Cruise drama highlights vacation risks – National Consumers League

The dramatic story of thousands of passengers stranded on a power- and plumbing-less Carnival cruise ship in the Carribean has many consumers wondering not only about cruise ship safety, but also their rights as passengers. What exactly are you risking when purchasing a vacation getaway?

According to a recent Reuters article, consumers sign away a handful of rights when they buy a ticket — which is essentially a contract — to embark on a cruise. According to the story, Carnival makes up about half of the cruise market, but its contracts are quite typical. Here’s what consumers are handing over — along with their cash:

A guarantee that the cruise will actually happen.

Carnival can cancel any cruise at any time, according to the contract. It will owe you a refund if the cruise is completely cancelled, or a partial refund if the company changes its mind and leaves you at some port along the way. There’s no additional refund in the contract for airfare home. If you cancel within two weeks of booking you’ll most likely owe full fare anyway, under the contract.

The right to sue when and where you want.

Like most consumer legal contracts these days, the Carnival ticket contract includes an arbitration clause that requires you to submit claims for lost luggage and the like to binding arbitration in Miami-Dade County, Florida. If you do want to file suit for a personal injury, you would be required to do that in the U.S. Federal District Court in Miami.

Furthermore, there are lawsuit deadlines in cruise contracts that many attorneys and passengers aren’t even aware of. The contract requires injured parties to notify Carnival within six months and file suit within a year.

The right to ask for sizeable punitive damages.

There are two different kinds of ticket contracts: Domestic ones, which do not cap liability, and international contracts, such as the ones the passengers of the Costa Concordia likely agreed to when they boarded their ship. That contract is subject to an international agreement called the “Athens Convention,” which limits liability to about $80,000.

The right to emotional distress.

What if you’re traumatized by your cruise – say, if a loved one is injured or killed on the ship? Unless you personally were at risk for the same injury (as would likely be the case in a disaster like the Costa Concordia’s accident), you probably waived your right to claim emotional distress in the contract.

The right to privacy.

When you sign the contract, you give the company the right “at all times with or without notice” to search your bags and personal effects. That’s so they can make sure you’re not smuggling any firearms, explosives, or alcohol onto the ship.

The contracts give the cruiseline the right to use pictures and videos of you for commercial purposes–without any further permission from – or compensation to – you. The right to use your own pictures. Carnival reserves the rights to your pictures – you don’t. Passengers agree that they “will not utilize any photographs … for non-private use without express written consent of Carnival.”

Protection from theft.

In the event that personal items go missing on the ship or luggage is lost,  The ticket contract limits the company’s liability for lost or damaged bags and their contents to $50 per guest or $100 per stateroom. If your items are worth much more than that, you can buy added coverage by declaring the value of what you are bringing onto the ship and paying 5 percent of its value.

Reuters recommends if you’re bringing expensive jewelry or other items on board, make a written list of the value, pay the 5 percent and make sure the crew gets a copy of that list.

Still planning that winter cruise to the Caribbean? Remember the golden rule of the educated consumer: do your research, know what the risks are, and don’t sign anything you don’t understand.