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How two little mistakes can end in tears at the cruise terminal

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Two mistakes – and one delayed flight – led Tom Watson to arrive at the Miami cruise terminal without his passport. With just minutes to look for the document, time ran out. He and his wife were denied boarding the cruise, and the ship sailed without them.

Watson places the blame on Viking for their missed cruise, and wants a full refund. But who is really responsible here?

This tale highlights the danger of flying on the same day as your cruise is set to begin. Although it may seem convenient to fly into your embarkation city and transfer straight to the ship, even a slight flight delay can have devastating consequences. 

Editor’s note: This is from my archived “Tales from Consumer Advocacy” folder as I’m making my way home from an adventure in Antarctica. We will resume our regularly scheduled programming when I return to the office later this week.  

I originally published this article in 2019 and it has been edited and fact checked for accuracy in 2023. 

The lessons in this story remain as important as ever: 

  1. Never push your luck and schedule yourself to arrive at the port with no time to spare before the ship’s departure. -and-
  2. Never put your passport in any luggage that you intend to hand over to someone else prior to boarding your cruise ship.

Here’s what could happen if you don’t heed that warning.

Taking a risk: Flying on the same day the cruise begins

Watson and his wife were looking for a unique way to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. And so, almost one year in advance they began planning.

Consulting with a travel advisor at Viking Cruises they decided to book a cruise to Cuba aboard the Viking Star. The eight-day Cultural Cuba adventure would be the perfect way to celebrate the momentous occasion.

Viking cruise itinerary to Cuba, Caribbean cruise
The Watsons’ intended anniversary Viking cruise — the one they would eventually miss.

The Viking travel consultant handled all the details of their trip — including the Watsons’ flights. She booked the couple so that they were flying in on the same day the cruise began — landing less than two hours before the check-in cutoff. This was a very bad idea.

That tight schedule should have set off an alarm bell for the Watsons. Unfortunately, it did not.

For the next eight months, the couple happily anticipated their journey.

Then came the day of departure. From there, almost everything that could go wrong did.

Cruise day! Uh-oh — a delayed flight

Late in the morning on the departure day of their cruise, the Watsons boarded a flight heading to Miami. Their nonstop American Airlines flight would land at 2:17 p.m — if it encountered no delay.

Unfortunately, their flight did hit a delay.

It was then that the couple began to question the wisdom of flying on the same day as the cruise.

The Viking Star was set to sail at 6 p.m. That meant that the cutoff for check-in was 4 p.m. The Watsons and their cruise consultant had left very little room for even the slightest delay.

“Our flight landed, I think around 3:50 p.m.,” Watson’s wife recalled. “A Viking representative pulled our luggage off the carousel and then tagged all four pieces — including our carry-ons.”

Watson went on to describe an anxiety-provoking race to get to the Miami cruise terminal in time for check-in. Under normal traffic conditions, the travel time from the Miami airport to the cruise terminal should be less than a half-hour. That was the good news.

But there was bad news on the way — and plenty of it.

The map of the taxi ride from Miami International to the cruise terminal.
The path from the airport to the cruise terminal in Miami is often filled with traffic, which makes flying on the same day as embarkation particularly precarious.

Warning: On the way to the cruise terminal, keep your passport with you

There are multiple piers at the Miami cruise terminal. The Viking representatives transported the Watsons to Pier B where the Viking Star awaited them. They were relieved that, despite the flight delay, they had made it in time.

However, they did not see their luggage. A separate vehicle had taken the bags to the pier. A Viking representative told the couple that their bags might be at pier C — and the employees began a search.

Suddenly Watson had a terrible realization. His passport was in his “carry-on” luggage — but he had allowed the Viking baggage handlers to tag and take it. Now with just minutes before the cruise closed for boarding, Watson realized he didn’t have his passport.

Hoping to be able to board and sort out the luggage problems later, the Watsons approached the check-in.

“No one would let me board because I didn’t have the passport,” Watson recalled.

That should have come as no surprise. A passport and visa were required for entry to Cuba. Cruise lines can’t let passengers board the ship without the required documentation for travel.

Here’s your passport, but too late to board the ship

Finally, at 5:45 p.m., a baggage truck arrived at the pier with the missing luggage. For a brief moment, Watson and his wife thought they would still be able to climb aboard the ship. The Viking staff quickly squashed their hopes.

Viking/security said it was too late for boarding due to ‘manifest issues.’ This, even though, it was still approximately 10-15 minutes before the scheduled, published departure time.

Tom Watson

The Department of Homeland Security requires all cruise lines to provide a final passenger manifest one hour before departure. And there is no wiggle room with this requirement. Unfortunately, for the couple, their missed cruise was a foregone conclusion as soon as the clock hit 5 p.m.

The Watsons anniversary celebration was off to a rough start.

Viking: “You can fly and catch up with the cruise ship.”

Watson says that Viking representatives suggested that the couple spend the next two nights in Miami. They could still salvage their cruise by flying into Cuba on the third day of the journey. But that plan didn’t appeal to the Watsons.

We weren’t interested in flying alone to a small Cuban airport to catch up with the cruise. We had already lost two of our eight days.

Tom Watson

And so, the next day, Watson asked the Viking team to book the couple a flight home.

When the couple arrived back home, on a flight that cost them an additional $350, they were frustrated and disappointed. But the Watsons believed that the trip insurance policy that they had purchased for this cruise would cover all their expenses.

That turned out to be an incorrect assumption and their true predicament began to come into focus.

Trip Insurance will not cover this missed cruise

Rather quickly Watson received a rejection of his claim from TripMate. The insurer would not be covering the nearly $13,000 that the couple had spent on their anniversary cruise that had sailed without them.

In its explanation letter, TripMate explains that putting your passport in your luggage and checking it, isn’t a covered “named peril.”

Travel insurance rejection letter, Travel insurance won't covered this missed cruise.
Fact: Travel insurance will not cover a missed cruise if you make a mistake and check your passport in your luggage

With neither Viking nor TripMate willing to entertain Watson’s reimbursement request, he then sent his plea for help to our advocacy team.

It’s a mistake to fly on the day of your cruise

When Watson’s request for help landed on my desk, I hoped we could help. His story was terrible. He and his wife had planned this cruise for the past year with the help of a cruise consultant. I could see that many things went wrong.

But the genesis of every problem that came after it was the fact that this couple agreed to fly on the day of the cruise.

When I reviewed the paper trail, I was surprised that a cruise consultant booked the couple with such a tiny window for error. However, that isn’t unusual.

Our team has had many passengers contact us in anguish after a surprise missed cruise. They all have one thing in common: They booked itineraries to fly on the day the cruise was set to begin.

Flying to your departure city on the same day as your cruise is never a good idea. Even if it works — you just got lucky. Eventually, airline delays will likely catch up with you.

But the short airline delay was only part of the problem for the Watsons.

First I checked the schedule for their flight. According to FlightAware, their plane was only delayed 25 minutes. It landed at 2:45 p.m. Of course, without any delays their itinerary was already pushing the boundaries of travel-sensibility. That extra 25 minutes just sent things further into advocacy-success oblivion.

It’s a mistake not to keep your passport with you on the way to the cruise terminal

But when Watson handed over his bag, with his passport inside to a porter and proceeded to the cruise terminal without it, that really sealed the couple’s fate.

Travelers must always know and possess the required documentation to board their cruise — and it must be unexpired. Every cruise line, airline and travel provider has this warning written into their terms and conditions. Viking is no different: If you miss your cruise because you don’t have the correct documents, you won’t be getting a refund or future credit. Unless…

Regular readers will recall the case of Jane and Thomas Entenza who flew half-way around the world to India ready to board their dream Viking cruise. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize until after the 20 hour flight to New Delhi that they didn’t have the required visa to enter India. They never made it further than the immigration hall at the airport and missed their bucket list cruise. They were sent on the next flight back to the United States. 

The couple hoped the Consumer Rescue team could convince Viking to refund the nearly $30,000 they spent on the missed cruise. In that case, I hoped the cruise line would take into consideration that the Viking consultant informed the couple of all the entry requirements in writing – except the visa needed for India. 

Viking agreed that the agent held some responsibility and ultimately decided to split the difference and issued a future cruise credit equal to half the amount the couple spent.

(October 2023 update: Because of Jane’s declining health, Viking granted a further goodwill gesture to the couple and converted their cruise credits to a cash refund. This is an extraordinarily generous goodwill gesture. It is highly unusual for a cruise line ever to convert credits into cash.)  

Viking will not refund this missed cruise

But in the Watsons’ case, as in other missed cruise cases you read about here at Consumer Rescue, there was really no basis to request a goodwill gesture.

Although the Viking consultant did book the couple a flight on the same day as the cruise began, that wouldn’t be considered a mistake. If Watson had kept his passport in his possession, they likely would have been able to board the cruise as planned. Additionally, Viking had offered the couple the ability to join the cruise two days later, but they chose to fly home instead. 

I explained to Watson why we would have no tools to successfully mediate his case with Viking. He pointed out that he was doing precisely what Viking advised by packing his passport in his carry on.

Following Viking’s pre-trip written directions, I packed [my passport] along with all my travel docs and medications in my carry on that I had kept in my possession on the DFW-MIA flight and intended to stay with me from MIA to the ship. However, upon arrival at MIA, Viking took our carry-ons and two pieces of checked luggage and misplaced them.

Tom
Viking's guidelines about what to keep in your possession at all times on the way to the cruise terminal.
It’s a mistake to hand your carry-on with your passport inside to porters on your way to the cruise terminal.

The problem here, of course, is that as soon as Watson handed the Viking crew his bag with his passport inside, it was no longer in a carry-on.

A carry-on is a piece of luggage that stays by your side from the moment you leave your house until you board the ship. That is the reason that Viking, and every other cruise line, provides this guidance. It was a mistake to hand over a “carry-on” to a baggage handler with his passport inside — and regrettably, this ended in the couple’s missed cruise.

Watson continued to ask the cruise line to reconsider and I sent a request over to the Viking team which declined to change its position.

And so, this case will have a decidedly unhappy ending, but we are sharing it to warn other travelers not to make the same two mistakes Watson made that led to their missed cruise:

Do not fly into your embarkation point on the same day as your cruise – and never put your passport in a checked bag! (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

Before you go: What would you do if your child got banned from your favorite cruise line?

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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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Matthew W

Love what you do but what truly needed case got bypassed to help this one clearly the traveller had months to change a flight,hold a passport..

Not being negative here but there are people with issues truly the companies fault ,negligence etc.

Michelle Couch-Friedman

No worries, Matthew. I write about all sorts of cases – sometimes a consumer has made a mistake others can learn from, sometimes a company makes a mistake that needs to be corrected and sometimes it’s a mixture of both. But we never, ever bypass any case in which a consumer truly needs help. That just doesn’t happen here. 🙂 Michelle

Matthew W

Been reading you for years and appreciate.Inguess sometimes feels more attention should be on true “issues” but certainly glad you are for all people…

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Thank you, Matthew.:)

DChamp56

I’ve flown in on the same day as a cruise, but it’s always flights that get there very early in the morning, so if there’s a delay, it can be absorbed.
As I get older though, we tend to go a day early, as we will with a cruise next month out of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Buck California

I’ll bet he thought he was being savvy not booking a hotel room the night before. Penny wise, pound foolish.

SB

I’ll bet the travel advisor didn’t think twice about same day flights.

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