Home >> Cruise Fiascos >> Norwegian Cruise Line didn’t tell us we needed visas! Who is responsible here?

Norwegian Cruise Line didn’t tell us we needed visas! Who is responsible here?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Sherry Ramhit says a Norwegian Cruise Line consultant made a mistake that cost her family over $12,000 — and ruined a dream vacation. She insists the agent assured her that visas were optional for their Alaska cruise aboard NCL’s Encore last August. 

Unfortunately, visas definitely were not optional for the cruise – at least not for Ramhit and her family. So when they showed up at the port in Seattle without the required documents, NCL denied boarding to the group. 

Ramhit believes Norwegian Cruise Line should pay all the bills they incurred as a result of its consultant’s mistake. Those costs include the cruise fees, hotels, airfare, Uber – and emotional distress. 

NCL, though, is clear in its position: It’s not paying any bills. The cruise line says passengers are personally responsible for knowing whether they need visas for their itinerary or not. 

Now Ramhit is asking Consumer Rescue for help. She’s hoping we can convince Norwegian Cruise Line it is responsible for her family’s cruise fiasco and negotiate fair compensation. 

This case hinges on one critical fact of international travel. 

If you’re a regular reader of my column, you already know what that fact is. But we’ll get to that in a moment. 

Planning an Alaskan cruise on NCL’s Encore

Over a year ago, Ramhit and her husband decided to take their teenagers on a cruise to Alaska. The family, citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, spent time researching various cruise lines before making their choice. Eventually they settled on a 7-night cruise on NCL’s Encore

“We were impressed by Norwegian Cruise Line’s many customer service awards,” Ramhit explained. 

She and her husband selected an August sailing where they might even be able to see the northern lights. It would be a closed-loop cruise beginning and ending in Seattle. 

The family needed visas because of the stop in Canada.
The family’s NCL cruise on Encore would take them from Seattle to Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay and Ketchikan… before the port in Canada, where they would need visas – which they didn’t have.

The couple used a Norwegian Cruise Line phone consultant to confirm their voyage on the Encore. Ramhit says she specifically asked the agent what identification they would need to take the cruise. 

“She [the NCL consultant] told us we would need our valid passports and visas to enter the United States,” Ramhit recalled. “So we booked the cruise and then applied for our tourist visas.”

Soon everything was in order: cruise, airfare, hotel and those visas to enter the United States. The family spent the better part of a year excitedly looking forward to their cruise to Alaska.

However, that entire time there were some details in the family’s NCL cruise contract that went unnoticed. Unfortunately, that crucial information would go unnoticed right up until the Ramhits unsuccessfully attempted to board the Encore.

Off we go! 4,400 miles to Seattle’s cruise port

A day before their cruise was set to embark, the family boarded their flight to Seattle, Washington. They had wisely chosen not to fly on the same day as their cruise was set to begin. 

Flying the day before the cruise, NCL cruise passengers
The family flew to Seattle the day before embarkation day of their NCL cruise.

The night before the Encore would sail to Alaska, the family arrived in Seattle without a glitch and settled into their hotel.

“The kids were so excited,” Ramhit recalled. “We were all looking forward to our Alaskan cruise.”

But a terrible reality was in store for the Ramhits the next day. At the port, that critical information contained in their contract with Norwegian Cruise Line would no longer be possible to ignore.

Ready to board the cruise ship… or maybe not

After a good night’s rest, the couple and their children headed to the port, intending to board NCL’s Encore. They expected to soon be enjoying all the things that the ship has to offer. 

The teenagers were especially looking forward to trying out the go-carts, laser tag and giant water slide. The adults were planning on checking out some of the onboard shows as they sailed to Alaska.

“We showed up at the pier and couldn’t wait to get on ship,” Ramhit remembered. “The crew tagged our luggage and it was soon on the way to our cabin.”

If only the same could be said for the Ramhit family. Although their luggage was approved to go to their cabin on the Encore, they never would be.

Norwegian Cruise Line: You’re denied boarding

The family patiently stood in the NCL check-in line. When they reached the front, they handed over their valid passports from Trinidad and Tobago which included their American visas. 

The Norwegian Cruise Line employee flipped through their passports looking for one other critical document. 

Because the cruise would be stopping in Victoria, Canada, the family also needed Electronic Travel Authorizations (ETA). (Note: U.S. citizens do not need ETAs to enter Canada.)

He asked us for our Canadian visas. We tried to explain that we didn’t need those as per the Norwegian Cruise Line consultant’s instructions. She had told us Canadian visas were entirely optional. He (the NCL supervisor at the pier) said because we were stopping in Canada, visas were required for us. We pleaded for leniency and even offered to go into quarantine during the stop in Canada.

Fact: You can’t take a cruise without the required documents

Unfortunately, as the Ramhits were about to find out – and many other passengers have found out before them – no amount of discussions or pleading will change the course of your fate if you neglect to have all the required documents to board your cruise. 

Leniency is not possible when you’re up against international immigration law. Norwegian Cruise line had no other choice but to refuse to let the visa-less family board the ship.

That fact soon became painfully apparent to Ramhit and her family when an NCL representative handed them denied boarding cards. They would not be sailing to Alaska with the rest of the festive passengers around them.

They would be flying home in disappointment. But not yet. There would be one more indignity in store for the family at the pier that day.

Because their luggage was already on the ship, they were forced to wait — and watch all the other passengers successfully check-in and happily board the Encore.

We were in distress in an unfamiliar city and country and Norwegian Cruise Line didn’t care. We weren’t offered any assistance, food or other sustenance for the 6 hours we waited for our luggage to be taken off the ship. It was terrible.

With their belongings back in their possession, the family dejectedly left the terminal and made arrangements to return to Trinidad. 

And the Encore sailed off to Alaska with two empty cabins.

Asking Norwegian Cruise Line for a refund and compensation

The entire trip home, Ramhit and her husband were stewing. 

“We couldn’t believe that through no fault of our own, NCL had denied boarding to us,” she told me. “The cruise line’s own agent told us we didn’t need Canadian visas for that cruise. Then instead of helping us and apologizing, we were treated rudely, as if we had caused the problem.” 

The couple spent the next several months composing demand letters and methodically sending them up the executive ladder at Norwegian Cruise Line. 

By the time their request for a refund and additional compensation hit the CEO’s office at NCL, the Ramhits were beyond frustrated. The cruise line was remaining firm in its stance that it owed them nothing.

Not knowing where else to turn, Ramhit started looking through the internet for similar passenger experiences and found several of my columns. She was drawn to one article in particular in which a woman and her parents had booked an identical cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Bliss. They also needed Canadian visas, but an NCL consultant told them they didn’t.

That agent gave her inaccurate guidance to that family in writing. They too showed up at the dock without the required visas and were denied boarding the cruise.

After the family contacted my advocacy team, I was able to convince NCL to share the responsibility for that missed cruise. Ramhit hoped I could do the same for her family and submitted her request for help to Consumer Rescue

Fact: It is always the passenger’s responsibility to know what they need to cruise.

When I went through the Ramhits’ paper trail I immediately saw that there were core issues with their case. The primary problem, of course, being that it is always the passengers’ responsibility to know what they personally need to successfully navigate all parts of their cruise itinerary.

However, the Ramhits sent multiple letters to Norwegian Cruise Line, in which they placed all of the blame for their missed vacation on the consultant.

Unfortunately, this is a perspective that I often see from passengers who are denied boarding cruise ships and airplanes. I also see commenters on Facebook and other message boards recommending that fellow travelers contact the cruise line or airline with questions about the identification and documents they need to travel. 

That advice is wholly incorrect and leads to more passengers getting left behind as their cruise or airplane leaves without them. 

Over the years, I have responded to hundreds of desperate requests for help from travelers who neglected to personally research their own documentation requirements for their international adventures. As a result, they ended up without a vacation and without the money they spent on the trip. The stories are all similar and nearly all of these fiascos could have easily been avoided.

Never ask your cruise line to advise you on your boarding documentation

If you don’t take anything else away from this story, please take this:  

Fact: Neither your cruise line nor your airline are places for you to get reliable information about the personal documentation that you will need to successfully complete your travels. As an international traveler, it is your responsibility to know what you need to navigate this world.

A cruise consultant is not a professional travel advisor.

Those agents are simply booking you a trip through an online system. So if they make a mistake and misguide you as the NCL consultant in this story may or may not have done, you’ll have no recourse unless you have it in writing.

In Ramhit’s case I hoped she had this agent’s misinformed guidance in print. If she did, I thought I could convince Norwegian Cruise Line to split the cruise cost as they had done in other cases – and, by the way, as Viking Cruises had also done in a more stunning example of a cruise consultant’s advice gone wrong. 

But it wasn’t to be. 

Where is this guidance from the NCL cruise consultant?

In the end, Ramhit and her husband had nothing in writing that proved the NCL agent had misguided them. 

“I realize it’s a problem that everything was done by the phone,” Ramhit told me. “But Norwegian Cruise Line could pull the phone records.”

Unfortunately, NCL nor any other cruise line or airline is going to search for one-year-old phone records to attempt to catch their own consultant making a mistake. That’s especially true when answering customer questions about their documentation requirements isn’t part of her job in the first place.  

I explained the reality of the situation to Ramhit. There would be no refund or compensation from Norwegian Cruise Line.

The bottom line

Unfortunately, the only possible way that NCL would have any responsibility here is if you had written communication from the cruise line’s consultant that shows she misguided you somehow. It is never the cruise line’s responsibility to inform passengers of what they personally need to navigate all the destinations on their itinerary. 

The cruise you booked was a closed-loop trip that only pertains to U.S. citizens regarding documentation.  Because you are a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, you need a Canadian visa to enter Canada… this isn’t optional. You can find that information here in a 5-step check: https://ircc.canada.ca/english/visit/visas.asp 

The cruise line will not pull phone records to see what its agent told you. An attorney would need to get a subpoena to possibly access those. I’m afraid if you have nothing that proves NCL misled you, there would be no foundation for me to mediate your case successfully. All cruise lines, including NCL, have it written into their contracts that the passenger is responsible for obtaining the necessary documentation for travel. If you review the first page of your contract, you’ll see there is a link to that information, and it also says NCL has no liability to you if you don’t have the correct travel documentation

I wish I had better news.  

Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Advocate

And for her part, Ramhit says she doesn’t fully agree and will continue to look for ways to get a refund from Norwegian Cruise Line. She’s not giving up yet.

Here’s how to make sure you have the correct documents to board your cruise

Cruise ship passengers should always keep in mind that they are solely responsible for knowing what they need and possessing unexpired versions of those documents. Personal requirements vary depending on your citizenship, your residency and the type of cruise you’re taking. 

It’s not hard to take some simple steps to ensure that you’ll have everything you need to get the green light to board your next cruise. The internet makes this research easier than ever. 

Here are a few things to do and online places to visit long before you head to the cruise port.

Read your cruise contract

This is the number one simplest thing for you to do. When you book a trip, your cruise line will provide you with a contract. This will likely be found in your online account. Don’t neglect this document because it’s filled with useful information. 

Although your cruise line isn’t responsible for directly telling you what you need to board your ship, there will be links inside the contract which will lead you in the right direction to do your own research. 

In Ramhit’s case had they reviewed the entire contract from Norwegian Cruise Line they would have found a section about “Non-US Citizens.” That section has a link that would have sent them to Visa Central which has a quick series of questions that would have alerted the family of their need for a Canadian visa. 

Your contract will also make it clear that the cruise line has no liability to you, its passenger, if you get denied boarding because you didn’t bring the correct documentation. This is true across the cruise industry. 

Check your passport and visa needs

Both U.S. Citizens and non-U.S. Citizens should make sure not to overlook the potential need of a visa for any cruise, that is not a closed-loop journey. 

Unfortunately, our case files here at Consumer Rescue show that passengers frequently forget to check their visa requirements for all their cruise’s ports of call – with shocking consequences. You can use the easy-to-use online tool Timatic to check if you need a visa or any health certificates for every destination on your itinerary. 

Don’t forget passport expiration dates 

We receive a fair number of requests for help from travelers who get denied boarding airlines and cruise lines because their passports have slipped into the “no-go” zone. Remember the expiration date on your passport is just the absolute last date that you can ever expect to use it. 

However, many countries and areas of the world – including most areas of Europe – require you to have a minimum of 90-days left on your passport from the date you are exiting the location. Additionally, quite a few cruise lines are now requiring guests on international itineraries to have a minimum of six months left on their passport before expiration. 

So remember, adults in the United States have ten years on their passports before expiration, but the last 6-months of your passport’s validity is really iffy. Once you’ve reached that danger zone, it’s time to renew (otherwise you could end up landing in jail at your destination). Having just returned from Antarctica, I see that I’m in that zone right now and it’s time for me to renew before my next international adventure. If you’re in the same situation, here’s how to renew your passport – very quickly if needed. 

(Michelle Couch-Friedman, reporting for Consumer Rescue)

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.