A cruise from hell to nowhere

by Christopher Elliott on April 18, 2004

Q: My parents went on a Carnival Cruise this winter that ended up being, as my mother puts it, “the cruise from hell to nowhere.”

On Feb. 22, there was a serious boat accident in the Mississippi river which blocked the port and delayed the departure of Carnival’s “Conquest” from New Orleans.

My parents arrived at the pier the next day and were told to board a bus to Gulfport, Miss. The river walk restaurants were closed and there was no food except at the snack bar. The food at the snack bar ran out at 10:30 p.m. Of course, the terminal is not built for long-term comfort. There was no consideration for families with children or passengers with medical issues. My mother was without her oxygen until she got to the ship 18 hours later.

Since it was Mardi Gras, there were no accommodations to be had. My parents’ group finally left New Orleans at 3:30 a.m. on Monday, arriving at the ship in Gulfport at 5 a.m. – by taxi. They were able to board the ship upon arrival and then waited till 6 p.m. to sail.

There was no stop in Montego Bay, Jamaica, due to the delay, so the ship sailed on to the Cayman Islands.

My parents were supposed to go snorkeling in the Caymans, but on Thursday the port authority wouldn’t allow any landings because of high waters. Meanwhile, the daily newsletter kept touting its “fun days at sea.” I realize that a cruise ship isn’t just a floating Motel 6, but my parents were really taking the cruise more to enjoy the ports of call.

The one port of call that finally worked out was Cozumel. My parents were able to take a day trip to Tulum. The Carnival staff did an amazing job under the circumstances – Mom and Dad report that the staff managed to stay cheerful even with people griping at them constantly.

Carnival offered one prorated day and a certificate for 50 percent off of their next cruise (which would be roughly when hell freezes over). That does not seem adequate when only one of three ports was visited. Can you help?

– Janis Valdes

A: You’re right. Your parents were on the cruise from hell to nowhere.

But the question isn’t whether they had a terrible time (they did, and not even Carnival would question that) but to what extent the cruise line is to blame.

Let’s start with the accident that caused the first delay. Carnival’s fault? Nope. Same for Mardi Gras – that’s not a holiday the cruise line invented. And the cruise terminal amenities are largely the port’s responsibility, not Carnival’s.

But the cruise line tried to work around this convergence of misfortune, according to a spokeswoman for the line. “Motorcoaches were extremely difficult to come by,” Jennifer de la Cruz explained. “We obtained as many as we could, but the transfer of guests – both those coming off the ship in Gulfport needing to get to New Orleans and those arriving in New Orleans for the next cruise – was an excruciatingly slow process.”

Carnival was also powerless to stop the high waters from interfering with its Cayman port of call. For the Conquest and its passengers, it seemed, nothing could go right.

So what did Carnival do? In addition to the discount off a future cruise and the prorated day, the company offered your parents $50 per person in shipboard credit. Your parents could have also called off the cruise when things started heading south in New Orleans. “As people waited at the New Orleans cruise terminal for transfer to Gulfport, if they approached our personnel and asked to cancel and receive a full refund of their voyage, our embarkation personnel was authorized to allow it,” de la Cruz added. “So, if guests requested it, cancellation without penalty was available.”

Seems like Carnival did enough for your parents.

What could they have done differently? When this cruise took a turn for the worse, they should have spoken up. They could have received a no-penalty refund if they’d said something at the start of their cruise from hell. That’s something to keep in mind any time you travel.

When it comes to addressing a travel problem, there’s no time like the present to say something.

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