What are cruise passengers’ rights when voyages go wrong?

Deck Talk: After Cunard cancels a transatlantic voyage at the 11th hour, disappointed travellers are offered full refunds plus a 20 per cent ‘future cruise credit’

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 25 April 2023 20:18 BST
Distant dream: Queen Mary 2 in New York
Distant dream: Queen Mary 2 in New York (Cunard)

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By now, the passengers booked to sail from Southampton on Queen Mary 2 should be halfway across the Atlantic. Cunard, the owner of the world’s only ocean-going liner still in passenger service, promises a “new eclectic programme of entertainment” as well as unlimited meals before docking in New York on Sunday 30 April. But the passengers booked on the one-week voyage will not, after all, experience the joy of approaching Manhattan by water this week.

The Cunard flagship is still in the Hampshire port, “due to a technical issue which needs to be resolved prior to sailing”. The return voyage from New York to Southampton has also been cancelled.

“Our friends travelled from the Isles of Scilly on Friday for the Sunday transatlantic crossing of QM2,” one reader reports. “They were waiting for their taxi to pick them up from hotel in Southampton when the taxi firm phoned and said the cruise is cancelled. It was going to be their first foreign holiday together after 49 years of marriage as they’re self-employed and can never get away.”

Others were told bluntly by an email sent out at 9.30am: “Queen Mary 2 arrived into Southampton late last night for assessment of a technical issue. Unfortunately, after further investigation, it has been confirmed that this work will take longer to resolve than anticipated and the ship is unable to sail until this is completed.”

From all points of view this is a cause for dismay. The 1,250 officers and crew will not be able to deliver the journey that 2,000-plus passengers were expecting. I calculate the twin cancellations will cost Cunard at least £10m in lost revenue. But the collective disappointment for travellers is immeasurable – from honeymooners who set their hearts on the transatlantic crossing to people planning their first, or possibly last, cruise.

A spokesperson for Cunard told me: “We apologise to all guests affected by this cancellation. Our customer-care team and travel agent partners have been liaising with impacted guests and we are doing everything possible to provide support and make alternative travel arrangements.” The cruise line assures me it will meet reasonable out-of-pocket expenses – including the £2,000 that a 91-year-old passenger was obliged to pay out for travel insurance. (Policies do not cover the risk that the insurance cover itself will be rendered pointless.)

Travellers may not lose out financially, but on top of recompense they are understandably keen on compensation. For a flight cancellation to New York, the rules are clear. Although an axed departure is annoying, it need not be too disruptive: the airline is obliged to find another departure on the same day and, in most circumstances, pay £520 in cash compensation.

But the next Southampton-New York sailing is in eight weeks. And in terms of compensation there are no set amounts beyond the obvious full refund for a product that has not been delivered. So how does Cunard propose to make up for the upset?

“All guests will receive a full refund and a Future Cruise Credit of 20 per cent of monies paid,” the shipping line says.

For a passenger in one of the cheaper cabins, that amounts to under £300 – with no cash alternative and an expiry date in two years’ time. “Paltry” is one of the kinder words I have heard to describe the offer.

Last autumn, when Covid travel restrictions were still causing mayhem, a Hurtigruten voyage from Panama to Valparaiso in Chile was forced to miss out on Peru. The Norwegian company told passengers: “We liaised closely with Peruvian authorities and received signals from local partners that these stringent infection-control measures would be lifted in time for your expedition. However, we have not received confirmation from authorities that such restrictions have been removed.”

A single case of Covid on board would have seen the whole ship placed in quarantine.

The voyage still went ahead, and an extra stop in the agreeable Ecuadorean city of Guayaquil was added – ahead of the frustration of sailing the length of the Peruvian coast without stopping.

Before the voyage began, the company offered passengers the option of returning home at its expense, with flights paid and a full refund. Everyone who opted to stay on board received half their money back, in cash rather than vouchers, and most went home happy.

Perhaps Cunard might like to reconsider its compensation to transatlantic travellers.

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