Cameron Mitchell was days away from an April Caribbean cruise when he got bad news. Royal Caribbean International canceled the sailing he and more than a dozen of his relatives were planning to take for his aunt’s 60th birthday because of ship maintenance.
“We were all upset because we were like, ‘How the hell can you cancel a cruise (around) two weeks out?’” said Mitchell, 35, a photographer based in Atlanta.
The cruise line gave the family a refund and a credit on a future sailing and offered to reimburse them “for non-refundable, pre-purchased transportation change fees incurred,” according to an email from the line Mitchell shared with USA TODAY. The family made the most of their planned time off anyway, renting an Airbnb in Orlando, Florida, and going to Disney World instead.
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Royal Caribbean did not immediately respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment.
Cruise lines may cancel sailings for a variety of reasons, forcing passengers to change their travel plans, sometimes with little notice.
Why do passengers get bumped from cruises?
A number of factors can prompt a cancellation.
Norwegian Cruise Line recently canceled months of sailings for its Norwegian Spirit ship scheduled between July 3 and Sept. 18, 2024, because of a full ship charter. The cruise line notified guests in May and offered them full refunds and future cruise credits, according to a letter to passengers the line shared with USA TODAY.
Margaritaville at Sea also scrapped sailings set to take place between May 22 and June 1 so its ship could go to dry dock, offering to rebook passengers at no incremental cost and giving them onboard credit, according to a spokesperson. Vantage Deluxe World Travel recently canceled multiple trips – some “due to the vessel’s readiness,” according to its website – leaving a number of passengers waiting on refunds.
Dry docking – when ships are taken out of passenger service for regular maintenance or refurbishment – is usually planned years in advance, according to Jared Feldman, owner of travel agency Jafeldma Travel. However, if a ship is damaged while in service, it may need to go to dry dock immediately for repairs.
“That's the more common scenario (to result in a cancellation) where a ship has to be pulled from service for one-plus weeks,” said Feldman.
Charter-related cancellations tend to take place with more notice than emergency dry docking, according to Joanna Kuther, a New York City-based travel agent and owner of Port Side Travel Consultants. She said she has never seen passengers bumped as a result of a full-ship charter less than nine months to a year ahead of sailing.
What happens if your cruise is canceled
If a cruise is canceled, the line typically notifies passengers directly or through their travel adviser, Feldman said.
Cruise lines’ cancellation policies are not regulated by the federal government the way airlines’ are, and while Feldman said the contracts passengers agree to when they purchase their tickets are “very cruise line friendly,” the lines generally always provide refunds and work to accommodate travelers on another sailing.
Cruise lines "don't take schedule changes lightly,” Feldman said.
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Passengers may be able to transfer their booking to another cruise in place of a refund, Kuther said. If they are rebooked on a voyage that costs less than their original sailing, they would be refunded the difference, but if the new sailing costs more, they would need to pay the remaining balance.
Cruise lines may also offer additional compensation, such as a future cruise credit, though passengers could have to choose between that and a refund, depending on the company.
“It can really vary and it depends on each individual circumstance,” Feldman said. “I will say that the closer (the cancellation) is to the sail date, the better the compensation will be.”
While the line will generally cover costs that are part of the cruise purchase – such as flights booked through the line – passengers are generally on their own for other expenses incurred as part of the trip, except in extreme circumstances such as last-minute cancellations. Kuther and Feldman recommended travelers purchase travel insurance before sailing, which can help cover those costs.
While Kuther said cruise cancellations are “pretty rare,” they are aggravating when they happen.
“It’s just very frustrating,” Kuther said. “Nobody wants to have their vacation canceled.”
Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville, Tennessee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What happens when your cruise is canceled