Celebrity Cruises' Perfect Storm: Passengers Heated Over Canceled Voyage

October 20, 2010

(4:10 p.m. EDT) -- It's not hurricane season in the Mediterranean, but there sure was a perfect storm this weekend aboard Celebrity Century after a pair of busted rudders brought the ship's 12-night cruise to a grinding halt only two days into the voyage. The sudden cancellation sent nearly 2,000 passengers scrambling to make new arrangements from the port of Villefranche. The problems created by the glacial debarkation process via tender and the French transportation strikes occurring at that time were further compounded by a scarcity of nearby flight options and a lack of communication from an unprepared and overmatched crew.

As we reported last Friday, Celebrity Cruises offered passengers on the ill-fated Eastern Mediterranean sailing full refunds, 25 percent future cruise credits based on the fares paid, and bus transportation from Villefranche, where the cruise ended prematurely, back to Barcelona, where it had begun (on time). In addition, all were offered up to $250 in air change fees, and complimentary phone and Internet services onboard so they could make the necessary travel arrangements.

But was this compensation fair, and did the line effectively manage the travel crisis? A number of Cruise Critic members don't think so, and in the ensuing days post-cancellation, a firestorm has erupted on the message boards over Celebrity's handling of the difficult state of affairs.

"Celebrity could not have done worse in this situation," posted member Ghstudio, who was on what turned out to be a two-night cruise. "It was almost as if someone said...what should we do, and then did the opposite." Oatmeal concurred. "Celebrity did not have a single officer on site to assist and the Captain only made one announcement," she posted. "They gave sketchy, poor, incomplete information to the singers, dancers, cashiers and purser's crew to disseminate. The information changed over and over again ... Yes, we were permitted to use the phones and internet for free, but not until the next day when it was the middle of the night in the States due to the 6 hour time difference. One trunk line was made available and with only 10 or so computer terminals, getting information was nearly impossible." ChampagneLass was extremely unhappy. "To give 1,800 people, most of whom were non Europeans and a lot of whom were elderly and infirm, 1 day in which to make alternative travel plans when it was almost impossible to get a phone line and the computers kept crashing due to the amount of users, was ridiculous."

But others saw it differently. Writes Nps001, who was also onboard: "Are we disappointed? Of course -- we really wanted to see Croatia and many of the other ports," he posted. "But a large part of the passengers seemed to think that Celebrity could wave a magic wand, find hotel rooms for all, change their airline tickets, etc, and all within 24 hours."

And some aimed to make the best of the circumstances. They were still, after all, in Europe, and some posters mentioned passengers rebooking cruises on other lines in the region or making alternate land-based travel plans in the region.

Flagger, an agent with clients onboard the cruise, was concerned for the staff onboard. "The crew is truly overwhelmed and some have been brought to tears by those who are quite angry about the situation. Most of them have never seen something like this so many are in the dark as much as the passengers are."

Julie91165, who was onboard, agreed. "We have disembarked the Century after our ill-fated cruise ... It has been a trying situation, but I must say that I am more upset over the treatment of the crew then I am over the broken rudders. Celebrity will remedy this issue with the best intentions, but at the end of the day, they have a ship to fix before this same situation happens to another 1,800 people booked on a transatlantic cruise."

Others tried to use the experience for educational purposes -- in other words, to tout the value of good travel insurance and a resourceful travel agent. Host Anne, who monitors the Celebrity boards, offered some advice. "If there is a lesson in all of this, the value of a great travel agent has been shown here in this thread," she wrote. "When bad things happen (and unfortunately they do and will), the ability to turn to a good agent can make ALL the difference in a situation like this. While we'd like to think and expect that Celebrity can help all passengers immediately and get everything taken care of in a country where there is a strike that is making matters worse is unrealistic. Being able to turn to your travel agent who can help work out logistics with you is invaluable."

We contacted Celebrity Cruises for comment on the compensation and the passenger backlash. A company spokeswoman tells us that she's working on getting responses to our questions.

So what can you do when your cruise is canceled mid-cruise, and what obligation should a cruise line have for its passengers? Members are discussing it here.

The simple means of protecting yourself against unforeseen travel disasters is to purchase travel insurance. Cruise Critic has long advised travelers to purchase travel insurance directly from a respected third-party insurer (rather than the cruise lines themselves) -- and if this rare case is any indication, make sure you know how the trip interruption portion of the policy works. What sort of expenses will be covered with the policy in the event of a mechanical failure: hotel, air changes, transportation? And how expensive will a plan that covers mechanical failures, typically a premium feature in most travel insurance policies, be? Check out our Travel Insurance Pros and Cons for more information.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor