What to expect if you’re expecting to cruise

by Christopher Elliott on November 21, 2012

Bryan and Fola Nelson were excited about their upcoming five-night Bahamas cruise on the Carnival Fascination. It was to be their last vacation before the birth of their first child.

Then, not long before their scheduled departure, Carnival delivered some bad news: Not only would Fola Nelson be denied boarding, but the cruise line would also pocket her entire fare, minus port taxes.

Why? Because like many other cruise lines, Carnival bans passengers who are 25 weeks or more pregnant.

“My wife will be 10 days over that,” says Bryan Nelson, a teacher in Minneapolis. “And despite her doctor’s okay, the cruise line is sticking to its policy.”

Cruise lines’ rules on pregnancy are a common source of complaints from travelers. But like so many other cruise industry policies, this one wasn’t always a hard-and-fast rule. Had Nelson become pregnant a decade ago, the company probably would have let her reschedule her trip at a minimal cost.

Not today. And the change is something that her cruise line seems happy to let the world know about.

Carnival’s policy allows pregnant women to sail only through the 24th week of pregnancy. Every passenger who is expecting must show a physician’s letter verifying that mother and baby are in good health and fit to travel. The letter must also include the estimated date of delivery. “Carnival’s pregnancy guidelines are put in place as a precaution to protect the unborn baby and the mother,” says Aly Bello, a spokeswoman for the cruise line.

That makes sense. Cruise ships offer reasonable emergency medical facilities for guests and crew members. But prenatal and early infant care can require specialized diagnostic facilities or treatment that might not be available on a ship or in the closest port of call.

Even with the rules in place, complications can arise. This month, a 31-year-old passenger was airlifted from the Disney Magic, 180 miles off the Texas coast, because of medical problems related to her pregnancy.

Other companies have virtually identical policies. Norwegian Cruise Lines refuses to admit passengers past the 24-week mark. So does Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. “This decision is made because of the unique nature of a cruise ship being at sea for extended periods of time and the possibility of a guest’s medical condition becoming critical during those times at sea,” says Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez.

But not every pregnancy is planned, and cruises are often booked months in advance. You’d expect cruise lines to help passengers who get pregnant in the months between the booking and sailing dates, particularly if the company can re-sell the cabin to another customer.

But Carnival turned down requests from both the Nelsons and their travel agent to waive its rules. Bello noted that the Nelsons should have bought the travel insurance that Carnival offered. If they had, they would have received a 75 percent future cruise credit.

That’s becoming an increasingly common response. Cruise lines appear eager to make a public example of customers who didn’t buy travel insurance. The reason? Travel protection now accounts for a significant portion of their profits, and bending a rule would effectively undermine the business model.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the cruise lines to adopt pregnancy policies, particularly given the limited nature of the medical facilities on cruise ships and the absence of doctors who are experienced in obstetrics and gynecology,” says James Walker, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attorney specializing in maritime law. “The problem arises when there is a good-faith misunderstanding by the pregnant passenger, and the cruise line takes a rigid attitude and pockets the consumer’s money.”

The Nelsons say that they’re troubled by the way their situation was handled. Neither their travel agency nor Carnival bothered to disclose the pregnancy restrictions in a clear way before they booked, they say. “We reviewed cruise tickets from our travel agency and found nothing about pregnancy,” says Bryan Nelson.

I asked that agency, Orlando-based Cruise Vacation Outlet, what it tells its customers. Todd Elliott, the president, said that the agency directs all clients to complete an online check-in to review any terms and conditions. The agency’s welcome letter to new customers also directs them to the terms and conditions, which contain information about a cruise line’s pregnancy restrictions.

In an e-mail to the Nelsons, their travel agent, Jay Garcia, bottom-lined it: “We are not responsible for unforeseen circumstances that are beyond our control.”

Nelson is not entirely satisfied with that response. He says that the welcome letter refers only to visa and passport requirements and that he was never told to review the terms and conditions on the cruise line’s Web site. His wife’s pregnancy was flagged a few weeks before the cruise, when they tried to check in online.

Even if they’d booked their cruise using Carnival’s Web site, they would have had to wade through four screens of information before reaching the details about cruising and pregnancy. It’s something they could have easily missed.

As someone who once had to postpone a family cruise because of the 24-week rule, I’m sympathetic to Nelson’s problem. I don’t think it’s right for him to lose his entire cruise. No one is arguing that the cruise line policy on pregnancy is wrong. But waiving a rule for a borderline case such as the Nelsons’ wouldn’t affect Carnival’s stock price, and it would go a long way toward creating loyal repeat customers.

At any rate, making an example of the Nelsons seems insensitive and opportunistic — even if Carnival’s contract allows it.

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  • http://twitter.com/johntbaker John Baker

    Before anyone starts in on how cold and callus the cruise line is, let’s look at the facts in this case:

    1. Cruise lines didn’t pull this date out of a hat. According to physicians on Chris’s site, this is the point that a baby is generally viable if it’s born prematurely. Medical facilities on a cruise ship are very basic. They don’t have the equipment to care for a severely premature baby. They are not a floating NICU. In some cases, the mother and baby could be hours away from a NICU and the care the baby requires. That is not setting the baby up for a good outcome. The liability from the cruise line’s perspective is just too high.

    2. The OP had to agree to the cruise lines contract to make the purchase. Pregnancy restrictions is one of the headers in that contract. There’s a fair chance that the OP didn’t bother to read it (I honestly can’t say the last time I actually read a EULA) but it doesn’t mean that he isn’t bound by its conditions.

    3. The contract does allow the OP to cancel without penalty up to 60 – 70 days prior to travel (depends on the length of voyage). Basic math shows that the mom would be at least 12 weeks pregnant by that point.

    4. I hate Carnival with a passion but that doesn’t mean that they occasionally make good decisions. This is one.

  • ninas

    I am a softee. Hold the money in escrow and allow them to use it at a later date. The customer is happy and the cruise line me even garner additional revenue when they rebook. Call it a goodwill gesture.

  • Anonymous

    Softee? No, you are Nice! I agree, I hope Carnival changes its mind and gives them a retake.

  • Anonymous

    he was never told to review the terms and conditions
    on the cruise line’s Web site. His wife’s pregnancy was flagged a few
    weeks before the cruise, when they tried to check in online.

    The contract details for a 5 (or less) day cruise
    PRIOR DEPARTURE CANCELLATION CHARGE(per guest)
    Up to 61 days None (except for Cruise-To-Nowhere and Early Saver Fares*)
    60 to 46 days Deposit^
    45 to 30 days Deposit or 50% of Total Fare, whichever is greater
    29 to 15 days Deposit or 75% of Total Fare, whichever is greater
    14 days or less 100% of Total Fare

    *The deposit is non-refundable.
    ^ For Cruises-To-Nowhere, the cancellation charge is 25% of the total fare.
    Note: For Pack N Go fares – The full payment is non-refundable and non-transferable.

    If it is a FEW WEEKS (i.e. 2 weeks) PRIOR DEPARTURE then he would have lost 100% of the total fare if they cancelled.

    Also, if they did not cancel, the cruise-line will not allow her to board because she has not filed the pregnancy certificate or cannot comply with the pregnancy policy.

    See notice: http://www.carnival.com/cms/Images/Funpass/Pregnancy_letter.pdf

    Finally, if they bought a Pack N Go fare, there was no refund to wait for.

    Bottom line, if you are pregnant or plan to get pregnant, stay away from Carnival.

  • http://twitter.com/johntbaker John Baker

    Actually … stay away from all cruise lines. What you laid out are fairly standard terms for the entire industry to include the late term pregnancy.

    Of course the other option would be to actually read the contract and understand it before you digitally sign it. You might also want to avoid booking a non-refundable fare until 5 months out.

  • Anonymous

    Hey John, how does this work?
    You might also want to avoid booking a non-refundable fare until 5 months out.

    ADDED: Many people expect their travel agent to read the T&Cs for them and warn them,

  • http://twitter.com/johntbaker John Baker

    By my math, 5 months out would put you at 20 weeks (22 worst case) if you got pregnant the day you signed up. At that point, you’re still legal to get on. Any time before that and you risk not boarding.

  • ssheldo

    When did the OP book the cruise? Was it more than 6 months prior to the cruise? Did she know she was pregnant when they booked? If so, should the TA have warned her? We frequently sail on the Fascination and book months in advance on the ‘Super Saver’, which is non-refundable. The fare is so inexpensive, we just take our chances that we might not be able to go. BTW, Carnival’s new ‘elite’ perks are so poor, after 30+ CCL cruises, we’ll be concentrating on our other lines.

  • Anonymous

    Less do the math backwards.

    Carnival wants pregnant women OUT OF THE BOAT (disembark) no later than 25 weeks of pregnancy.

    Since their cruises are about 5-7 days then a pregnant woman taking a short cruise should be IN THE BOAT no later than her 24th week of pregnancy.

    Full payment is due no later than 60 days prior departure. So back the date another 9 weeks or by the 15th week (of pregnancy).

    So if a pregnant woman is determined to cruise, she would have already paid her cruise in full before she is even 4 months pregnant. And, she better be on the boat [for a short cruise] no later than 6 months pregnant.

    You really can’t plan that way ahead so what you are suggesting is they take a spur of the moment cruise (last minute purchase).

    I find it interesting that the same women are expected to be working and start a maternity leave around 38 weeks of pregnancy. What is so stressful taking a cruise that pregnant women have to be out of there by the 25th week? Maybe cruising is bruising.

  • Matthew in NYC

    I get more than a little annoyed with people like this. They shell out thousands of dollars for a vacation, don’t pay a few hundred for insurance, don’t read the contract conditions and then cry when they lose their money. If you can’t afford the insurance, you can’t afford to travel. If you don’t read the conditions of an expensive contract, then you are asking to lose your money. Whilst I am the first to admit I usually click the accept button on conditions without reading them, especially for a computer software upgrade, I always read the contract when I am spending thousands of dollars I can’t afford to lose.

  • TonysTravel – LA

    Another reason to use a Professional Travel Agent, who is a Carnival Cruise Specialist and / or a CLIA Certified Master Cruise Specialist.
    I just had a simular situation involving a cruise to Hawaii. I found out that there was a pregency involved prior to the onset of penalities. I explained the cruise line policy to the clients and able to swith their travel plans to a Fly and stay vacation.

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