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Cruise lines' fine print limits their liability, your right to sue

Cruise line and airline contracts often have self-serving clauses that may surprise unwary passengers

Question: I reserved a Royal Caribbean cruise of the Mediterranean. Shortly thereafter, Royal Caribbean notified me of the itinerary change for three of the ports. Fortunately, we had not ordered shore excursions, but I wonder who would pay the cancellation fee if we had ordered the shore excursions at the original ports?

Pat Lee

Arcadia

Answer: As travelers, we must spend a great deal of time reading the fine print of contracts of carriage (or terms and conditions) used by airlines and cruise lines to hint that you are not the master of your fate, to borrow from William Ernest Henley's poem "Invictus."

These contracts, which are so dull they make airline safety announcements look like the height of hilarity, spell out what you can and cannot do and can and cannot expect. Royal Caribbean's is very straightforward:

"Your cruise/cruise tour ticket contract contains important limitations on the right of passengers. It is important that you carefully read all terms of the contract … which limit our liability and your right to sue."

Hold on a minute. You can't sue? Your rights are limited? Did you agree to this? You did, when you bought the ticket.

But wait. There's more. The terms and conditions go on to say that changes in ports of call are at the cruise line's discretion. Again, here's what RCCL says:

"Carrier may for any reason at any time and without prior notice, cancel, advance, postpone or deviate from any scheduled sailing, port of call, destination, lodging or any activity on or off the vessel, or substitute another vessel or port of call, destination, lodging or activity. Carrier shall not be liable for any claim whatsoever by passenger, including but not limited to loss, compensation or refund, by reason of such cancellation, advancement, postponement, substitution or deviation."

Changes in ports may be the result of bad weather, civil unrest, mechanical issues with a ship or a host of other reasons that you may never be privy to, but you can be reasonably sure that the changes aren't made just for the sake of change.

Whatever the reason, if you've arranged and paid for a tour that's not through the cruise line, you'll have to navigate your refund or reimbursement, thanks to the "not liable for any claim" clause in the contract. (It's not just Royal that has these, by the way.)

Or, said another way, "If guests chose to book something independently, they may be taking a risk," Harrison Liu, a spokesman for Royal, said in an email.

If, however, you booked with Royal, the line isn't going to penalize you for a tour you can't take at a port it didn't make. Further, Liu said, "Excursions can be modified or canceled up to 24 hours prior to tour departure without penalty."

Other perks he noted for passengers on the line's excursions: You get to disembark first, and the ship won't leave you behind if your tour is late returning.

Should you, as many veteran cruisers do, eschew packaged tours offered by the cruise line? That depends on your aversion to risk (and whether you have insurance that would cover you) in case you encounter "the bludgeonings of chance," as Henley writes in "Invictus."

Would your head be "bloody, but unbowed" if you ran into a snag? If so, strike out on your own, but know that going with cruise-line offerings is a path of least resistance on a vacation that is built to be worry-free.

Nothing truly is, of course, but ceding the mastery of your fate to a travel entity that wants you to have a good time has a certain appeal and makes an interesting contrast with airline travel.

Henley wrote "Invictus" in 1875, so he wasn't writing about airlines when he described "a place of wrath and tears," although, besides being a poet, perhaps he was terribly prescient.

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