Can Cruise Lines Bump Passengers ... at Will?

June 16, 2006
Last Tuesday, less than a week before her long-planned Eastern Mediterranean cruise on Oceania's Nautica, Maria Ricca got a disturbing phone call from her travel agent. "You aren't going to believe this," she quotes him as saying, "but you are being bumped from your cruise."

Ricca was part of a group of eight people in three cabins who were affected -- and they found out they were not alone. After Margo Buchin (member seasick), whose parents were part of the group, learned of the news, she told Cruise Critic, "I started Googling frantically and I came up with Mr. Frank del Rio's name but there was no personal contact for him. I initially came up with SJ Del Rio on Cruise Critic's forum, that he had answered these posts. Maybe," she thought, "I can alert people to what is going on here ... maybe something could be done."

Her post, Dear Mr. Del Rio: How Can You Do This To My Family, did indeed alert folks -- such as Donna Smith (member Toranut 97) who, unbelievably, found herself in the same situation on the same cruise. "This morning we got a call from the same man telling us we had been bumped," she responded. "They offered us either a cruise with the same itinerary in September (which we can't do because of my work schedule) or else a full refund and 50 percent off the next cruise."

Continues Donna, "We booked in August of last year and paid in full by October. We are stunned and livid with anger. Three days notice?"

Ultimately, the situation got resolved. It's a testament both to the power of Cruise Critic's member boards in resolving tetchy situations and, ultimately, to Oceania's management, which stepped up to the plate and did the right thing -- and then some. Upon learning that afternoon of the problem via Buchin's thread (which generated some 192 replies and nearly 15,000 page views as of Friday afternoon), Del Rio posted a strongly worded message of his own:

"For now let me say this, whatever the facts are, we blew it big time! The company obviously handled this situation wrong, without sensitivity and not very smartly.

"My sincere apologies, not just to Seesick and Toranut97, but to all our guests who may now be worried about their upcoming cruises."

Added Del Rio, "This is the first time that I can recall, having had an oversold problem lead to us having to ask guests to consider alternatives. If indeed our employees tried to involuntarily 'move' guests, let me tell you that it was wrong to do so, that this is not our policy, will never be our policy and I will make certain that a repeat never happens again. If we did have an oversold situation, which by the way, I agree should not happen seven days prior to sail date, we should have asked for volunteers and offered compensation sufficient to motivate some to take the offer. In this manner, it is the guest's decision to take the alternative, not the cruise line's."

Del Rio made sure that all affected passengers retained their cabins and, beyond that, gave each passenger a $500 shipboard credit "as a small token of our sincere apologies for the stress we put your family through the last 48 hours or so."

He went further than that with Donna, who had quickly gone ahead and booked another cruise on Holland America in the Baltic, offering to work it out so she could still sail on the Nautica trip, and not lose money for canceling the new cruise.

How did this happen? Cruise lines, like airlines and hotels, have the right to bump passengers when overbooking occurs. What's important to know is that -- and thanks to member FreddieBud for providing the concrete evidence (via #26 in Oceania's Contract of Carriage) -- is this: "As a condition of its business, we retain the right to overbook Guest accommodations. In the event that the Guest accommodation referenced in this Ticket/Contract is overbooked, or if we determine that the Ship is overbooked, we may, at our discretion, deny boarding to any Guest and, at our further discretion, refund all monies paid or offer another cruise or CruiseTour in substitution."

Still, every cruise line we asked told us that they would never exercise that right (so why is it in the contract?) and, indeed, any cruise line who did would, as you can tell from the responses on the Oceania thread, spur an uprising that could cost the line future bookings. And a future at all, come to think of it.

What went especially wrong in Oceania's case was that the staffer making the calls forgot to mention a very important third option: You can sail as planned. Big omission.

Explains Oceania's Tim Rubacky, "We were overbooked, which is not an unusual circumstance in the industry. Everyone overbooks. We have a model that knows that after final payment even if a ship is overbooked, passengers will cancel, change plans, medical problems, family problems -- for whatever reason. And cabins open up. This time, we didn't see any of that materialize. There literally was no fall-off.

"On the positive side, it shows we're experiencing heavy demand for Europe. On the down side, we had to be very aggressive in calling out to agents and guests offering incentives to move to another sailing or take a refund."

Oceania knew three weeks ago it was facing a problem and, according to Rubacky, "began making the calls. With each round, you up the ante. You keep sweetening the pot until you get enough people to bite."

In this case Oceania's offer -- an upgrade and 50 percent off a future cruise (along with a refund of course) -- wasn't wooing anyone. Ultimately, though, enough passengers were able and willing to switch that the problem has been solved (with a somewhat sweeter 75 percent discount on a future cruise).

Rubacky was right when he said that cruise lines do overbook.

While rare, a voyage can be oversold by a cabin or two and cruise lines are forced to convince passengers to move to other cruises, says Carnival's Jennifer de la Cruz, who notes that cruise lines have staffers whose job it is to monitor and manage inventory on a daily basis. "I believe we typically offer an alternate ship during the same time period with an attractive upgrade if that's an option. Or we'll offer an alternate sailing on the same ship with an attractive upgrade. If that doesn't fly, we keep negotiating or approaching different people to find a cabin of people who are interested. Generally, you can find someone who is enticed by the offers and willing to switch."

And passengers do have the right to say "no thanks, won't switch."

"Princess does offer move-overs," notes Princess Cruises' Karen Tetherow, "but our guests have the opportunity to decline if they wish."