We get it: With Hurricane Irene fast approaching San Juan on Sunday, port officials weren’t taking any chances. At midday, they ordered Royal Caribbean and Carnival ships to depart several hours early — even though not all their passengers had arrived.
Carnival Cruise Lines, whose Victory steamed for Barbados, had to leave 300 guests behind — but it also left in its wake an emergency support team. It attempted to reach out to every one of its passengers by phone, e-mail, travel agent, or emergency contact person, info that lines ask passengers for during the booking process. It arranged for hotel stays -– not an easy thing to do as a hurricane is bearing down upon a Caribbean isle -– and booked flights to Barbados for all of those who wished to meet the ship mid-cruise. Not only that, it paid the bill (about half the passengers took them up on the deal; the others accepted refunds in the form of future cruise credit).
And get this: Aside from a requirement to take care of passengers who bought air tickets through Carnival, the line technically didn’t have to do any of this. If passengers’ cruises are impacted by a weather-related event, they’re the ones who are expected to ante up the cash they need to catch up to their ships. They have no rights, afterward, to extract any compensation as a result of the inconvenience.
That, apparently, was what Royal Caribbean was counting on. Its performance has been one of the worst hurricane-related crisis response efforts I’ve seen in 14 years of covering the cruise industry. For one, Royal Caribbean made no attempt to contact passengers still en route. In a statement released only after CBS-TV’s Miami affiliate posted a story featuring an interview with a Serenade passenger who was left at the pier, the cruise line wanly excused itself by saying, “there was no way to notify our guests of this change in departure time.”
In most cases, the 145 who missed the ship found out when they arrived at the now-empty port. With a hurricane approaching, Royal Caribbean did make hotel and flight arrangements for the 15 folks who’d bought its air/sea package. The rest, the statement says, “were advised of hotel availability in San Juan but the expense was their responsibility since it was a weather-related event.”
This takes my breath away. And it’s not about the fact that it didn’t offer to pay for hotels and flights (note to all cruise travelers: Buy insurance that covers weather!). It’s about dropping the ball in a risky situation. Clearly, I’m not the only one who is shocked at Royal Caribbean’s lack of responsibility to its customers. On Cruise Critic’s forums, its blog, and its Facebook page, travelers are incredulous.
This post from Louis Kadetsky on Facebook hits the proverbial nail on the head: “In this day of social media, Instant Messaging, television and radio (editor’s note: Not to mention smart phones), I find it unsettling that these companies can build and operate large and sophisticated ships but couldn’t have gotten the word out to their passengers.”
Especially since Carnival, which was in the same boat, managed to find a way.
Kadetsky continues, “Then, after failing to have a proactive strategy in place, and a program for that contingency, to cause further harm to their customers by leaving them in the lurch.”
On Cruise Critic’s Royal Caribbean forum, member Busman weighs in with a good-sense observation. “They could have sent an email out to everyone registered for this cruise, and/or sent a text message. Some of the people wouldn’t have gotten the message in time but some would have. At the least, it would have been a good-faith effort.”
I’d like to think, as a glass-half-full kind of gal, that there’s a compelling rationale for the way Royal Caribbean handled, or rather abandoned, its customers in San Juan. In an effort to give the line the benefit of the doubt, I reached out to a spokesperson Thursday for an explanation. She hasn’t returned the call.
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