Cruise Q&A: Princess Cruises Responds to Earthquake-Related Challenges

March 4, 2010
Princess Cruises Speaks Out About Cruise Impact of Chile Earthquake
Princess Provides Earthquake Response Timeline

Editor's Note: The information appears in its entirety and is unedited by Cruise Critic.

A message from Jan Swartz, Executive Vice President of Sales, Marketing & Customer Service, Princess Cruises:

Despite the criticism for some of the decisions we've made over the last few days, we've been working around the clock, since the earthquake occurred, trying to do our best under the challenging circumstances. Our decisions were based on sporadic and constantly changing news from Chile, and our desire to balance the needs of our passengers on the past cruise -- who had limited options in Santiago -- with the needs of passengers who had already arrived, or were en route to, Santiago.

The one factor we did have in our control was to modify the next cruise so the ship could serve as a hotel for both passengers whose flights were impacted, or who were already in Santiago.

In hindsight, had we known that the airport was going to be closed for so long, we may have made different decisions, but we didn't have this information at the time.

In emergency situations we understand that we cannot communicate enough. In hindsight we should have done more proactive communication with embarking passengers over the weekend.

In the meantime, the Princess team continues to work diligently to assist with our passengers' homeward travel from Santiago and other port cities.

Cruise Critic: Specifically, please clarify where the March 2 cruise on Star Princess stands in terms of schedule and itinerary.

Princess: The new itinerary is shortened by two days and, as a result, we will unfortunately no longer be able to call at the originally scheduled ports of Punta Arenas and the Falkland Islands, nor do the scenic cruise-by of Cape Horn.

The new itinerary is:

March 4 - Depart Valparaiso (noon)
March 5 - At sea
March 6 - At sea
March 7 - At sea
March 8 - Ushuaia, Argentina (8 am – 4 pm)
March 9 - At sea
March 10 - At sea
March 11 - At sea
March 12 - Montevideo, Uruguay (8 am – 5 pm)
March 13 - Buenos Aires, Argentina (8 am – 5 pm)
March 14 - At sea
March 15 - At sea
March 16 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (7 am)

CC: Please clarify where things stand in terms of compensation for people who've made it to the ship (and are now sailing a shortened and substantially different cruise).

Princess: Passengers will be provided a two-day per diem refund based on their fare paid, in the form of an onboard credit. Our general policy is if people join the ship along the cruise, we give them a per diem refund of the days that they missed so they can use these expenses to cover out of pocket costs associated with their travel to the ship.

CC: And what about compensation for people who couldn't make it to the ship?

Princess: If passengers are not successful in embarking, we are directing them to contact their travel care provider to file a claim for their cruise fare. If they have Princess Vacation Protection, they can call our provider to begin the process of obtaining their future cruise credit. Our experience is that 2/3 of our passengers have travel protection.

CC: What about hotel/meals compensation for travelers who make it to Santiago on the original schedule (March 2), but can't get onboard until March 4?

Princess: Hotel and other shoreside expenses incurred en route to the ship are the responsibility of the passenger, and the two day per diem refund is intended to defray these expenses.

CC: Can you help us understand where things stand in terms of options for people staying on the ship from the previous cruise?

Princess: Out of fairness to the passengers arriving who had paid for the cruise, but in recognition of the unusual circumstances for passengers who were without other hotel options in Santiago, we've elected to offer passengers the opportunity to sail on the next cruise on a reduced rate of $50 per person for inside or outside cabins; and $75 per person for balcony and higher categories.

CC: And finally, please clarify where things stand in terms of boarding/debarking policies in ports on itinerary.

Princess: Passengers sailing on Star Princess today have the option to disembark the ship at any of the upcoming ports of Ushuaia, Montevideo or Buenos Aires. Disembarkation in Rio de Janeiro is not an option because of Brazilian visa requirements. We are in the process of working with passengers who booked their air through Princess to determine their wishes and assist with flight arrangements. Any passenger who would like to embark this sailing at one of these ports may do so, as well.

CC: How are people who simply could not make it to Santiago in time for the Thursday departure -- given that the airport is operating only in a very limited fashion -- being compensated? Is it up to the passenger and his or her insurance company?

Princess: We understand that this is one of the main questions being asked by passengers, and I appreciate that our response is not going to be satisfactory to some. The answer is it will be up to the passenger to work with their travel protection provider to process a claim for their cruise. If they have Princess travel protection they should contact our provider immediately to begin the process of obtaining a future cruise credit.

This is a good example of why it's so important to purchase travel protection for your vacation. The vast majority of our passengers, approximately 2/3, purchase some form of travel protection to guard for those unexpected events.

We are always disappointed when passengers opt out of the travel protection purchase because we see, as in this case, how critical it is to be protected in the event of the unexpected, and how disruptive this can be to our passengers' vacations.

It's not Princess' practice to provide full refunds in the event of an incident over which we have no control, and when we intend to operate the cruise. If the cruise had been cancelled due to a reason within our control, our policy is to provide a refund.

CC: Clearly we understand that Princess has no legal obligation to passengers affected by an earthquake, considered a "force majeure,” but it's puzzling to us that the line seems to feel it has no responsibility to take care of its customers as an act of good will. Please explain why that is.

Princess: We believe that as outlined in the timeline above, we have tried to take care of our passengers by providing them with information and resources.

CC: Phase one of the airport's reopening extends until Friday, March 5; was there a possibility that Star Princess will stay in Valparaiso another day?

Princess: No. Because we have now committed to a revised itinerary -- and some passengers are planning to join or disembark in upcoming ports -- we had to depart today as scheduled.

CC: Why has Princess been lax in communicating with passengers slated to board on the March 2 voyage? What can the line do to improve communication in times of crisis, and what will the line do to improve in this particular situation?

Princess: I understand that this has been one of the major areas of criticism. We can sympathize with our passengers' frustration as we, too, had limited information that changed many times. Looking back, I think the lesson we've learned is that even when we don't have any concrete information to share, we should be more proactive about letting passengers know that we, too, are waiting for information. In the future we will make outbound calls earlier.

CC: What is Princess' responsibility to travelers who booked their air through its air-sea program?

Cruise Critic Note: Quite a few members are saying there was absolutely no communication for days (a general comment whether they booked through air-sea or not) ... then they were finally told they were on their own and had to work with the airlines. One member told us he booked through air-sea at the cost of $1,644 dollars … then had limited communication and was told it was up to him to rebook. He did, through Buenos Aires, so now he'll be on the cruise for four nights (12th to the 16th).

After being told they were on their own by reps, the Princess statement from March 2 reads: "For those passengers with Princess Air, we're working with the availability given by the airlines to attempt to book flights when they become available."

Princess: The miscommunication on this point is that in emergency situations, we typically recommend that passengers stay in touch with their airline directly as well, to get immediate updates. In extraordinary circumstances the carriers themselves are in the best position to provide the most up-to-date information as they are making very dynamic decisions.

At the same time, we do have a responsibility for passengers who book air with us is to try to help them find alternative flight options so they can catch the cruise. In this instance, however, our air department was having problems finding air availability. We were finding alternate flights, only to then discover the flight had been cancelled.

Now that we've agreed the ongoing itinerary, our air department is in contact with each passenger to revise their flights into another port.

CC: Why are these air-sea clients being told to take care of their own flights? Isn't the point of buying an air/sea package to minimize risks?

Princess: I think we've covered this above.

CC: Since it's been so difficult, near to impossible, for travelers to get to Santiago, why hasn't Princess just cancelled the March 2 voyage, acted as a hotel for people stranded (either at the end of the previous cruise or who had arrived early for the March 2 sailing), and offered refunds?

Princess: I think we've covered this in the timeline.

The next cruise departs from Rio de Janeiro on March 16 and so we didn't want to impact passengers on yet another sailing. Our compromise was a 36-hour delay.

CC: Why didn't Princess allow passengers who made it to Santiago by the 2nd (the original departure date) allow those guests to board as originally scheduled (the ship arrived on time).

Cruise Critic Note: Members who arrived on time (March 2) and who cannot board the ship until March 4 are saying they are not being compensated by Princess for hotel stays/food/etc … they've basically been forced to pay for two days spent in Santiago.

Princess: Actually two hundred passengers did board in the morning of March 2. However, because the port of Valparaiso was damaged and only two berths were available, we were asked by the port to depart mid day and go to anchor. The port allowed us to return today to pick up the remaining passengers joining the ship. Unfortunately, we had been hoping to ferry passengers to the ship using our tenders, but the tender pier at the port was badly damaged and was unsafe for our passengers.

CC: Why did Princess continue to state until March 1 that the ship would sail as scheduled (March 2) ... didn't the line think this would be misleading? More importantly, why was Princess telling passengers to work to make it to Santiago when the U.S. State Department is "strongly urging U.S. citizens to avoid tourism and non-essential travel to Chile"?

Cruise Critic Note: One member arrived in Santiago on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. and found out there … in the airport … that the cruise wouldn't depart until Thursday (they knew about the first delay, the 6 p.m. Wed. push back). "We are paying for hotel and travel vouchers that we wouldn't have had to purchase if Princess had met their obligation to be at the pier in Valparaiso for us to embark by 6 p.m."

Princess: I think the timeline mostly addresses this question.

As the ship and our passengers were not in Valparaiso for an extended stay, and because of passengers were already in transit, we decided to sail the cruise as scheduled.

CC: According to postings on Cruise Critic's boards, some people were told by Princess reps to fly to other ports -- say Punta Arenas -- to meet the ship. Obviously the ship is not calling there anymore, so what about passengers impacted on those grounds?

Princess: We did not advise passengers to fly to alternate ports until March 2 when we had agreed the final itinerary. If this happened, it was a mistake.

CC: How many passengers were booked on the cruise ending March 2? How many were booked on the cruise beginning March 2? How many of those on the cruise that's ended have opted to stay onboard for the extra nights (at $50 - $75 a night)? How can the line reconcile charging passengers to stay in cabins that are supposed to be occupied by already paying guests?

Cruise Critic Note: Members are saying that the line is earning double in some sense from these cabins ... or are there enough empty cabins -- which wouldn't have been occupied anyway -- to accommodate everyone who wants to stay onboard?

Princess: We're trying to balance the needs of our passengers who need accommodation and those passengers sailing on the cruise they purchased. We felt to be fair to the passengers who paid for their cruise, we should charge the stay-on passengers a reasonable rate in recognition of the services we're providing, however we're doing at a discount in recognition of the unique circumstances and choices they were facing.

The last cruise was full, and the cruise departing Thursday was fully booked, as well. A total of 438 have indicated to us they would like to sail on a portion of the next cruise. We're charging a daily rate because we're providing services to the passengers on board. The discounted rate we're charging is far less than the expenses they would incur if they were in a shoreside hotel.

CC: Why hasn't Princess offered affected passengers a free future cruise or full refund?

Princess: Again, it's not our custom to provide total refunds to passengers in circumstances that are out of our control such as natural disasters. We rely on the fact that the large majority of our passengers purchase some sort of travel coverage to protect their vacation in the event of the unexpected.

CC: Why such a breakdown in communication? The near-unanimous word is that Princess simply did not get in touch with impacted cruisers, then basically continued to tell them the cruise would leave on time implying it was up to passengers to get to Santiago. This goes for travel agents, too, who had to go hunting for information to give to their clients.

Princess: I think we've addressed this.

CC: A lot of people feel like the line made it seem like it was the passengers' obligation to get to Santiago, despite the lack of flights ... despite the State Department travel alert ... despite the lack of communication from the line. Princess basically determined that if passengers cancelled "prematurely," this was grounds for forfeiture of cruise fare, and it was on insurance company to refund the associated costs. How do you respond to this?

Princess: I think we've addressed this in the questions above.

Princess Provides Earthquake Response Timeline