Can you get a refund on your cruise if there’s a natural disaster?

Question: We were booked to sail on the Star Princess from Valparaíso, Chile, on March 2. On Feb. 27, an 8.8 earthquake struck Chile. Because of flight cancellations, the condition of the Santiago airport and the numerous aftershocks, many passengers didn’t reach the ship, including us. We did not buy insurance. Princess has said it will not give us a credit because I could have bought insurance and didn’t. We think Princess should provide some credit. Isn’t that the fair thing to do?

Stan Pebsworth

La Cañada

Answer: In dealing with travel providers, fair often isn’t the issue at the heart of the traveler’s problem. In many cases, “fair” is not synonymous with “right” or “kind.”

As we have seen in the last several weeks, beginning with the string of destructive earthquakes across the globe and continuing with the volcanic ash across Northern Europe, travelers who didn’t buy insurance and whose plans were disrupted or ruined were stuck, literally and financially.

The financial aspects are understandable from a travel provider’s point of view. If every passenger who missed a flight because of the Icelandic eruption were compensated the 600 euros that European Union rules say they should receive, that would total millions of dollars. Couple that with the $200 million that news reports say airlines are losing each day they’re grounded, and you have the makings of a financial disaster, never mind a natural one.

All of this is spelled out in the conditions or contracts of carriage, which you can find on nearly any travel provider’s website. But for a brief summation, here’s what American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith told me in an e-mail: “Since no airline ‘guarantees’ schedules beyond a genuine effort to try to stay on schedule, the conditions of carriage of most carriers say that a force majeure beyond our control is not within our liability.” In other words, if there’s an earthquake, it’s not American’s fault and it’s not American’s problem. It’s yours.

Here’s what Julie Benson, vice president for public relations for Princess, said in an e-mail to me: “The earthquake in Chile created an unusual situation for our company with unprecedented challenges, and we understand that our passengers are disappointed that their vacation plans were impacted. It’s not our custom to provide refunds to passengers in circumstances that are out of our control, such as natural disasters. We rely on the fact that the large majority of our passengers (about two-thirds) purchase some sort of travel coverage to protect their vacation in the event of the unexpected.

Here’s what Chris Harvey, chief executive of, a travel insurance comparison site, said in an e-mail to me: “I would say the cruise company is within their rights to refuse a refund.”

And here’s what I would say to you: If you can’t afford to pay twice for a trip you’re going to take only once, you need insurance.

Of course, that’s hindsight, and that doesn’t help the Pebsworths. They’re not going to recoup the costs of their trip, and neither are the many thousands of others who have been likewise affected by natural disasters.

But would it be right or kind for the cruise line to say, “I’m so, so sorry. Please accept this credit for your next Princess cruise”? How much that credit would be is a tricky matter. I’m not sure where the line is between a heartfelt “I’m sorry” and a gesture that looks like “Get off my back already.”

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