Cruise passengers are alarmed – and out of luck

The tragic sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship Jan. 13 is leaving a line of worried passengers in its wake. Betty Westbrook is among them. The retiree from Allen, Texas, called me hours after the ship sank off the Italian coast, hoping that I could help her. “What are my chances for a refund?” she asked.

Westbrook believes that had she been aboard the cruise liner, she might have been a casualty. “I’m 82, and I couldn’t have made it off the ship without help,” she says.

Reading about the Concordia crew’s alleged unpreparedness for disaster has made her nervous about her February cruise to the Bahamas on the Carnival Magic.

The Concordia went down after running aground near the island of Giglio. The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, is reported to have maneuvered the ship too close to a fishing village. He was arrested after the disaster and is currently facing criminal charges for abandoning ship and manslaughter.

Costa Cruises is owned by Miami-based Carnival, the world’s largest cruise line operator, and not surprisingly, some passengers now are having second thoughts about their floating vacations. A nonscientific online survey conducted soon after the disaster by the opinion website SodaHead.com found that one-quarter of those polled were “less likely” to book a cruise after the Costa disaster.

Westbrook told me that when she heard about Carnival’s handling of the Concordia sinking, she phoned her travel agency immediately to find out whether she could cancel her cruise.

The answer to her question is: No refunds – at least not for her.

“We’re not making any changes to our refund policy,” said Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen. If she canceled, Westbrook would lose her deposit or 75 percent of the total cruise fare, whichever is greater. (Unfortunately, Carnival’s refund policy is similar to that of most other major cruise lines.)

Costa, however, is offering passengers scheduled to sail on the Concordia through Feb. 25 their money back and a 30 percent cruise credit.

Meanwhile, the cruise line says it is covering the costs of lodging and return transportation for Concordia’s survivors, as well as offering counseling to the passengers and their families “as needed.” It also is refunding all voyage costs, including onboard expenses.

In a statement issued just after the incident, Costa and its corporate parent sought to assure passengers such as Westbrook that its vessels are safe.

“Costa is committed to ensuring that no such incident ever occurs again,” it said. “Our No. 1 priority is always the safety and security of our guests and crew, and we comply with all safety regulations.”

But passengers have some cause for concern, particularly when it comes to Costa, says Miami-based maritime lawyer Jim Walker.

“In the last two years, Costa has had three significant incidents where crew members have been killed and passengers have been injured,” he says.

On Feb. 26, 2010, the Costa Europa rammed into a pier in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, as it was trying to dock in rough weather. Three crew members were killed and one was injured, along with three passengers. And on Oct. 18, 2010, the Costa Classica collided with a Belgian cargo ship near China’s Yangtze River, injuring several passengers.

Costa’s safety record isn’t the only thing that should frighten passengers, say Walker and other legal experts. Also worrisome are the flimsy legal rights passengers have when they book a cruise, outlined in a legal document known as the ticket contract, which is available on the cruise line’s website and normally is included with your ticket.

For passengers with future cruise plans, the contract delivers some bad news: If you want a refund, and you’re within two weeks of departing on a European cruise, you’re out of luck. (If it’s anywhere between 15 and 44 days until your vacation, you can get half your money back.)

The contract is equally restrictive as it applies to Concordia’s survivors. The fine print limits the cruise line’s liability to about $71,000 per passenger, requires that any claim against the company be filed within a year, restricts the filing venue to a court in Genoa, Italy, and applies Italian law to resolving the dispute.

For cruises from U.S. ports, Costa’s contract limits the venue for filing lawsuits to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, effectively turning any lawsuit into a costly federal case. Other ticket language prevents smaller complaints from being brought together as class actions, further limiting passengers’ access to justice, say legal experts.

Cruise line claims adjusters often send a series of letters to injured survivors, asking for more information. The time required for correspondence and documentation runs down the clock on any claims, according to David Deehl, an adjunct law professor at the University of Miami and vice chairman of the American Bar Association’s Admiralty and Maritime Law Committee.

“They’re appearing to want to settle, asking for more and more information,” he says. In fact, they’re usually intent on paying the least they can under the law.

One place where cruise lines move quickly is in shoring up their own defense, Deehl says. “They have their own civil defense lawyers who are often flown right to the ship to interview crew and passengers immediately, locking in their defense theories with sworn testimony,” he told me.

If you’re considering a cruise vacation, experts suggest reviewing the ticket contract before booking to know what rights you have. If you’re uncomfortable with the terms, they recommend sticking to a land-based vacation.

Travel insurance might help the Concordia’s survivors recover some of their lost property and pay for the expense of their interrupted vacation. But only the most expensive policy, known as “cancel for any reason” insurance, would have allowed a passenger such as Westbrook to get a refund. (And read the policy carefully – some “cancel for any reason” policies offer only a percentage of your money back.)

Westbrook says her friends have advised her to stop worrying. After all, her vacation is taking place half a world away and on a different cruise line, even if it’s owned by the same company. But she says it’s difficult, although “it looks like I don’t have much of a choice.”

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Email him at celliott@ngs.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his website, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.