Did Carnival Drop the Ball with Conquest and Ecstasy?

September 17, 2008
Ever since Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston this weekend, Carnival has been racing to make arrangements for Carnival Conquest and Carnival Ecstasy, the line's two Galveston-based ships. Now that the ships are finally headed for their temporary new home in Houston, cruise travelers who patronize sites from Cruise Critic to the L.A. Times are wondering whether Carnival could have handled the situation better.

Here's the back story: Carnival Conquest and Carnival Ecstasy departed Galveston before Hurricane Ike made landfall in Texas. The two ships were stranded at sea when the Galveston port shut down for the storm. Finally, the ships were rerouted to New Orleans, where people were told they could either disembark or return to Galveston with the ship … at some unknown later date. Not to mention that cars parked at the Galveston port were most likely totaled in the storm. Ultimately, the ships were cleared to return to Houston's new Bayport Cruise Terminal and the two ships will arrive this Thursday and Friday.

Carnival's response to impacted passengers? We'll only help out if you booked your airfare through us. While the cruise line rebooked air/sea passengers on new flights out of New Orleans, those with independent travel arrangements were forced to change their plans on their own and find their own way to the airport or other destination. Carnival did not arrange buses to Texas or the New Orleans airport, either for free or for a fee. Nor were passengers told when they might expect to reach Galveston if they waited to return with the ship.

As Cruise Critic member Debe7ing, who sailed on Carnival Conquest posted on the site, "While this storm is NOT their fault, [Carnival] did not handle the entire New Orleans thing very well at all. We changed course at least 3 hours before they announced it...but for whatever reason [they] chose to wait until 5 p.m. on Sunday to tell us that NOLA was our destination…. I don't expect them to cover the cost of our airfare home, nor do I think they owe me for the loss on our car, but I certainly think that being honest as soon as possible would have made a very difficult situation easier for those of us that had to get home."

So Carnival Says…

In a phone interview with Cruise Critic, Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher asserted that the company handled the situation the best it could. "It wasn't easy to make decisions because there was no information. There's still no official word from the Port of Galveston as of this morning," he said.

He explained that as passengers were demanding to get to any port as soon as possible, Carnival made the decision to take guests to New Orleans when it was always the line's intention to return to Texas. By the time the first ship reached New Orleans, the company was already in talks with the Houston cruise port, but could not make an announcement because plans were still uncertain. Because the terminal there is so new, it needed to obtain the proper licenses and equipment before Carnival could dock there. "We gave guests all the information we had at the time that was true," Gallagher says.

When asked why Carnival didn't disembark everyone in New Orleans, Gallagher replied it was because people wanted to go to Texas and the company had told guests the ships would eventually return there. When asked why Carnival didn't at least provide buses to the airport, he said it was because people were leaving the ships at different times so it would be difficult to organize.

The cruise line did hand out the contact information for airlines and rental car companies, Gallagher noted, and transportation, such as airport shuttles and taxis, was available at the port. The vast majority of passengers did get off in New Orleans, with about 400 people sailing on Carnival Conquest back to Houston.

Some Cruise Critic members stand behind Carnival's decisions. Member TDM516 writes, "These are the kinds of things that people are supposed to get travel insurance for, and it's not Carnival's place to take care of every possible inconvenience that happens because of a natural disaster beyond their control. We have to remember that they are losing millions of dollars because of all of this, and their crew members are going to suffer as well because of lost gratuities."

Member COD's response to the demand for buses is: "Drive folks to another Texas city to what end? If you parked your car in Galveston going to, say Dallas, helps nothing. If you flew to Houston, you might just as well fly out of New Orleans at this point. Sorry to be blunt, but if I were on that ship I would … not be wasting time blaming Carnival for something totally out of their control."

So what do you think? Did Carnival drop the ball by not communicating with its passengers or helping travelers who didn't book air with them to get back home? Or did Carnival do the best it could to give people options for getting home during a difficult time? Vote in our poll.

--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor