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 an affinity group (bingo tournament cruise, anyone?). Or, two: You've been bumped from a long-awaited vacation because the cruise line chartered the ship out from under your feet.

The second scenario is part of the reason why full ship charter cruises are such a buzz on Cruise Critic. For instance, members of a Cruise Critic group booked on the March 8 Celebrity Solstice sailing found out the hard way (it was revealed on Cruise Critic before Celebrity got around to announcing it) that they were being displaced by a full ship charter to Atlantis events. Though Celebrity did offer compensation and rebook options, passengers still took issue with the way the situation was handled. After all, Atlantis announced the charter and began advertising cabins on its Web site before the cruise line would confirm it with us or its clients!

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Indeed, while most companies that charter ships plan their cruises as far in advance as possible, 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. Passengers on Holland America's October 18 Eurodam cruise and Royal Caribbean's summer Nickelodeon trips aboard Freedom of the Seas were notified of cancelations due to ship chartering. SeaDream frequently cancels scheduled cruises to accommodate charters (its two ships have a 110-person capacity, making them perfect group space).

On the other hand, ship charters offer a different and exciting way to cruise. The entire vessel is organized around a particular theme or interest -- and everyone gets to participate. Among the organizations known for full ship charter cruises are Atlantis Events, which organizes gay and lesbian cruises, and, which hosts a gaming tournament at sea yearly.

How exactly 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.

Chartering and Bumping: The Truth

When a potential charterer approaches a cruise line to inquire about a sailing that is already on sale to the public, one of the things a cruise line will evaluate is how much business is on the books and how full the ship is. "Most cruise lines are not going to turn away a charter if it is far enough in advance or, even if it's not that far in advance, if most of the space on the sailing is unsold," Carnival Vice President Group Sales & Administration Cherie Weinstein tells us, though she wouldn't offer specific information about the line's policies.

Royal Caribbean was willing to reveal a bit more on the subject. "If the [cruise] is open for sale we look at the level of bookings we already have," Stacy Shaw, Manager of Charter Sales Royal Caribbean International, says. "We have a threshold that's fairly low that we won't consider going over. If the booking level is approaching that threshold ... we will contact operations staff to make sure we want to proceed with a charter quote."

If booked guests are flexible about getting bumped, it might actually turn out to be a good thing. "If there are guests that are going to be displaced," Shaw continues, "I will say that the company has always sided with the guests who are booked and we have a fairly aggressive compensation program for those guests who are displaced. We offer a comparable product, Freedom [of the Seas] for Liberty for example; compensation in the form of onboard credits; and if guests choose not to take advantage of the offer, then they are fully refunded."

The bottom line? 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, the line is true to its word. In 2007, a last-minute charter (six months out) of Legend of the Seas booted passengers from a 12-night European cruise; the line offered full refunds or the ability to switch to a similar sailing on that same ship, and compensated those who did rebook with $400 per suite or $200 per cabin. The line also reimbursed affected passengers up to $200 per person for airline change fees -- even if they booked flights independently.

Though it is rare, virtually every cruise line has the right to bump anyone involuntarily -- for any reason. And one other thing: 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? Just be sure to read the fine print of your cruise contract so you know your rights and what to expect.

How to Charter a Ship

OK, so you've got a family reunion coming up, or have been tasked with finding a unique venue for your next company-wide meeting. Considering a cruise? Or, like most of us, you'll never charter a ship in your lifetime but still find the nitty-gritty details fascinating (how it's done and, gulp, how much it costs)? There are a few things you should know. First and foremost, there are three types of charters:

A full ship charter is when an entity, usually a corporation or major affinity 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 last year's Atlantis cruise onboard Freedom of the Seas. 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? Cruise lines impose a guest minimum (Carnival, for example, requires at least 2,000 guests in the short cruise market and closer to 3,000 for weeklong trips).

Securing a full ship charter is very difficult. And it's not cancellable -- so payment is required in advance in cash or an "irrevocable letter of credit" drawn up from a bank. As a point of reference, the lowest cost for an off-off-peak three-night cruise on Freedom of the Seas would be $800,000 to $900,000 (funds are then raised through the selling of the cabins) while groups on other longer sailings or special itineraries could shell out up to 6 million!

A partial ship charter comes into play when a group wants only some cabins. They do have to meet a minimum: Some cruise lines will only draw up a charter contract for 50 percent or more, while others will consider a 20 or 40 percent ship charter. For example, there is a special interest group of motorcyclists ("Hogs on the High Seas") that books a partial ship charter twice a year. Upfront payment isn't required here -- but payment and cancellation terms are more stringent than for the honeymoon couple or family of four booking just one stateroom, and heavy penalties apply for non-booked space.

The third option is technically not "chartering" in the true sense of the word, but rather blocking off a number of cabins as group space. This is more commonly a technique employed by travel agents, where applicable; they buy cabins "in bulk" and then pass the extra savings on to their customers.

Ready to Book?

Start 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 affinity groups, providing site selection for groups and full ship charters; Washington-based Meetings on Ships is another third party that specializes in conferences, workshops and business gatherings. Josephine Kling, president of Landry & Kling offers some tips for planning your event -- and deciding which type of ship charter is for you:

Start well in advance. Most corporate programs book one to two years out. Weinstein tells us Carnival doesn't generally consider anything within six months of the sail date. On the other hand, Shaw says Royal Caribbean doesn't like to go too far out, either, because it's difficult to predict where ships will be: "A year to a year and a half is ideal." Another benevolent plus: The further out you plan, the less likely it'll be that your trip will displace already booked passengers.

Know what your special events are. Sometimes a half-ship charter is better than the whole kit and caboodle. Let's say you book a large group on a small ship. Exclusive as that may be, there actually may not be a place to hold an event everyone can attend since onboard theaters generally don't hold the entire ship's capacity. On the contrary, if your group took over half of a much larger ship, you might be able to fit the whole group in the theater.

Consider cabin arrangements. If you are chartering (and then reselling) cabins as part of an affinity group, who chooses a low-end vs. high-end cabin might not matter. However, if you need to offer equitable arrangements to everyone in a company, for example, you'll again have better luck taking part of a ship rather than the whole thing -- on a full ship charter, unless you're on an all-suite vessel, some folks will inevitably get stuck in inside cabins while others are living large in higher accommodations.

Dream big on personalization. One of the nicest things about chartering a ship rather than taking over part of a resort or hotel is the ability to greatly personalize the experience. Some ideas to get you started include using the ship's daily newsletter for announcing meeting times and dress codes, flying a logo flag onboard or at the departure port, and incorporating company artwork on room keys or even desserts. You can even bring on your own entertainment and, in some cases, alter itineraries.

Shaw tells us that some requests have elicited a few chuckles, including one from a group that wanted to bring on some animals. "One was a skink. We thought it was a typo [and that they meant a skunk], but it turns out a skink is a type of lizard." (The skink didn't get to go; however, unusual cargo that has found its way onboard charter cruises includes motorcycles, cars and Nickelodeon's trademark slime.)

Best Ships for Charters

"I want the whole thing for a huge affinity group!"

Ships to Consider: Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, Carnival's Conquest-class ships

Why: These mainstream mega-ships are among the biggest afloat, and 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 busy. Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, for example, boast the industry's first FlowRider surf parks. And because staff members on these vessels are used to dealing with large crowds, lines (for dinner, tenders, etc.) are reasonable.

"I want the whole thing for a family reunion or small retreat!"

Ships to Consider: French Country Waterways' barges each hold 12 to 20 passengers; SeaDream's a good choice if you can entice 100 or so. And if money is no object, try the 960-passenger Crystal Symphony or 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity. (Kling tells us that a Microsoft exec recently organized a cruise for one very happy birthday person onboard a Crystal ship.)

Why: Sydney Cresci, head of Make a Change Personal Discovery Journeys, always charters SeaDream for its intimate, upscale theme cruises featuring dynamic speakers and leadership trainers. "SeaDream comes into small ports that I think my group will enjoy." For a family reunion, a small barge like French Country Waterways' Adrienne, can easily be booked fully -- no need to share your space!

"I am planning a 'meeting at sea' for my company."

Ships to Consider: NCL's Jewel-class ships

Why: These ships have sizeable conference rooms and plenty of dining options -- treat the whole team in the main dining rooms, or break out smaller groups for power lunches or suppers at the many Freestyle Dining eateries, from the French Le Bistro to the more casual 24-hour Blue Lagoon serving diner favorites. Plus, with bowling alleys on the newest models, Pearl and Gem, there are options for team building and letting loose.

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