Why did Norwegian Cruise Line treat these two couples so differently?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Last December, Patrick Doyle and his wife boarded a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, vaccinated and COVID negative. They intended to celebrate Christmas with a tropical cruise sailing on NCL’s Dawn. Unfortunately, within three days of embarkation, Lee Doyle became very ill. In the medical center onboard the vessel, she received a diagnosis of influenza. Her husband, who was feeling fine, tested positive for COVID, and their holiday adventure suddenly took an awful turn.

Within hours, Norwegian crew members dressed in hazmat suits relocated the Doyles from their regular cabin to the medical floor. There, NCL personnel informed the stunned couple of how they would be spending the rest of the cruise. They would be required to quarantine not only from the rest of the passengers – but from each other, as well.

The couple says their days in quarantine were filled with boredom, loneliness, and poor communication from Norwegian Cruise Line. It was a decidedly very unmerry Christmas.

When they returned home, they felt abandoned and ignored by the cruise line. The pandemic-inspired NCL refund policy guarantees the now COVID-positive couple a “prorated” refund. But no one from Norwegian followed up or confirmed what they would receive for their misadventure.

Now they’re hoping our advocacy team can help get the answers they’re looking for.

But hold on. There is little more to this story that might make you raise an eyebrow, especially if you’re a regular reader. The Doyles weren’t traveling alone on this Norwegian cruise. So if you read my report on the NCL passengers forced to quarantine for days after an anonymous COVID encounter, you’d assume the cruise line whisked the Doyles’ friends to an isolation cabin, too. But you would assume wrong. Norwegian allowed that couple to freely roam the Dawn for days – even after their close buddy tested positive for the coronavirus.

So what exactly was the written COVID close-contact quarantine procedure for Norwegian Cruise Line during this voyage? That’s a question that many are asking – including our advocacy team.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Jan. 9, 2022/ Updated Oct. 2, 2022

Planning to spend Christmas with Norwegian Cruise Line

Last fall, the Doyles decided to spend Christmas cruising. To celebrate the holiday, they were looking for a tropical cruise that would leave from their homeport in Tampa. The duo settled on a closed-loop 7-day Caribbean sailing on Norwegian Cruise Line, departing and returning to Tampa.

This it the itinerary of the cruise the couple took to celebrate last Christmas. Things went all wrong onboard Norwegian's Dawn.
The path of the Norwegian Cruise Line Christmas sailing of the Dawn. The Doyles would only make it to Roatan before the coronavirus and influenza hit them.

The couple splurged on a cabin with a balcony and eagerly anticipated their cruise aboard the Dawn. Even better, their friends decided to join them. The Doyles began booking their shore excursions. They intended to have many memorable adventures on this NCL cruise to end 2021.

And they definitely would – just not the good kind.

A long process to board NCL’s Dawn

Soon it was embarkation day.

The couples arrived at the port with plenty of time to spare. They knew that the process to board the cruise ship would be very different during the pandemic. Armed with their passports, vaccine cards, and negative COVID tests, they entered the pre-boarding coronavirus testing area.

After about two hours of testing and waiting, the Norwegian crew finally gave us the all-clear. We boarded the ship and settled into our cabins. It was a long process, but we were happy to finally be on the Dawn, relaxing. That night the four of us had a pleasant time with dinner and drinks at the Irish Pub.

Patrick

The following day the friends were up early exploring the ship. It was a “day at sea.”

“We adhered to the mask-wearing policy and kept our hands clean,” Patrick recalled. “That evening, after dinner, we enjoyed a show at the Stardust Theater.”

The Norwegian cruise would dock in Roatan, Honduras on the second day. The two couples were looking forward to their planned nature excursion.

A crowded shore excursion during a pandemic.

When the couples woke the next morning, they had breakfast together. Then they waited for their turn to board the tender to Roatan.

The ship’s tender was packed to the point of standing room only, however, everyone was wearing masks. We finally made it to Roatan. There, we met our excursion driver and boarded a packed bus bound for the ecotour adventure.

Everyone on the bus was wearing masks, including the driver and tour guide. Once we arrived at the ecotour park, we all hopped onto dune buggies and rode around the jungle. It was a lot of fun. Then, we boarded the bus again and headed to the monkey and sloth park. The entire group took turns holding the sloths and white-faced monkeys. After that, it was time to get back on the bus and return to the ship. Again, the tender was at full capacity; however, we all had on our masks. 

Patrick

Arriving back on the Dawn, the Doyles and their friends planned their evening. They spent dinner laughing and chatting about their day with the monkeys and sloths. The four friends ended their day again at the Stardust Theater.

Everything was going smoothly. Until suddenly, it wasn’t.

Asking for medical attention on the cruise

On the third day of the cruise, the couples had breakfast together as usual. Afterward, they spent the entire day on the beach at Harvest Caye in Belize. But by late afternoon Doyle’s wife was beginning to feel slightly unwell. She was happy to return to the ship and went directly to their cabin to rest.

Soon, it was clear that my wife needed to see a doctor. I put my hand on her forehead, and I felt that she had a fever. I called NCL’s medical unit and reported her condition. They told me someone would come to our room to examine her shortly.

Patrick

Things happened very quickly after that call. Within 30 minutes, the medical staff arrived and tested the Doyles for COVID and influenza. The Norwegian crew told the worried couple they’d have the test results shortly but that they shouldn’t leave their cabin.

The Doyles received the bad news within two hours: Lee had influenza, and Patrick had the coronavirus.

A Norwegian representative told the couple to gather their things and get ready to move to the medical floor. They would be spending the rest of the cruise in quarantine.

Since I felt fine and had no symptoms, I asked if I could take another COVID test. I thought maybe it was a false positive. But the Norwegian team told me no – they were required to record the positive coronavirus test.

Patrick

Patrick packed the couple’s belongings and tried to comfort his wife, who was quite unwell at that point.

Norwegian Cruise Line: You’re going to the medical floor

About 30 minutes after the diagnosis, the couple received another call from the ship’s medical center. It was time to move out of their spacious balcony cabin to an entirely different type of accommodation.

NCL’s head of security called our cabin and told me that a team was outside our door. I was to open the door and follow them. When I did so, four crew members were waiting to remove us from our cabin. They were all dressed in white hazmat-like suits and had a wheelchair for my wife. As they took us down the corridor with luggage in tow, a young man walked behind us. He had a fog machine to sanitize the hallway.

Patrick

Patrick says once the couple arrived on the medical floor, NCL’s doctor showed them the results of their tests.

Then things went from bad to worse. The doctor explained that Norwegian required them to be placed in separate quarantine cabins. The Doyles said their goodbyes and were taken to their isolation rooms to spend the next four nights.

The Norwegian crew placed me in my quarantine cabin, and I had no further communication that night with anyone. However, my wife received constant medical attention that night as she wasn’t well. I’m very grateful for the care she received by NCL’s team.

Patrick

Settling into his new accommodation, all by himself, Patrick found it hard to believe how quickly things had taken a nosedive. Earlier in the day, he and his wife had been soaking up the sunshine and listening to tropical music on the beach with their friends. Now he was confined, alone, to a little, dark cabin with just one tiny porthole – for the rest of the trip. No more sunshine, no more music, and no more fun. Feeling a little like a dog in a crate, he wondered how he’d pass the time for the rest of the cruise.

And he continued to wonder for the next excruciatingly boring three days.

Norwegian Cruise Line moved this passenger from a balcony cabin to one with just a tiny porthole on the medical floor.
A porthole is nothing like a balcony. This is the tiny, dark quarantine cabin the cruise line placed Patrick in after he tested positive for COVID on day 3 of the sailing.

Will Norwegian put the close contact friends in quarantine?

Patrick says that Norwegian tested their friends at some point that same night. They had also begun feeling unwell earlier in the day. He expected to soon hear the news that the couple had joined them on the medical floor for the quarantine treatment. After all, they had been in very close and constant contact since boarding the cruise.

But later that night, Patrick was surprised to learn that his friends had tested negative for both COVID and influenza. Even more surprising, they would not be required to quarantine or isolate themselves from anyone. Their Christmas cruise would continue uninterrupted.

Patrick says he found it odd that NCL didn’t require his close contact friends to go into quarantine, too. And if you read my column about Kelly and Luis Cotto, you probably find it odd as well.

The Cottos had their own cruise fiasco on Norwegian’s Gem just one week before the Doyles’ holiday sailing. After the first day of cruising, NCL forced the triple-vaccinated, COVID-free couple into an involuntary quarantine. Norwegian told the stunned duo they had encountered a mysterious COVID-positive person in the first 24 hours of boarding the ship. What followed was a miserable four days of confusion, bad food, and bad memories.

You can read the Cottos’ full story here:

Norwegian Cruise Line blamed the Cottos’ involuntary confinement on the “policies of Bermuda.” But the Bermuda Tourism Board has since made it clear that wasn’t the case.

…the couple not being allowed on the island was due to NCL’s own policies, not Bermuda denying entry… Bermuda has no input on how passengers are treated on board [a cruise ship].

Bermuda Tourism Board spokesperson to Michelle
See the Cottos (and me) talk with consumer reporter John Matarese about this cruise fiasco on abc news.

So if confinement after a brush with a COVID-positive person is NCL’s policy, why didn’t the cruise line isolate the Doyles’ friends, who were undoubtedly exposed to the coronavirus?

And if it isn’t an NCL policy and it isn’t Bermuda’s policy, then who forced the Cottos into an involuntary quarantine for their anniversary cruise?

Those questions can only be answered by NCL, and, unfortunately, NCL remains unwilling to explain.

But I digress.

Norwegian Cruise Line: You can’t go home after the voyage

On the first full day of Patrick’s quarantine, he was up early, calling various Norwegian Cruise Line personnel.

I called the guest services on the ship, the medical center, and others. I wanted to ask questions about the rest of the cruise and specifically how we would disembark. A doctor called me back to reiterate: We would be in our quarantine cabins for the remainder of the cruise. He said NCL had made no determination yet on disembarkation. However, he did say that Norwegian Cruise Line was making arrangements with some company for ground transportation to take me to a hotel. He said because I tested positive for COVID, I would be spending six more days after the cruise in quarantine in Tampa!

Patrick couldn’t believe his ears. The doctor was suggesting that Norwegian Cruise Line had the power to force him into additional quarantine after the cruise was over.

He wondered what law or regulation would allow NCL to make him go into additional confinement on land. As a resident of Florida, he knew of no requirement that calls for a 10-day quarantine for a COVID-positive person. In fact, the guidance from the Florida Health Department was to stay home and treat your symptoms there. Patrick had no symptoms, but he intended to follow whatever home quarantine was required.

Patrick definitely did not want to go to a hotel for six additional days after leaving this cruise. He explained to the doctor that they lived just 30 miles from the port, and their car was at the dock. Hotel quarantine wouldn’t be necessary. The doctor said his team would think about it, but he had no documentation to show Patrick about this “after-cruise” quarantine policy.

Later that day, Patrick says he was able to check in with his wife using an internet app on his phone. He was happy to see she seemed to be doing better.

Hours passed, and the boredom grew. He tried to entertain himself by watching the limited TV stations.

Norwegian: Sorry, we can’t give you a book

On Christmas Eve, the ship docked in Cozumel. But it made no difference to Patrick. He peeked out his tiny porthole and couldn’t see much.

Boredom was reaching a fever pitch. Patrick made what he thought would be a simple request: He asked the Norwegian staff for a book.

I called medical and requested a book to be delivered to my cabin. The doctor told me that he would meet with the “NCL medical council” to discuss. Later that evening, the doctor denied me a book as he stated the council agreed that I would contaminate the book. Then the book could contaminate others. I offered to buy a book, magazine, or newspaper, and the doctor denied that request. I asked for some paper and a pen/pencil, which was granted after several hours.

Patrick

Cruise Tip: Bring your own books if you choose to cruise during a pandemic (or any other time). If you end up in quarantine, you won’t be getting any reading material from Norwegian Cruise Line! (And p.s, even in Sept. 2022, passengers are still ending up in quarantine.)

Later that evening, Patrick and his wife put on some nice clothes and tried to have a little Christmas Eve celebration. They used their internet app to video chat and ate dinner “together” from their separate quarantine cabins.

Christmas Day was not spent in any way that the couple imagined when they booked this cruise. Instead of sipping frozen margaritas in the tropical sea breeze, they were trying to confirm how to get released from quarantine (and from NCL) the next day. They just wanted to leave the ship as quickly as possible and go home.

What is Norwegian’s official procedure for this couple to disembark?

Just 12 hours before  Dawn was scheduled to return to Tampa, Patrick again asked the doctor about the disembarkation process. Incredibly, Norwegian still had no official procedure in place for the couple to leave the cruise ship.

“The doctor said they still weren’t sure, but they would let us know,” Patrick recalled. “At that time, the medical team seemed to think we were going to a quarantine hotel.”

The couple spent another restless night, wondering how this cruise fiasco would finally end.

At 6 a.m., Patrick called the Norwegian team once again. Just 3 hours before every passenger was expected to be off the ship, there was still no clarity about their disembarkation procedure. Patrick and his wife ate their breakfast and sat impatiently, bags packed and ready to go as the clock ticked.

At exactly 9 a.m., Patrick says he got the call he was waiting for. The Norwegian team had decided that he and his wife could leave the ship and go straight home. The couple was relieved that there would be no further battle with NCL.

Around 10:00 a.m., we heard our names called over the ship’s intercom. We were to prepare for disembarkation. I called medical to confirm that this was correct. The team confirmed that NCL staff were at our doors, ready to extract us from our quarantine cabins. We were escorted to the main elevator up to the 7th floor. We exited the ship and were taken to a special area where customs agents were checking passports. An agent came over, looked at our passports, and pointed to an exit door. We went out that door and straight to our vehicle and drove home. Freedom!! 

Patrick

Will Norwegian Cruise Line respond?

For the next several days, Patrick tried to reach someone at Norwegian Cruise Line to discuss their cruise fiasco – and their refund. But no one at NCL seemed willing to talk. Although he followed all the steps in our guidance about solving your own consumer problem, the cruise line refused to respond.

Then Patrick saw the Cottos’ story and sent his request for help to me.

Hi Michelle, I read your story about the Cottos. The exact same happened to my wife and me two weeks ago aboard the Norwegian Dawn, but we weren’t allowed to stay in our cabin. We were separated and moved to isolation cabins on deck 4 for four days. The food was spotty and the customer service was terrible. I still cannot get a representative from NCL to contact me regarding even a partial refund.

Patrick

In my next inquiry to the Norwegian executive team, I asked for clarity for Patrick and reminded them that the Cottos were also still waiting. I pointed out that the lack of a standard, written protocol seems to have again led to passenger and crew confusion on board one of their ships.

We have a couple here (Patrick and Lee Doyle) who contacted us because they were cruising on the Dawn the week after the Cottos’ cruise disaster. Unfortunately, after three days on the ship, the wife became sick and was diagnosed with the flu (type A). Patrick was diagnosed with COVID at that time. They were, of course, placed in isolation for the rest of the cruise. HOWEVER, they weren’t traveling alone. Another couple was traveling with them nearly every step of the cruise before their quarantine (eating, drinking, laughing, watching shows, going to the shore excursions, etc.). But Patrick says their friends were allowed to continue to roam the ship without restriction even after he was diagnosed with COVID and taken to quarantine. He says his friends were even exhibiting flu-like symptoms, but the Dawn’s medical personnel tested them and were negative, so they were free to go.

Something certainly seems to be amiss with the application of close-contact quarantine protocols.

In the end, we have two couples who have not received refunds for their experiences nor any post-cruise follow-up from Norwegian Cruise Line.

Both couples continue to await NCL’s outreach. Thank you! (Michelle to the Norwegian Cruise Line executive resolution team)

Michelle to NCL

What does NCL’s silence mean?

Unfortunately, NCL had gone completely silent on our team, so I didn’t have the answers to the questions everyone was asking.

To say that this trip was frustrating is an understatement. We did the right thing by contacting the medical staff when my wife felt ill, but it was the decision that made our trip horrible. Thank you for speaking with me about this, and if my story helps any future travelers make an informed decision about sailing, it has been worth it.

Patrick

And Patrick wants to offer this last bit of information. As soon as his friends arrived home, they both tested positive for influenza, which is a good reminder that those tests aren’t infallible.

Oct. 2022 update

I caught up with Patrick recently. I asked him if NCL had responded to his complaint or provided any future cruise credit. He told me that although Norwegian never followed up, his travel insurance company stepped up to the plate.

We received some reimbursement through our trip interruption clause and the medical coverage paid for our onboard treatment. The poor customer service that we received from NCL is really a shame, but I guess they’ll blame it on the pandemic like many other companies.

Patrick

One thing is for certain, Patrick and his wife will not be spending this Christmas aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line ship.

(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 reporter and advocate, author, mediator, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on tv helping fix a situation. :) Michelle is also an 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. 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.