Gabriele Fehr and her husband planned to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary in the Caribbean aboard Carnival Cruise Line’s Spirit. But in the end, they missed that special Carnival cruise and only their luggage took the $2,402 voyage.
Unfortunately, on embarkation day, Gabriele’s husband Florian forgot his U.S. green card at home. When he attempted to board the cruise ship with a digital copy of the document, Carnival employees denied him boarding.
Instead of enjoying their anniversary on the Carnival cruise with tropical drinks and sun, the couple spent it at home.
Now, the disappointed duo is asking Consumer Rescue for help securing a refund. They believe Carnival made a mistake refusing to allow Florian to board the cruise.
They say although he forgot to bring his green card to the port, he had his valid German passport. According to the couple that should have been sufficient ID for Florian to take the closed-loop cruise.
But is that a correct assumption and are they owed a refund? Let’s find out.
Planning a Carnival cruise to celebrate a special anniversary
Early last year, the couple was searching for ways to celebrate their anniversary. After scrolling through the Carnival Cruise Line website, they settled on the Thanksgiving week sailing of Spirit.
“To make the cruise extra special, Florian’s parents decided to go with us,” Gabriele explained. “They would fly from Germany [where they live] to meet us in Atlanta the day before embarkation. Then we would drive to the Carnival port on the day of the cruise.”
With all their plans confirmed, the group happily looked forward to spending time together in November.
“It was going to be a really lovely way to celebrate our anniversary,” says Gabriele.
And it would have been had things gone as planned.
But things would not go as planned.
Checking in online for the Carnival cruise
On the day before the cruise, Florian’s parents arrived in the United States as scheduled.
Although German citizens visiting the United States do not need visas, they do need ESTAs (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) which the couple had received prior to their trip. An ESTA is virtual and is tied to the traveler’s passport.
They passed through customs easily and were soon settling in at Florian and Gabriele’s home.
“That night, we went to the Carnival website and completed the online check-in for the cruise,” Gabriele recalled. “The only documents that were required were our passports.”
With check-in complete Gabriele printed out their boarding passes. Then they called it a night. In the morning, the group would make the five-hour drive to the Carnival cruise port 330 miles away.
Fact: You can’t board a Carnival cruise with a digital copy of your ID
Early the next day, the family loaded up the car and headed to Mobile, Alabama, where Carnival’s Spirit was waiting. The weather in Atlanta was dreary and they were all looking forward to boarding the cruise and heading to the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, as they drove away, Florian neglected to grab his green card. He wouldn’t realize this oversight until hours later when the group excitedly stepped up to the Carnival check in area.
“First my in-laws handed over their passports and the Carnival crew checked for their ESTAs,” Gabriele explained. “After a short time, they were approved to board the ship.”
Next the anniversary couple handed over their German passports.
The Carnival employee asked us what our status was and I told him we are permanent residents. He then asked for our green cards. I handed mine over and that’s when my husband realized he didn’t have his green card. So he showed a photo of his green card. That’s when a Carnival supervisor came out and told us Florian was denied boarding the cruise.Gabriele L.
If you’re denied boarding your Carnival cruise, you won’t receive a refund
The couple desperately tried to plead their case with the Carnival employees. Florian’s parents stood by, having already been approved to board the cruise ship.
But no amount of begging could sway Carnival into allowing Florian to take the cruise with a digital copy of his green card.
Soon, a Carnival supervisor handed Florian the dreaded denied boarding card that indicated he would not receive a refund. Next, the employee turned to Gabriele and told her that she could still board the cruise.
Taking her anniversary cruise with her in-laws sans husband was an option she quickly declined.
Of course, I wasn’t going to take my anniversary cruise without my husband. Then the [Carnival supervisor] handed me a document that said I was voluntarily deciding not to board Spirit. We told my in-laws to enjoy the cruise. We didn’t want them to miss out too.Gabriele L.
Florian’s parents reluctantly boarded the ship without their son and daughter-in-law.
And the dejected couple headed back to the car – without their luggage.
“There was no time left for Carnival to remove our bags from the ship before departure,” Gabriele recalled. “So our belongings went on the cruise with my in-laws… and we went home.”
As the couple drove away, they caught a final glimpse of Spirit sailing off to the Caribbean without them.
“It was an awful feeling,” Gabriele recalled.
Does Carnival owe us a refund or future credit for our missed cruise?
A week later, the couple drove back to Alabama to pick up Florian’s parents and their own luggage. By this time, they were convinced that Carnival had some culpability in their missed cruise fiasco.
“Why didn’t Carnival ask Florian and I to add our green card information during online check in the night before?” Gabriele asked. “That omission is what likely caused him to forget about his green card.”
When Carnival refused to consider their request for a future cruise credit, Gabriele searched the internet looking for similar cruise ship passenger experiences.
That’s when she found an article about a case I had successfully mediated that involved another family scheduled for a Thanksgiving Carnival cruise.
In that case, a passenger was denied boarding Carnival’s Mardi Gras by mistake.
After I investigated and successfully mediated that complaint, Carnival refunded the family’s cruise fare and provided additional compensation.
Gabriele hoped for the same outcome for their situation.
The bad news: Carnival did not make a mistake
When I read through Gabriele’s paper trail, I felt awful for what had happened at the pier. But I also wasn’t convinced that Carnival had made a mistake in denying boarding to Florian.
As I often do, I asked my colleague Dwayne Coward to have a look at the details. I thought Florian might have been able to cruise with just his German passport.
But Dwayne soon has bad news.
“Michelle, he could take the cruise with the German passport,” Dwayne pointed out. “But without his green card or an ESTA he would not qualify for re-entry to the United States.”
I’ve written many articles here at Consumer Rescue and on The Points Guy about the perils of U.S. permanent residents traveling outside the country without a valid green card in their possession. It’s quite precarious and can end in devastating ways.
Dwayne was correct with his assessment of the situation.
If German residents didn’t need ESTAs, then Florian’s theory could have worked, but they do need ESTAs. Therefore, Florian could not travel internationally with his German passport because he had no valid document that would allow him to re-enter the U.S.
Fact: Cruise lines and airlines can be fined heavily for transporting travelers to foreign destinations without valid entry documents. These companies are under no obligation to give passenger’s entry documentation theories like this a try.
Of course, this fact hasn’t stopped some passengers from attempting to use some highly unusual ID during their travels:
The bad news
Carnival Cruise Line had not denied boarding to Florian by mistake. He needed the physical version of his green card in order to board the cruise and return to the U.S.
But because I felt particularly bad for this couple, I sent their case over to Carnival for review.
Carnival declined their case for further consideration. That is the outcome I expected, I’m afraid. The unfortunate fact is that every day eager cruise line passengers show up at ports all around the world without the proper documentation. These missed cruises are all avoidable. The cruise lines are for-profit companies and don’t provide goodwill gestures to travelers who are denied boarding because of a lack of required documentation.
This mistake taught the couple an expensive lesson and it’s one Gabriele says they will certainly never make again.
What to keep in mind when packing for your next cruise
Nearly everything the average cruise ship passenger packs in their luggage and carry on is nonessential. That is to say, that most items, if forgotten, can likely be replaced on the ship or in ports of call. Your cruise won’t be ruined by the oversight.
However, your required identification to board is non-negotiable. If you show up to the port without those critical documents, your vacation will be over before it begins. Worse, as per your contract with the cruise line, you won’t receive a refund if you’re denied boarding because you don’t have the correct ID.
Before heading to your cruise’s embarkation point, always make sure to triple-check that you’ve packed all necessary documents and that they are valid and unexpired.
How to make certain you have the correct documentation to board your cruise
Keep these things in mind in the months leading up to your cruise.
- For U.S. citizens, a U.S. passport is the safest form of identification to use for your cruise. It is the only ID that will allow you to fly internationally should you need to return home quickly in an emergency (Or if your ship leaves you behind in a foreign country).
- U.S. citizens can use other IDs to take a closed-loop cruise, although those aren’t generally recommended by Consumer Rescue. If you’re leaving the confines of the United States, you should always have a valid passport, no matter where you’re going.
- Note: It’s important to renew your passport at least 6 months before it expires if your plans include an international cruise. Many countries and cruise lines worldwide only consider your passport valid if it has a minimum of 180 days left before expiration. If you need to get a U.S. passport fast, here’s how to do it.
- For U.S. Permanent Residents you must carry your valid, unexpired green card at all times (even when not traveling). In addition to your green card, you must also have an unexpired passport from your country of origin to travel internationally. These two documents must both be presented to be able to travel internationally via air or cruise ship.
- Warning: Green card holders on a “pending” status should not attempt to fly or cruise outside of the United States. Proof of a pending application is not a valid travel document to enter any foreign country OR to return to the United States.
- Citizens from other countries will have visa requirements to consider, even on a U.S. based closed-loop cruise. Consumer Rescue receives a high volume of requests for help from foreign travelers to the United States cruising to Alaska who aren’t aware of Canadian visa requirements.
The bottom line
With a little proper planning and by paying careful attention to what you’re packing before heading to your cruise’s embarkation, you’ll likely never end up with this type of fiasco.
But if you do, and you’re sure it is through no fault of your own, send your request for help to Consumer Rescue and we’ll do our best to help you. Our assistance is always friendly and always free to consumers. 😀 (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)