Here Cries the Bride: When Cruise Weddings Go Wrong

May 24, 2011

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(9 a.m. EDT) -- In October 2010, Cruise Critic reader Amie P. booked her December 2011 wedding on a Celebrity Millennium cruise. Excited about her big day, she ordered invitations and invited guests to come along. So far, so good.

"We had already booked 24 cabins (including the penthouse suite, sky suite, and primarily balcony cabins). And we were likely to book about 25 more cabins," she writes. And then ... "my travel agent called me and told me that Celebrity had chartered out our ship and was kicking us off the cruise."

That's right -- while a cruise ship wedding can be incredibly romantic, there are also many possibilities for something to go wrong, either in advance or at the last minute, to derail the best-laid ceremony plans. Cruise Critic members posting on our Honeymoon & Wedding Cruises forums the past few years have experienced a whole range of wedding woes.

Member splendor bride posted that "Having most of our wedding plans set for 12-19-10 aboard the Carnival Splendor, on 11-16-10 we found ourselves having to scramble to make this wedding happen. We got the official news that because of the fire on board the Splendor in October, our sailing date had been canceled, along with our wedding plans." PMO wrote: "Yesterday our travel agent got a fax stating that RCCL is no longer going to Key West in 2009 or 2010!! My daughter was getting married there and having her reception there January 16, 2009." And jlc22043 had her Half Moon Cay wedding canceled when "we heard the cruise director come over the loud speaker to say that due to weather conditions, we would not be pulling in to our port (the place we were supposed to be married)."

After all the work that couples do to plan a wedding, it's heartbreaking when those plans get derailed. But, there are ways to salvage a canceled cruise wedding. Here are our tips on what you can do, should your onboard or in-port wedding dreams turn into a nightmare.

Swap your ship. If you get bumped off your wedding cruise, the cruise line will always offer you the chance to rebook on a different sailing, either the same ship on a different date or another ship in the fleet altogether. For example, splendor bride was able to convert the six rooms she'd booked on Carnival Splendor for 14 people into seven rooms on Carnival Spirit for the same week and get a refund for the difference in fares. You might not get the exact cabins you'd booked on your original sailing, but at least you can salvage your wedding. And, while it's good to have a Plan B in the back of your mind, Valerie Brizuela Mahon, marketing director of the Wedding Experience, which helps brides plan cruise-ship weddings, says it's "very rare" for a wedding to get bumped.

Swap your port. If you've planned an in-port wedding and the ship is forced to skip that port of call due to weather or mechanical issues, you should always look into options for getting married in a subsequent port of call or even on the ship if your captain is licensed to married people. (Princess and Celebrity captains are licensed.) When jlc22043's ship skipped her wedding port of Half Moon Cay, she contacted a local wedding planner in St. Thomas and was told "because we had all our docs with us, there shouldn't be any problems getting married with such short notice." Brook Wilke, owner of the Cruising Weddings travel agency, says different ports have different rules about weddings.

In Grand Cayman, you can walk up and get a license, whereas the Bahamas requires you to be in Bahamian waters for at least 24 hours before you can be legally wed. Mahon adds that couples who book their weddings through the Wedding Experience would get assistance from their onboard representative in making alternative arrangements. If you're worried about missing your wedding port, consider planning the wedding for a destination early in the cruise so you'd have opportunities to reschedule.

Have a symbolic wedding. If no alternative port can be found, and the captain of your ship is not qualified to marry you, the cruise line will offer you the option of a symbolic wedding. You can enjoy the ceremony and reception you'd been planning for months -- the only kicker is you won't be legally married and will have to make things official on your return home. This may not be a satisfactory solution for most brides, but it's a possibility if you still want to celebrate with friends and family onboard. However, Wilke comments that you won't be receiving any sort of refund if you go this route, even though, after everything, you won't actually be husband and wife.

Get a refund. If no reasonable option can be found, you're entitled to a full refund -- either just your wedding costs if you cruise but don't get married, or your cruise fare plus wedding costs if you get bumped and don't rebook on another sailing. However, brides should note that it's not possible to be reimbursed for legal fees already paid to the original wedding destination. And, always check the fine print -- some in-port private wedding planners, says Wilke, will deduct a service fee from your refund.

Be proactive. If you think there might be a problem with your cruise wedding, don't wait for the cruise line to reach out to you. splendor bride told Cruise Critic that after the ship fire, she called Carnival several times and monitored the Cruise Critic message boards until she found out that her cruise was canceled. Before Carnival contacted her, she was on the phone, trying to reschedule her cruise with Carnival and her wedding with the Wedding Experience. Had she waited, it's possible the rooms would have been snatched up by another displaced cruiser.

And, when Carnival told jlc22043 that "no legal wedding could be performed on any other island," she called a local wedding planner and was able to save her destination wedding. No one cares about your wedding more than you, so if you want to make it work, take matters into your own hands.

Negotiate. Don't settle for unsatisfactory compensation. When Amie P. called Celebrity to find out what could be done about her bumped cruise, she was told only that she had just a few days to choose if she wanted to reschedule the wedding for a different cruise. "And that's it, no sorry we ruined your wedding plans, sorry your engagement ornament says your wedding date is 12/11/11 and now it won't be, sorry you spent over $1,000 on message-in-a-glass-bottle invitations that have a cruise ship and 12/11/11 on the outside of the bottle and say Celebrity's name all over both pages of the invitation."

But she wasn't deterred. She kept on Celebrity and in a follow-up email to Cruise Critic, reported that "Celebrity is apparently going to refund the money we paid toward the cruise and reimburse us for our invitations and the hotel room we had already reserved in Miami for the night before the cruise." That said, she'd still like so see "some effort on [Celebrity's] part to show they're trying to somehow make up for chartering out their ship and kicking me and my wedding guests off." Celebrity spokeswoman Tavia Robb confirmed that "in the event that Celebrity cancels existing cruise reservations ... each case is handled individually, depending on the situation and factors such as length of time between the notification of cancellation and the original sail date." Bottom line: With no set compensation policy, you should always argue for what you feel is a fair deal.

--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor