Did RCI Kick a Family Off a Cruise?

April 28, 2008
News reports this weekend told the story of a family with a sick child allegedly kicked off Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas. Did cruise staff heartlessly strand a family of five in the Bahamas, or are cruise travelers seeking excessive compensation for a misadventure and a missed vacation?

According to the Cortes family, their 7-month-old daughter became ill on the second night of a five-night cruise. She was vomiting and had diarrhea, and a ship's doctor, citing Norovirus, said she needed medical care at a land-based facility in the Bahamas where the ship was docked. It was after 11 p.m. when the family was given 10 minutes to pack their bags and get off the ship -- forcing the mother to debark the ship in her pajamas. The daughter was diagnosed at the hospital with a cold and deemed fit to travel, but Majesty had already departed. The Cortes family -- stranded in a foreign country -- had to find the U.S. embassy to request emergency passports (they had none) and then make arrangements to return to the U.S. The passports, plane tickets and emergency room visit cost them $1,705 out of pocket.

So what's Royal Caribbean's side of the story? According to spokesman Michael Sheehan, the Cortes family called Majesty's Guest Relations Desk at 7:30 p.m., concerned about their daughter's health. They were urged to bring the girl to the medical facility, but did not do so until 11:20 p.m. Not only did the girl's medical condition worry the doctor, but as the ship was about to set sail for Coco Cay -- Royal Caribbean's private island with no medical facilities -- he also feared that if she got worse, there'd be no help for her.

Medical staff explained the situation to the parents, who agreed to take their baby to the hospital. At 11:45 p.m., an ambulance was called. Ship staff offered the Corteses the option to have one parent take the girl and the other stay onboard with the other two children, but the family chose to debark all together. As the ship was preparing for an imminent departure from Nassau, the family did have limited time -- but did manage to pack all their belongings prior to disembarkation.

Royal Caribbean arranged for complimentary hotel accommodations in Nassau, and assigned a Guest Care specialist to assist the Corteses with their arrangements and on-island transportation. In addition, the family was asked to contact Corporate Guest Relations to resolve the unused portion of their vacation. However, the family chose to make their own arrangements and did not contact Guest Relations. The same day the Cortes family took their story to the media (April 25), claiming they were ill-treated and deserved compensation, Royal Caribbean had its Guest Relations contact the family and explain that they were eligible for a future cruise credit to replace the unused portion of their cruise.

As a gesture of good will, the cruise line also ultimately agreed to refund the family the entire cost of their cruise as well as their flights home -- "despite the company's strong disagreement with the manner in which the Cortes family's situation has been recounted in the media," according to an official statement.

Two simultaneous Cruise Critic threads (one started by neworlensladi and one by curiouscat) on this topic show most readers agree the cruise line did the right thing in a potentially life-threatening situation.

"I believe that the ship's personnel did exactly the right thing in disembarking the baby to make sure that she received proper medical care," writes critterchick. "A ship's infirmary is no place for a sick infant ... If you don't have a passport, then perhaps travel insurance would have been another prudent thing to purchase ... Expecting RCI to step in and reimburse them is unreasonable."

"When my 8-month-old caught a virus onboard Disney Magic and started seizing the ship's doctors and captain tried everything to get us evacuated to the Bahamas," posts cruisinmama06. "In our case, the weather was too bad to evacuate us so the whole ship returned to Port Canaveral about 12 hours early ... This was not to protect the rest of the cruisers from my 8-month-old but it was to save my 8-month-old baby.

"I guess from the outside, it would look like [Royal Caribbean] were being callous trying to hustle them off the ship. But I can tell you, they move fast. They want the child to receive the best possible care as soon as possible. And if that means 'dumping you off' in another country, then that's what they'll do. This family traveled without insurance and without passports. The only one they have to blame is themselves."

And hawkshoe says, "While I do feel bad for this family and what they went through, much of it could have been avoided had they planned properly."

There are, of course, three sides to every story. Whichever side you are on, this story (and the resulting commentary) demonstrates the importance of purchasing two things prior to a cruise: travel insurance and a passport. The Cortes family declined the option to buy travel insurance when they booked their cruise, even though they were traveling with a very young child. Though it's unclear why the child received multiple diagnoses, travel insurance would have reimbursed them for most of their medical and travel expenses incurred from their daughter's illness.

And although the U.S. government has decided cruise passengers departing from and returning to U.S. homeports do not need to carry passports, should unexpected circumstances such as this one occur, all U.S. citizens will need a passport to fly home from a foreign country. Therefore, it's a wise choice to bring a valid passport on any cruise that leaves U.S. waters.

The events that took place also bring to light the sometimes harsh realities of a cruise vacation. Cruise ships often have very minimal medical facilities onboard and travel to some out of the way and sometimes third-world destinations. When passengers step onto a ship, they tacitly agree that if they fall ill, there may not be adequate medical personnel or equipment onboard. There may not be medical help nearby and if there is, even that facility may not be up to par, and passengers may be forced to disembark the ship to seek help.

The events on Majesty raise the question of whether cruise ships should have better-equipped medical facilities onboard. But they also demonstrate that cruise passengers should take some initiative to protect themselves in case the unexpected happens to occur.

--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor