you may have. For instance, Travel Guard's "Cancel for Any Reason" policy applies to any trip that's canceled up to 48 hours prior to departure. Travel Guard's Dan McGinnity tells Cruise Critic that these policies will cover 50 to 75 percent of nonrefundable expenses. But, as all policies are different, be sure to read the fine print to make sure the policy you purchase covers all relevant expenses if your sailing gets canceled.
Play the Odds (of an Overbooked Cruise Ship). While it's impossible to foresee exactly when a ship will head into an unexpected dry dock or get chartered, overbooking is ever-so-slightly more predictable. One situation where it might be more common is during peak season -- say, summer in the Mediterranean -- when the ships are sailing at their highest occupancies. (Curious about when peak season is for various cruise regions? Check out our feature on the Best Time to Cruise.
Another situation where cruise lines may overbook at a higher-than-average rate is for long voyages to far-flung destinations like Asia, Australia & New Zealand, and Africa. Our insider explains: "If you have someone who cancels one of these longer, more exotic, more expensive cruises just before the final payment date, it's much harder to rebook the space at only 90 or 120 days before the sail date." That's because most people plan these types of cruises much farther in advance; it's hard to find affordable flights and plan to be away for a month at the last minute. Therefore, the cruise lines tend to overbook these sailings to ensure the ships can sail full, even if a few travelers cancel at the last minute. But, if no one backs out, the cruise line is left with an oversell situation. "The longer, more exotic and more expensive the cruise, the greater the bar has to be raised to entice people into a buy-out." Just to reiterate, these and other overbooking "bumps" (buy-outs) are always voluntary.
Have you ever been bumped? Share your story in the comments below.