This is a different sort of post for me. I like to be positive and upbeat on my blog, and I like to offer solutions to travel problems so you can make the most of your trip, wherever you find yourself. But some friends of mine had a truly terrifying, unsatisfactory experience on Royal Caribbean International during the pre-Hurricane Irma panic, and since I am a travel advocate, I am using my blog to warn others not to book with Royal Caribbean International without taking appropriate precautions. And if shaming them on the Internet this way will make a difference in how they treat future cruisers this hurricane season and in the future, my goal will have been met.
My friends Jenna and Caleb, along with their cruise dinner table mates, were all looking forward to their Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean International’s Enchantment of the Seas–the ship touted in some articles as “idle” that was used to accommodate crew members and dogs, but let me assure you, it was not idle. Jenna and Caleb married young, so they were finally going on the honeymoon they never had; this would also be their first trip alone without their two-year-old son. A couple at their table for dinner had just gotten married two days before and were on their honeymoon. Another couple at their table was celebrating a birthday. They were excited to explore Nassau, Bahamas; CocoCay, Bahamas; and Key West, FL, over the next several days. Despite speaking with Royal Caribbean International’s meteorologist prior to the cruise, the cruisers were given the all-clear and told not to worry.
This expected 5-day experience held all the promise of romance, a tropical setting, and relaxation. Unfortunately, Irma was looming, and Royal Caribbean International had no Plan B.
When the cruise left its starting port at Miami on Monday evening, all seemed well. Many of Irma’s models showed her missing the cruise’s planned route. Until Tuesday. Just than 26 hours into their cruise, Royal Caribbean International announced the cruise would end early, and they would not stop at any other ports. Instead they would spend one more day ported at Nassau, and then head back to Miami, FL–a city and in fact an entire state already in evacuation mode.
So now these captive cruisers would need to make arrangements to get out of Miami quickly upon their Wednesday evening return. Royal Caribbean International told all passengers that the ship’s wi-fi would be free for 30 minutes to allow everyone to check in with their families and make travel arrangements before getting back to Miami. The problem with that 2400 cruisers needed to use the wi-fi, so it crashed. Jenna and Caleb had actually purchased the wi-fi plan for the week to FaceTime with their son each night, but most cruisers had not. When the Internet was back up and running the following day, Jenna and Caleb spent the day not on the beaches or exploring Nassau, but on the phone all day to make sure they could get a rental car. They could not get a guaranteed flight out, so they would have to drive from Miami to their home in Ohio.
Royal Caribbean International also offered to make the cruise ships phone lines available free of charge. The problem with that was there was never a dial tone. Many passengers had no way to find out if their already scheduled flights for Friday were cancelled, and they certainly had no way of making other arrangements to get out of Florida before the Miami airport was set to close. Some cruisers I spoke with made international phone calls to make plans and footed the hefty charges themselves. There was no other choice.
Any time cruisers I spoke with asked the crew for updates on the situation, the crew was rude, short-tempered, and unhelpful. When cruisers asked crew members what they were supposed to do about their travel arrangements, crew members told them they could figure it out when they arrived in Miami–without help from Royal Caribbean International.
As soon as my friends and their fellow cruisers ported at Miami, the reality, gravity, and real drama of their situation began. Miami was in the middle of an epic and unprecedented evacuation. Flights were cancelled, rental car companies were running out of cars, and in fact they were only renting to people with proof of intent to drive out of state in the form of an out-of-state driver’s license or confirmation of cancelled flights. In fact, my friends Caleb and Jenna had reserved a car in advance (at their own cost), but the rental car company told them there was no guarantee that the company would not have to close before the ship arrived into port–which would leave them stranded in Miami, since their flight had been cancelled for Friday and all flights that were still on schedule were overbooked.
Fortunately for Jenna and Caleb, they were able to get a car. Two of their friends whose flight home was cancelled were able to get a new flight–out of Charlotte, North Carolina. They hitched a ride with Caleb and Jenna for the drive. A typical drive from Miami to Charlotte takes around 10 hours; but traffic while running from Irma made it 21 hours. But Jenna and Caleb still had another 7 hours to go before they reached their home in Ohio. Despite their best efforts, their friends missed their flight in Charlotte. Thankfully, American Airlines stepped up in a way Royal Caribbean International did not. American Airlines put them on a flight the next day, allowed them access to TSA Pre-check, refunded their missed flights, and treated them fairly and ethically. Royal Caribbean International could learn from that example.
My friends and their cruise mates made it home before the hurricane hit. Some cruisers may not have been so lucky. We don’t know how many had to weather the storm in the airport or in shelters.
What Royal Caribbean International Didn’t Do for These Cruisers
When the inconvenienced cruisers on Enchantment of the Seas called Royal Caribbean International to see what their options were and what they needed to do to receive compensation, they learned they would receive nothing.
- No money back, not even for the ports they did not go to or the cruise days they missed
- No credit toward a future cruise
All this comes after Royal Caribbean also would not port anywhere except Miami–a city in the midst of an unprecedented evacuation. This seems like the worst decision in a series of bad decisions by Royal Caribbean International. Ship captains are in charge of and responsible for the ship, its crew, and its passengers, and they can choose to port or not to port wherever they like. I’m quite certain that if the captain had called any port city on the eastern seaboard or anywhere available on the Gulf of Mexico including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Cancun, Cozumel, etc., they would have been happy to give the ship (and money-spending cruisers) a place to park until the hurricane passed. They could have not only avoided an evacuation area, any passengers who needed to get home could have done so through a city where flights were not being cancelled and overbooked due to this monumental category 5 hurricane.
I read that cruise companies are required to provide passengers complimentary passage to the city where they were supposed to disembark in the case that they have to port elsewhere. Perhaps avoiding that possible additional expense was Royal Caribbean International’s primary focus. But in this special situation, I think perhaps everyone onboard would have been thankful to port anywhere other than a hurricane evacuation zone.
I would also like to take this opportunity to state the fact that dropping people off somewhere that is most convenient for Royal Caribbean International may absolve them of legal responsibility, which I’m sure is what they believe, but it does not absolve them of moral or ethical responsibility. They knowingly put these people in harm’s way. They did not leave the boat in the hurricane zone, so why would they think it’s acceptable to leave people–paying customers–in the hurricane zone?
What Royal Caribbean International Did for Other Cruisers
The cruisers on Enchantment of the Seas received nothing but inconvenience and a one-way ticket into the dangerous evacuation zone. Cruisers on future cruises were offered altered port cities to destinations that had not been pummeled by Hurricane Irma. They were also offered refunds in the case that they could not make it to their cruise. Why can they offer that to future passengers, but not the passengers who had already been treated so carelessly?
What Other Cruise Lines Did for Their Customers
I would like to say that there are responsible cruise lines out there with common sense, excellent customer service practices, and a willingness to think outside the box to keep customers safe and happy–and hopefully return for future cruises. One cruise ship docked in Cozumel to ride out the storm, a port that was not on their itinerary. Several others restocked at the nearest port and simply extended their cruises in safe waters. There were options. Royal Caribbean International acted irresponsibly and failed on all levels.
What You Can Do Next Time
I actually really enjoyed the cruise I took on Carnival a few years ago, and I’d go on another cruise in the future. However, there are some steps I would take, and that I recommend you do, too:
- Do not cruise with an irresponsible cruise line; go with Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, American Cruise Lines, or anyone else
- Get trip insurance, especially if you are cruising during hurricane season or tropical storm season; discuss possible scenarios with them so you know your options and coverage in advance
- Read your Contract of Carriage carefully so that you know your rights and the cruise company’s policies for cancellations of all kinds
- Budget for the cruise line’s wi-fi plan; remember that you can make a 1-800 call on Skype for free as long as you are connected to wi-fi, and look around for places where you can use wi-fi for free wherever you port, such as McDonald’s Starbucks, hotels, etc.
- Talk to your cell phone plan provider about international options–are you covered? how much does it cost if you’re not? will your phone or data plan work if you are at sea and not docked at a port?
- If you have to evacuate an area by car, start looking for gas when you reach half a tank as you may have to pass by several empty gas stations; also get food when you can because several restaurants had run out of food while Jenna and Caleb were on their three-day drive home
So, Royal Caribbean International, I hope you are ashamed enough to make changes. Customer service training will be invaluable for your company. Learning to think of customers as a priority and thinking outside the box are skills that can and should be developed. You have done far-reaching damage from a public relations standpoint. No one I spoke with who lived through this situation will ever cruise with you again. As a frequent traveler myself hearing about how your company treated my friends and acquaintances, I will never cruise with Royal Caribbean International. And I hope those who read this blog post will always go with a superior cruise company–not Royal Caribbean International.