"Nightmare" doesn't begin to describe the experience passengers went through on the cruise ship Carnival Triumph. Disabled by an engine fire in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, the ship finally was towed back into port Thursday night. For several days, passengers had to deal with the stench from raw sewage flooding rooms and hallways, as well as long lines to get something to eat or drink.
Carnival's CEO apologized, saying the cruise line is "very sorry" about conditions aboard the ship. And Carnival is putting its money where its mouth is; all passengers will get a free flight home, a full refund for the cruise, a credit for a future cruise, and $500 in cash.
This seems like the right thing to do. But you might be surprised to know, Carnival doesn't have to do any of it.
The fact is, the contract you sign when you buy a cruise ship ticket is written to protect the cruise line, and severely limits your rights as a passenger. Plus, the contract is long and filled with legalese. When you're excitedly booking your cruise online, over the phone or at a travel agent's office, it's unlikely you'll take the time to read the contract. But you should.
Here is Carnival's ticket contract. And here are a couple of key points as it relates to what's happening on the Triumph.
Section 7(e) states the following: "If the performance of the proposed voyage is hindered or prevented by... breakdown of the Vessel... the Guest and his baggage may be landed at the port of embarkation or at any port or place at which the Vessel may call, at which time the responsibility of Carnival shall cease and this contract shall be deemed to have been fully performed."
From Section 11(d): "Carnival shall not be liable to the passenger for damages for emotional distress, mental suffering/anguish or psychological injury of any kind under any circumstances, except when such damages were caused by the negligence of Carnival and resulted from the same passenger sustaining actual physical injury, or having been at risk of actual physical injury, or when such damages are held to be intentionally inflicted by Carnival."
Thus far, there are no reports of any passengers injured aboard the ship.
If any of the Triumph passengers wants to sue Carnival, the ticket contract spells out specific circumstances and time limits under which that can happen. And they'd be going it alone in court, because in Section 13 of the ticket contract, passengers give up their right to form a class action.
So, how do you protect yourself before getting on board the ship? Buy a third-party travel insurance policy. In fact, Carnival's ticket contract states the following in Section 6: "Carnival strongly recommends the purchase of trip cancelation insurance from your travel agent."
Clark's number one rule on travel insurance? Buy the policy from a third party, never from a cruise line or tour operator. A policy typically will run you 5% to 6% of the total cost of the trip. Clark recommends insuremytrip.com as a good place to shop for travel insurance.