What You Should Know About Cruising During Hurricane Season: Advice from a Maritime Attorney

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

August and September are prime months for hurricanes in the Caribbean. If you’ll be traveling over the next few weeks, it’s important to know your rights before you travel.  And when it comes to changes in itinerary due to bad weather, the deck is stacked against you and in favor of the cruise line.  Thus, travel at your own risk during hurricane season.

Cruise lines seldom want to cancel whole trips due to the presence of hurricanes in the Caribbean. This is the because the only way cruise lines make money is by having cruises.  Thus, this is a dangerous profit motive that often puts passengers in harm’s way (see Carnival Triumph).  In the case a hurricane develops, there’s always a chance your cruise will be cancelled entirely, or, you may have your itinerary changed.  Rerouting of ships due to the presence of storms is pretty common in the industry. This is important to note if you intend to travel during peak hurricane season. If you have a dream “must-see” destination on your itinerary, it would be safest to plan your trip off peak hurricane season, especially because there’s always a chance cruise operators will decide to sail into the storm.

Any maritime attorney at our firm can tell you that when it comes to cruises, vacationers should be prepared for changes in plans. Cruise passengers are not generally entitled to compensation or reimbursement if a cruise’s itinerary changes due to a storm. In previous blogs, we’ve discussed the danger of fine print in cruise passenger ticket contracts, which allows cruise lines – in many cases – to attempt to avoid liability when an accident or passenger injury occurs due to negligence, and also, in cases where itinerary changes are made due to adverse weather conditions. This means that passengers often have little recourse should the cruise line decide to change or cancel the itinerary.

Just last week, hurricane Odile resulted in the Disney Cruise Line ship, the Disney Wonder, changing its itinerary. Instead of visiting Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the ship decided to substitute the ports with two “at-sea” days. Though it was certainly a good idea on Disney’s part to avoid the storm – especially considering the extremely high possibility that the vessel could become involved in a weather-related accident – each maritime attorney at our firm knows all too well that other cruise lines would not necessarily have done the same.

Because hurricanes tend to be slow-moving, cruise operators sometimes opt to “outrun” hurricanes, preferring to take a chance on the storm (and passenger safety) to avoid losing revenue that could be gained at a particular port of call, instead of taking precautionary methods to protect those on board their vessels and avoiding a potential accident or passenger injury.

In the event a cruise ship accident does take place because the vessel’s operators decided to sail into the storm or to a port of call where a storm was predicted to hit, victims certainly have the right to consult with a maritime attorney to discuss their rights and options in filing a case.

In cases where an actual accident or injury occurs, at least in part due to inclement weather,  it is often  likely that victims will have a viable claim. However, even though cruise lines will often try to use the cruise passenger ticket contract to avoid liability for an accident (even those directly stemming from the cruise line’s own negligent actions) or any other situation that might result in the cruise line having to cough up money, there are rare moments when they are willing to work with passengers whose itineraries have been affected by inclement weather conditions.

If a ship’s itinerary is changed or cancelled due to extreme weather events, cruise lines may sometimes reimburse passengers a portion of their itinerary costs or offer onboard credit. For example, when super storm Sandy required many ships to eliminate days at sea, and miss many ports of call, many cruise lines offered pro-rated refunds for missed days and excursions. Some passengers even received cruise credits.

Unfortunately, even if a cruise line decides to reimburse or compensate passengers in some way, the amount that will be offered will be minimal. Most likely, cruise lines will just give passengers a few drink credits. The vast majority of cruise line ticket contracts make it clear that no refunds will be offered in the event of itinerary changes or cancellations due to weather, so if by chance the cruise line is feeling generous at that particular moment, passengers shouldn’t expect a similar outcome in the future.

It is also important to note that cruise lines seldom allow their passengers the option to cancel their cruise if a storm threatens the Caribbean. Cruise operators are well aware of the fact that the Caribbean is frequently threated by tropical storms and hurricanes, and if they were to even allow room for passengers to seek reimbursement, they would be losing a ton of revenue.

While passengers whose trips are disrupted or delayed due to the presence of a hurricane may not likely obtain a refund or reimbursement, an experienced maritime attorney may be able to assist, as each case is unique. In our next blog, we’ll discuss some other ways in which an itinerary change can affect cruise passengers.