With cruise lines around the world suspending sailings well into the fall, many cruisers are getting a crash-course in cruise line cancellation policies that have seemingly been changing as rapidly as the pandemic itself.
Prior to COVID-19, cruise line cancellation policies were notoriously inflexible. Anything after final payment incurred some sort of financial penalty, ranging from the initial deposit amount to the entirety of the value of the cruise.
That inflexibility counted pierside. Last-minute emergencies, ranging from illness to broad-scale events like Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption in April 2010 that severely disrupted transatlantic air travel, typically resulted in cruisers losing the entire value of their cruise.
The only way to recoup costs was to purchase trip cancellation and interruption insurance at the time of booking.
This inflexibility was fairly unique to cruise. Many hotel rates can be cancelled free of charge up to the day of stay, and all but the most restrictive airfares can be turned into a future travel credit -- minus some onerous cancellation fees -- as long as the fight is cancelled prior to departure.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much-needed change to the cruise industry's overall cancellation terms. But how flexible are these new cancellation policies really? And do they provide the necessary certainty needed in order to truly "book with confidence"?
Many cruise lines reacted swiftly to provide customers with increased confidence by increasing flexibility in cancellation policies for both new and currently-booked passengers.
Policies vary from line to line. Many allow passengers to voluntarily cancel their cruise with as little as 48 or 24-hours notice, though some lines mandate between 14 and 30 days of warning. Cancelled voyages can be rebooked for another date, or held as a Future Cruise Credit (FCC).
Holland America Line's "Book with Confidence Guarantee" allows passengers to rejig their cruise plans up to 30 days in advance of sailing. MSC's Cruise Assurance" program allows passengers to cancel up to 48 hours prior to departure. Ditto for Norwegian Cruise Line, which allows passengers to cancel up to 48 hours in advance as well.
Luxury and small-ship operators also offer similarly-designed policies. Regent Seven Seas Cruises' "Regent Reassurance" plan allows passengers to voluntarily cancel their sailing up to 15 days prior to departure to receive a 100 percent FCC, while Silversea allows cancellations up to 48 hours in advance as part of its "Cruise with Confidence" policy.
Polar expedition operator Quark Expeditions also allows passengers on its 2020-2021 Antarctica voyages to postpone their sailing with 48 hours' advance notice.
River cruise lines have begun adopting this kind of flexibility as well. American Cruise Lines allows passengers on sailings through October 31, 2020 to cancel for any reason up to 24 hours in advance of their sailing to receive an FCC equal to funds paid.
American Queen Steamboat Company, AmaWaterways, and Viking all offer similar cancellation policies where changes can be made up to 24 hours prior to departure, though restrictions do apply that are unique to each line.
Uniworld lets passengers cancel voluntarily up to 14 days prior to departure.
Other lines, like Avalon Waterways, Emerald Waterways and Scenic will let passengers move their 2020 voyage to a future date with no penalty (though some restrictions may apply for this as well, depending on the line), but not necessarily cancel a day ahead of time.
On the surface, these policies are a massive improvement. But as noted above, restrictions are plentiful -- and they vary from line to line.
The sheer number of differing policies threaten to undermine the very consumer confidence they're meant to inspire.
Keeping track of the differences in voluntary cancellation policies adds another task for consumers and travel agents to worry about, particularly for those booking with multiple brands.
This variation is most apparent in the terms of these interim cancellation policies. Over at Norwegian Cruise Line, the line's Peace of Mind policy only applies to sailings booked prior to July 31, 2020 sailing through November 30, 2020. Voyages outside of these dates are subject to the line's standard cancellation policies.
Royal Caribbean's policy differs further still, applying only to existing bookings or new bookings made by August 1, 2020.
Complicating matters, many cruise lines have posted cancellation policies in their FAQ sections of their website that reflect the old, pre-COVID regulations; these typically pop up first for those doing a simple Google search. The new COVID cancellation policies are generally found on a subsection of the cruise line's dedicated to the pandemic but aren't always clearly spelled out.
Most cruise lines intend these new cancellation policies to be interim rather than permanent. While it is likely that the ongoing pandemic will necessitate some kind of permanent change in policy structure, until then cruisers -- and travel agents -- will be left to deal with a number of policies that are completely separate from those that kick in if cruises are cancelled due to further sailing suspensions.
For those booking a future cruise, it is important to know that not every cruise line is offering this interim flexibility.
In a statement posted on its website, Cunard Line notes that all voyages aboard Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria set to depart after November 1, 2020, and all voyages on Queen Elizabeth sailing after November 23, are subject to the line's standard cancelation policy. The line has cancelled cruises up to November 1, 2020.
Cunard is, however, offering the standard 125 percent Future Cruise Credit (FCC) for its cancelled voyages, or a 100 percent refund. The catch is that travelers have to wait for Cunard to pull the plug for that to take effect.
Assuming that all affiliated cruise lines offer the same policy isn't a good idea, either. Holland America Line -- also under the same Carnival Corporation umbrella as Cunard -- is more generous, giving passengers 30 days to cancel prior to their upcoming voyage, provided it was booked prior to August 31, 2020. Passengers who elect to cancel are given a Future Cruise Credit.
Fully researching cancellation policies -- including terms like whether or not the initial deposit is refundable (some aren't) -- is more critical now than ever before. Take a browse through the cruise line's website, contact a trusted travel advisor, or consider reaching out to the lines on social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) for the latest policy updates.
One policy that is constant among all lines is this: those booked on charter sailings, like the popular full-ship music charters put on by Sixthman, are out of luck. Standard cancellation policies and rates will still apply to these sailings due to the nature of the contracts arranged between the organizers and the cruise line.
Likewise, things can get complicated for those on comped casino voyages. In those cases, it's best to speak with an agent for the most up-to-date information.