A not-so reassuring cruise contract

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 78 of the November 2008 issue.

R.J. Pazara of Arlington, Texas, wrote the following to ITN:

“My wife and I took a cruse aboard the Azamara Journey from Miami, Florida, to Santos (for Saõ Paulo), Brazil, Nov. 11-29, 2007.

“We learned that all of the cruise lines of Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., including Azamara Cruises, had the following as section 3 on their Cruise/CruiseTour Ticket Contract: ‘No undertaking or warranty shall be given or shall be implied as to the seaworthiness, fitness or condition of the Vessel or any food or drink supplied on board.’

“In other words, the cruise company did not take responsibility for its own ship or food.

“There was no mention of this on the Azamara website, and no brochure was available when we booked this cruise. The first time we saw the statement was when the cruise documents arrived three weeks before sailing — well past the time to cancel without penalty. Furthermore, the contract had to be signed before embarkation or we would not be allowed on board.

“The front desk, the sales department and the captain all would not comment on that clause. I was told the front desk manager would contact me, and two days before the end of the cruise she called and said she would supply me with the name and phone number of the correct person to contact at the cruise line’s main office.

“On the morning of disembarkation I received a letter with no name and the general reservations number for the office in Miami. Upon returning home, I did not contact the cruise line.”

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. (1050 Caribbean Way, Miami, FL 33132), and received no reply.

For her legal observations, ITN sent a copy to Contributing Editor Judith Anshin, a retired attorney, who noted the following:

“Taken by itself, without regard to other clauses in the contract, this statement gives rise to many legal questions. Putting it simply, if the contract were signed by the passenger, the company would not be liable for any mishap involving the ship or any food or drink served.

“Adding later an inclusion or requirement like the one the passenger describes raises many issues of equity. But even if this particular clause were included at the time of negotiating the contract, legal issues would arise.

“To complicate matters, what if the passenger got to the dock and it appeared to him/her that the vessel was not seaworthy? With this clause in place, the passenger might be well advised to cancel the voyage, but, then, would travel insurance pay for the loss? Apparently, the passenger would have no ability to contest until it was too late.

“What if every cruise company started incorporating this clause in contracts? Would travel insurance companies then extend coverage to cover this situation? Would a passenger’s evaluation of seaworthiness be sufficient for insurance to cover the loss or would a regulatory agency have to declare the vessel to be not seaworthy?

“Travelers should carefully read the proposed contract before signing on for a cruise, and if this kind of clause is included they may want to look for another cruise company that does not include it.”

To research this issue a bit further, I contacted a reputable and highly experienced travel agent specializing in cruising, Gordon Klang of Strathmore Travel (14000 Broomall Ln., Silver Spring, MD 20906; 301/460-8011, strathtrav@hotmail.com).

Gordon said he had never seen this language before and that the language left him as uncomfortable as it did Mr. Pazara. He noted, though, that Azamara is a reputable and high-end cruise line, one that values customer satisfaction.

Experienced in regulatory matters, Gordon noted the following:

“In most states, there are little-known laws that protect the consumer in matters like this. If (Mr. Pazara) had purchased this ticket in Maryland, for example, despite the language of the contract, our state consumer protection laws would come into force.

“And any judge in Maryland hearing a case arising out of a dispute over quality of service or seaworthiness of the vessel would pay attention to those laws and, in making his decision, almost certainly would set aside that questionable clause.

“This would be true even though the cruise line headquarters were in another state or country and even though the incident causing the dispute arose outside of Maryland.”

I also contacted a public relations expert with over 25 years in the cruise business. He wished to remain anonymous, since he represents numerous lines, but stated that he had never seen language like that used by any of the many cruise lines he had worked with.

He said that the language made him uncomfortable and did not convey a good customer orientation.

Finally, I contacted the Cruise Lines International Association, Inc., or CLIA (910 SE 17th St., Ste. 400, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316; 754/224-2200, www.cruising.org), of which Azamara Cruises and 23 other major cruise lines are members.

CLIA’s website can help you plan a cruise, direct you to a certified CLIA cruise agent and respond to tricky questions like the one Mr. Pazara initiated.

CLIA apparently directly contacted Azamara’s parent line, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., and I received from Cynthia Martinez, Manager, Corporate Communications, RCCL, the following interesting e-mail:

“I’ve been researching your inquiry. Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises did have similar language in their respective cruise ticket contacts. None of the brands now include that language in their ticket contracts.

“The statement was included, many years ago, to differentiate between what the cruise line is required to provide crew members — such as medical care in case of a major illness — but not necessarily to guests. The clause would not prevent a passenger from raising concerns about seaworthiness, food, drink or other problems on board.

“We believe that similar language has been used in the cruise contracts of other cruise lines in the past.

So there you have it. It’s still puzzling, but the cruise line states that there never was a problem!

What lessons can be derived from this?

Travelers should try to obtain their cruise documents well in advance of the cruise, read them carefully, object to odd clauses, be aware of their rights under local consumer protection laws and, when in difficulty, invoke the assistance of CLIA. Getting ITN involved can prove useful, too!

Lew Toulmin is the author of “The Most Traveled Man on Earth,” available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping from The Village Press (13108 Hutchinson Way, Silver Spring, MD 20906; www.themosttraveled.com). You can reach him by e-mail at lewtoulmin@aol.com.