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Charter Cruises: Everything You Need to Know

If charter cruises are on your radar, you probably fall into one of two categories. One: You've sailed on one with a corporation (and if so, we want to work at your company!) or with a special interest group (bingo tournament cruise, anyone?) -- either as a participant, or perhaps as an independent traveler who unintentionally ended up sailing alongside such a gathering when a large group booked onto your cruise. Or, two: You've been bumped from your already-booked vacation because the cruise line chartered the ship out from under your feet.

So, what exactly is a charter cruise and just how does chartering a ship work -- for those of us either simply curious about the process or actually possessing the wherewithal to plan one? And what are the real chances that your "regular" cruise could be interrupted or canceled because of a charter? Read on for the ins and outs of charter cruises.

Updated August 21, 2018

What Is a Charter Cruise?

The world of cruise ship charters breaks down into two main types:

Full-ship charter: A full charter is when an entity, usually a corporation or major special interest group, approaches a cruise line and says, "We want to take over X ship on Y sailing date." An example of a full-ship charter is one of the annual Atlantis LGBT cruises -- for instance, they chartered Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas as the largest-ever all-gay cruise in early 2018. Another organization known for full-ship charter cruises is Sixthman, which organizes music festivals at sea. In the case of very small ships, such as the yacht Crystal Esprit, one family or group of friends could conceivably charter out the entire ship.

Group space, or partial ship charter: This is technically not "chartering" in the true sense of the word, but rather blocking off a number of cabins for a large group on a sailing that is otherwise open to the public. Some lines put forth different channels for booking either corporate, special interest or large family/friend groups, though common incentives typically include reduced cabin rates and assistance with planning private events onboard. Such groups do have to meet a minimum: Carnival requires a minimum booking of 16 passengers, for example. Many smaller, or more niche, theme cruises are partial charters, with participants sharing the ship with regular passengers.

How Likely Are You to Get Bumped?

Party on the Lido Deck on Holy Ship

For independent cruisers, one concern related to chartered cruises is whether you could potentially be bumped from your already-booked sailing in the case of a full-ship charter. While the chances for getting bumped are slim, it does happen.

While most companies that charter ships plan their cruises as far in advance as possible (usually at least a year out), it's not entirely uncommon for others to negotiate with the cruise lines to take over a ship after it's already been opened for sale to the public. When a potential charterer approaches a cruise line to inquire about a sailing that's already taken bookings, one of the things a cruise line will evaluate is how much business is on the books and how full the ship is.

"Carnival monitors sailings closely to minimize any impact to currently booked guests before we would allow a sailing to be chartered. Many of our charter programs are sold well in advance in order to avoid this scenario, typically one year in advance," Carnival Senior Vice President Sales & Trade Marketing Adolfo Perez explained. Royal Caribbean, meanwhile, informed us that they will not consider a full-ship charter if the sailing is already more than 25 percent booked.

The bottom line? Though it is rare, virtually every cruise line has the right to bump anyone involuntarily -- for any reason. Generally, though, cruise lines will only sign off on a charter if it affects a small percentage of already booked passengers. And yes, while that may be little comfort to each individual who was looking forward to a cruise vacation and suddenly has to scramble to rebook or rearrange time off from school or work, you can generally expect a full refund, or an offer of a comparable cruise option offered by the line at the same rate (and sometimes at a discounted rate), and usually with added onboard incentives like upgrades or onboard credit.

Just be sure to read the fine print of your cruise contract so you know your rights and what to expect, and consider safeguards like purchasing a third-party travel insurance policy, especially since lines won't usually offer reimbursement for other related prepaid travel arrangements -- like hotel bookings and airfare -- that were not purchased through the cruise line.

Will a Partial Charter Change the Onboard Atmosphere?

If you're a willing participant, ship charters can offer a different and exciting way to cruise. Your vacation is organized around a particular theme or interest -- like music events, hobbies or celebrities -- that invites group participation.

However, if you end up sailing independently on a voyage that's only been partially chartered by a large group, like a corporation or a special interest group, you may take notice of a change in the onboard atmosphere. Occasional closures of public spaces where group events are being held are the most obvious offenders, while some cruisers have reported feeling that larger groups tend to disrupt the overall social dynamic aboard the sailing, by either sticking to themselves for socializing or congregating together in more boisterous groups. Plus, if the group is politically charged or part of a lifestyle that doesn't necessarily gel well with you, the presence of group members in large numbers could potentially irk you.

Unfortunately, lines don't typically reveal who's chartered all or part of a ship, which is particularly interesting when regular cruisers will be onboard with a huge group. Think about it: If a cruise line releases information that 300 Hells Angels will be cruising on your ship, might you be tempted to cancel? You may want to do some independent research before booking to avoid a potential conflict; hosting agencies or organizations typically advertise their themed sailings online, and Cruise Critic members often post on the message boards when they learn about one.

Should you learn about a group's presence on your already booked cruise, and you don't want to sail with them, keep in mind that cruise lines are under no obligation to provide refunds outside of their normal cancellation policies. Cruise Critic readers, however, have reported instances of lines being willing to accommodate them on different ships or sailing dates at the same rate when they've called to complain, so it's certainly worth an attempt to negotiate if you feel strongly about it.

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How to Book a Charter Cruise

If you're looking to book a group event at sea, your considerations include either a full-ship charter or group space (aka, a partial-ship charter). For full-ship charters, the big upside is exclusivity: When you take over a ship, that whole ship is then all about your organization or your event.

The cons? You'll need to match the number of cruisers expected to sail to the ship's capacity in order to avoid any guest shortfall fees. That makes securing a full-ship charter a huge commitment, especially given that it's hardly ever cancellable -- and that full payment, or an “irrevocable letter of credit," is often required when signing the contract.

How much does it cost to charter a cruise ship? As a point of reference, the lowest cost for an off-peak three-night cruise on a Royal Caribbean Vision-class ship would be upward of $700,000 (funds are then raised through the selling of the cabins), while groups on other longer sailings, newer ships or special itineraries could shell out up to $11 million!

Securing group space, or a partial-ship charter, on a larger ship allows you to book far less inventory and requires significantly less financial commitment. However, payment and cancellation terms may be more stringent than for the honeymooning couple or family of four booking just one stateroom, and penalties may apply for non-booked space. Alternatively, you could simply book as a group on a ship as individuals without officially chartering space, or look into chartering a smaller ship.

For family reunions or smaller retreats, such smaller ships like French Country Waterways' barges (they each hold 8 to 18 passengers) or SeaDream Yacht Club's or Crystal's yachts (for groups of 50 to 100) are good options.

Meanwhile, mainstream mega- and midsize ships from the likes of Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian, for instance, offer large groups incomparable space and amenities. There are multiple theaters, lounges and other venues available for hosting special events -- and plenty of onboard activities to keep folks happily entertained. Such large lines are especially well-suited for company "meetings at sea," too, offering sizable conference rooms and office-friendly technology.

Tips for Planning a Charter Cruise

Property Brothers with fans on fan cruise

Whatever route you go, it's a good idea to consult with an expert in the field. Landry & Kling, based in Coral Gables, Florida, is one well-known business-to-business resource for meeting planners and special interest groups, providing ship selection and logistics support or full program management for cruise groups and full-ship charters. Joyce Landry, president and CEO of Landry & Kling, offers some tips for planning your event -- and deciding which type of ship charter is for you.

Size matters. Ms. Landry cautions that the charter price is only as cost effective as your ability to use most or all of the rooms. She recommends being realistic about the number of rooms you will truly need, since every empty room is ultimately the charterer's liability. You're securing your charter with a contract and upfront payment or financial guarantees -- and you can't give back the rooms you don't use.

Negotiate well. Fully chartering a ship is not for the faint of heart, warns Ms. Landry, since you will effectively be removing the ship from the cruise line's inventory and taking ownership of it once you sign the contract -- and with 99 percent of the cruise lines, there's no backtracking on the agreement. Ms. Landry advises that while this arrangement is designed to protect the cruise line, you can protect yourself, too, by working with an expert that is familiar with chartering territory: They can help you negotiate terms and explain flexible clauses that could work to your advantage.

Put your stamp on it! Creative types will love how much they can personalize the experience. Feel free to fly your own flag with a full-ship charter -- at least via signage and banners, that is. You can control the entertainment and activities schedule, choose your own menus and even put your logo on desserts. You might even bring on your own entertainment and, in some cases, alter itineraries (within reason).

Know when to go for group space/partial charter. Ms. Landry explains that if your perfect ship is larger than your needs but has the facilities you desire, booking group space on the ship -- rather than a full-ship buyout -- is likely the better solution. Her company has had success hosting groups of as large as 1,000 people on ships that hold 3,500 or more without compromising the desired feeling of exclusivity at events, thanks to large-ship theaters that hold a thousand people or the possibility of deck parties. She also reminds groups that some mainstream ships have luxury ship-within-a-ship concepts, offering smaller groups perks like private key access, butler service and exclusive pools, bars and/or restaurants, which are well-suited to group bookings and offer the bonus of all the facilities of a much larger ship, too.

And apart from Ms. Landry's advice for booking bigger groups onto larger ships, keep in mind that less sizable groups always have the option of taking over smaller vessels, too. Yachts, barges, expedition vessels, tall ships and riverboats are all good options for groups of anywhere in size from a dozen to 200 or 300 people.

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