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Surprise! You just missed your cruise ship home. Now what?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

What happens when you miss your cruise ship home? Kevin Rohrer knows the answer to that question: many costly and unpleasant things.

During a Norwegian cruise aboard the Sky, Rohrer and his girlfriend missed the deadline for reboarding the ship by two hours. The boat sailed home without the couple, and they suddenly found themselves stranded on the island.

Rohrer says NCL changed the cruise’s departure time with no prior warning, abandoning them in Cuba to fend for themselves. He wants Norwegian Cruise Line to refund the cruise and pay all of the couple’s costs to return home. But is that a reasonable request?

This case highlights the importance of understanding the fluid nature of cruise itineraries. All cruise lines can and do change departure times and even ports of call in some circumstances. Anytime you step off your ship for a shore excursion, it’s imperative to reconfirm the reboarding time. Or you, too, could miss your cruise home.

Editors note: I originally reported on Rohrer’s case and published this article on July 3, 2018. Despite the cautionary warning that this story offers, our team continues to receive similar requests for help from cruise ship passengers in 2024 and the guidance remains relevant. (This column has been updated and checked for accuracy and republished on Feb. 2, 2023.)

Taking a Caribbean cruise on NCL’s Sky

I received Rohrer’s plea for help soon after he made his way home from this cruise fiasco.

“Can you help me? On day three of our cruise, the ship left us behind in Cuba,” Rohrer lamented. “Without any warning, Norwegian Cruise Line changed the published scheduled departure time from 5 p.m. to 2 p.m. NCL made no effort to inform passengers of this change.”

On the day the couple missed their cruise back home, they enjoyed a full-day private tour of Havana. The excursion was not one that the cruise line arranged. Their guide returned them to the port at 3:30 p.m. in plenty of time for their expected 5 p.m. departure.

Suddenly, a shocking sight confronted the two: an empty dock. The giant cruise ship was nowhere to be found. The couple soon learned that they had missed the departure of the Sky by two hours.

In his complaint to NCL, Rohrer conveyed the resulting chaos that he and his girlfriend faced in the unfamiliar country.

It was a frightening situation. We were devastated. We exchanged money, and we took a taxi to the airport. American Airlines told us they wouldn’t take a credit card and quoted us 472 pesos. We didn’t have that much money. They told us that Southwest Airlines in a different terminal could take credit cards. We took a taxi to the Southwest terminal, but there, we found no flights leaving Cuba. So we took another taxi back to American Airlines and purchased two seats home.

At no time did staff from the Norwegian Sky remind travelers what time to be back on board for departure from Cuba.

Kevin R.

Did other passengers miss this cruise ship?

Sometimes the stories that troubled travelers relate to me are difficult to imagine. Rohrer’s tale was one of them.

Could NCL really weigh anchor and take off — leaving passengers behind, deviating wildly from the scheduled departure time? If true, I assumed that an onslaught of complaints from other abandoned passengers aboard this cruise ship would hit my inbox.

I asked Rohrer for his paper trail to fill in the blanks to many questions. I wanted to know what kind of explanation NCL gave for this desertion of its passengers.

While I waited for Rohrer to send his paper trail, I set about investigating.

Combing through various cruise message boards turned up nothing that would be helpful to Rohrer’s case. I could not find even one other complaint about Norwegian Cruise Line stranding any other passengers in Cuba. I began to suspect that this may be a case of passenger error.

And then Rohrer sent his evidence.

What does the evidence prove about this missed cruise?

Rohrer’s evidence consisted of two documents. He provided his original itinerary of the cruise that NCL sent two months before the journey. On that document, there is a 5 p.m. departure time from Havana on the day in question.

Cruise ship itinerary, evidence of schedule change, NCL changed the cruise's itinerary and passenger missed the ship.
The original itinerary of the ship shows a 5 p.m. departure on the day these NCL passengers managed to miss the cruise.

Ok, so far so good.

But wait. There was more. Unfortunately, Rohrer’s second document that he had in his possession on the day of his abandonment showed the schedule change. It read “All Aboard: 1:30 P.M.”

Uh-oh.

NCL FREESTYLE DAILY shows the actual departure time fo the cruise ship.
Wait a minute…Why did this couple miss the ship when this information from NCL was in their possession? All aboard: 1:30 p.m.!

Still trying to figure out how this document from NCL helped his case, I asked Rohrer about his second piece of evidence, which shows 1:30 p.m. departure time. This information appeared to be substantial proof that the departure of the cruise ship at 3 p.m. was not, in fact, a spontaneous event.

I provided that figure showing the time of “all aboard” news flyer that was sent to our cabin while we ate breakfast on the boat the third day (second day for Cuba). But I didn’t get to read it at the time of discovery (we had a tight schedule with the Cuban Tour Agency). I had folded that flyer and put it in my pocket during our disembarkment from the ship. I read that flyer while waiting for a flight out of Cuba.

Kevin R.

Rohrer also provided the official response to his complaint from NCL. The cruise line pointed out that it’s always the responsibility of the passenger to be on board one hour prior to departure. That information can be found in NCL’s terms and conditions under Boarding Times in Ports of Call:

In all ports of call, it is also the guest’s responsibility to be back onboard the ship no later than one (1) hour prior to the ship’s scheduled departure time. Please be aware that shipboard time may differ from the port of call and it is the guest’s responsibility to follow the shipboard time. In the event a guest misses the ship, it will be the guest’s responsibility to pay all expenses incurred to rejoin the cruise.

Norwegian Cruise Line

What about the announcements onboard the cruise ship?

This case had me torn. Should I try to advocate or not? Norwegian Cruise Line did change the itinerary of the cruise. But NCL had provided the new departure time on the cruise’s daily newsletter. Rohrer failed to read that schedule — until it was too late.

I wondered if it was possible that this paper could have been the only alert that passengers received about the significant schedule change. Having never taken even one cruise myself, I’m unfamiliar with onboard cruise communications. So I consulted with my fellow consumer advocate Dwayne Coward about this case. He has taken many NCL cruises, so I assumed he could shed some light. He explained:

NCL announces any changes on the overhead announcements. Also, there are frequent reminders to review the Freestyle Daily for changes. Unfortunately, you can’t hear it in the rooms except through the tv on the ship channel. Also, they have a sign at the exit with the ‘all aboard times’ for both the crew and passengers. 

I looked on the NCL cruise critic page and didn’t see anything about others left behind.

Dwayne Coward, consumer advocate

Rohrer’s case was looking grim. But I decided to check with our executive contacts at Norwegian Cruise Line for further clarification about this case.

NCL: Miss your cruise home, you’re not getting a refund

The resolution team at Norwegian Cruise Line investigated Rohrer’s complaint. And provided this statement:

Michelle, As you know, from time to time in our industry, there is a need to modify embarkation times. When this happens, we communicate the change extensively and often. This is exactly what happened in this instance.

On March 12th, we issued a letter to our travel partners and guests notifying them of the time change for Norwegian Sky’s April 23rd four-day Cuba and Bahamas cruise. We also communicated the change on their E-document and in the daily Freestyle newsletter, which is left each night in every guest’s cabin. Additionally, the day before calling into Havana, the Cruise Director announced the new time repeatedly throughout the day and additional signage was placed on the gangway for all those disembarking to see.

We hope this helps clear the situation up. Thank you for giving us a chance to explain.

Norwegian Cruise Line spokesperson to Michelle

Rohrer continues to maintain that he never received (or heard) any notice of the schedule change. And since he made reference to a lawyer in his last correspondence with the cruise line, his case likely rests in the NCL legal department now.

Cruise schedules can change

Unfortunately for Rohrer’s case, all evidence points to the fact that he wasn’t aware that cruise itineraries can change. But a quick look at Norwegian Cruise Line’s contract of carriage will make it clear that when you book a cruise, there’s never a guarantee that you will end up with the itinerary you booked.

In the event of strikes, lockouts, stoppages of labor, riots, weather conditions, mechanical difficulties, or any other reason whatsoever, Norwegian Cruise Line has the right to cancel, advance, postpone or substitute any scheduled sailing or itinerary without prior notice. 

Norwegian Cruise Line shall not be responsible for failure to adhere to published arrival and departure times for any of its ports of call.

The bottom line

Our advocacy team receives many requests for help from cruise ship passengers who are surprised by cruise schedule changes. Regular readers of Consumer Rescue may remember the case of Natalie Durflinger, who was left behind in Mexico by MSC when she also missed alerts about the change in her cruise’s departure from Cozumel. Her case ended similarly to Rohrer’s: a ruined vacation and no refund. 

It’s essential that all passengers maintain awareness of the possibility of cruise schedule changes. This is especially important if you have booked your own shore excursion. It may cost a bit more money to book the excursion through the cruise line, but you can be confident that the boat won’t sail away without you during your adventure.

In the end, it’s the traveler’s responsibility to know when to be back onboard that ship. If you miss your cruise ship, before or during the sailing, unfortunately, you’ll have no one to turn to for a refund or reimbursement. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.
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Dan

We didn’t have that much money. They told us that Southwest Airlines in a different terminal could take credit cards. We took a taxi to the Southwest terminal, but there, we found no flights leaving Cuba. So we took another taxi back to American Airlines and purchased two seats home.

What!? How did they purchase the flight if they didn’t have the money?

Cruise schedules change all the time. The cruise lines do announce the changes but they’re easy to miss if you’re a distracted first-timer. There’s usually a sign at the gangway as you’re getting off that has the all aboard time. That’s the most reliable source so I take picture of it as I step off the ship.

finance_tony

Ha, this caught my eye because I asked the exact same thing when the article was originally published on a different site five years ago. I don’t recall the answer but it’s certainly a twist 🙂

Michelle Couch-Friedman

I believe they borrowed money from fellow travelers.

jsn55

What a shame that a traveller thinks that someone else is responsible for his errors. It’s ludicrous to think that NCL gave them no notice. Cruiselines bend over backwards to inform pax of schedule changes: paper, announcements and signage. I can see if one of their communications didn’t reach them, but there were many others. My opinion is borne out by his assertion that he had no money, but after taking two taxis around the airport, he was able to come up with the money to buy the AA tix home. I sympathize with how awful it must have been to think you were ‘stranded’ in Cuba, but travellers must take responsibility for themselves.

DChamp56

Their own fault… THE most important thing when in port, is knowing exactly what time the ship is leaving! He won’t make that mistake again.

LPBud

Somehow, everyone else makes it back on board, not missing the ship. No sympathy for this fool.

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