Lost in Irene's Wake: Carnival, Royal Caribbean Strand 450 Passengers in San Juan

August 24, 2011

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(8:15 p.m. EDT) -- Nearly 450 cruisers were stranded in San Juan on Sunday when port authorities ordered Carnival and Royal Caribbean vessels to leave early to avoid Hurricane Irene.

Three hundred of those left behind had not yet boarded the 2,758-passenger Carnival Victory, which was ordered to leave at 6 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. Another 145 were left by Royal Caribbean's 2,112-passenger Serenade of the Seas, which departed at 5:30 p.m. -- three hours before the originally scheduled departure time. (Note: San Juan is the embarkation port for each ship.) Port authorities from San Juan limited traffic in and out of the port starting at approximately 12:30 p.m. on Sunday.

In Royal Caribbean's case, passengers from Serenade of the Seas were not notified of the change in plans.

One of those stranded passengers was Nicole Washington, who told CBS Miami that she arrived at the port shortly after 5 p.m. to find the terminal closed and Serenade of the Seas gone. According to Royal Caribbean, there wasn't time to alert the passengers of the early exit. "Since this decision was made by the Port of San Juan on Sunday while the ship was docked alongside, there was no way to notify our guests of this change in departure time," the line said in the statement. The line did, however, have port agents at the pier assisting guests who did not arrive in time to meet the ship.

Washington's response: "I can't believe this big billion-dollar company couldn't have contacted me to tell me the ship was leaving early. They had my phone number!"

For Carnival's part, spokesman Vance Gulliksen tells Cruise Critic that the line reached out to all guests who were unable to meet the ship and either spoke to them directly, talked to emergency contacts listed by the passengers or reached out to passengers' travel agents. "We did have to leave voicemail messages for the ones we could not make a live contact with," he added.

Hotel accommodations and flights to Aruba to meet the ship were provided to the 15 Serenade of the Seas passengers who had booked the air/sea package through Royal Caribbean. The balance of cruise-only passengers were, upon arrival at the cruise terminal, "advised of hotel availability in San Juan," said the line. The expense of both the potential hotel stay and airfare to reach the ship was the passengers' responsibility -- or covered by their travel insurance, depending on the policy -- because the early departure was a weather-related incident.

Carnival response was markedly different. Spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz tells Cruise Critic that the line offered complimentary hotel rooms for two nights in San Juan to all 300 passengers, regardless of whether they booked air through the line. The 300 impacted passengers were also offered a free flight to Barbados to meet the ship. The flight required that they have a passport; about half of the passengers took the line up on the hotel and air offer.

At this point, a number of left-behinds have connected with Serenade of the Seas and Carnival Victory, said spokespeople from each line. "We're only aware of the independent guests who made contact with us," said Royal Caribbean's Cynthia Martinez, "[but] of those, 45 joined in Aruba and two in Curacao." As mentioned above, about 150 of Carnival's impacted cruisers, many of whom were sailing as part of a large group, met Victory in Barbados on Wednesday.

Royal Caribbean is not providing compensation for passengers who miss the sailing, says Martinez -- again, because the early departure was a weather-related event. De la Cruz said that any passenger who missed the Carnival Victory cruise will be refunded in the form of a future cruise credit.

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--by Dan Askin, News Editor