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Cruises are popular vacations for millions of Americans, especially during the summer months. And why not? For many, it's paradise. You get to visit scenic destinations while sailing on a floating full-scale resort that caters to your every whim.
But the promise of paradise can vanish the moment you show up at the airport. You get to the gate, eager to board, and watch as the flight information screen switches your flight to the dreaded word: "canceled."
You wouldn't be alone. In 2019, airlines canceled nearly 135,000 flights. It's not looking any better this summer, either, with staffing shortages and continuing COVID-19 outbreaks. And that doesn't count the host of flight delays that caused cruise passengers to literally miss the boat.
What are your options if a flight cancellation or delay causes you to miss your cruise? None of them is ideal, but you may be able to save at least part of your trip. If you can't, you may be able to get at least some, but probably not all, of your money back.
The best thing you can do is to plan for the possibility of a flight cancellation in advance. Cruise lines recommend that you get to your port city a day early. Some even say to get there a couple of days in advance. You may have to pay for at least one overnight at a hotel or Airbnb, but you can be sure to make it to the pier in time to board.
Consider paying extra to get a direct flight to your port city. You won't have to deal with missed connections. And while you may not want to start your vacation before the crack of dawn, an early morning flight is less likely to be delayed or canceled.
Get travel insurance. Yes, it's expensive. Most policies cost between 4% and 8% (some premium plans cost as much as 12%) of your cruise costs. As long as you compare policies — and read the fine print — you can get coverage for any additional travel expenses, reimbursed in the event you can't make the cruise, and get the peace of mind that goes along with it. Be aware that some premium credit cards offer travel protections similar to travel insurance, so make sure you check with your credit card company.
If you get to the airport and they cancel your flight, don't panic. Take a deep breath and get in line at the customer service kiosk. While you are waiting, call the airline's helpline to see if you can reach an agent faster. If it's mechanical trouble, you may be able to get another flight on the same or another airline. You may lose your upgrade, but at least you'll get there on time.
If the weather is bad and all flights are being canceled, you may still be able to drive to another airport and get a connecting flight. Your trip to Miami might route you through San Francisco, but you may still be able to make it to your destination (even if it's just by the skin of your teeth).
How do you pay for that flight? According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, if your airline cancels or significantly delays your flight, you are entitled to a refund for the price of your ticket. So you'll at least get the money you spent on your flight back. Unless you have travel insurance, however, you are stuck with the additional costs of your new flight out. And that can be a lot of money.
Let's say the weather in your city is abominable and all flights out that day are canceled. If there is no way you can possibly make it to your destination on time, you can try to join the cruise at another port city along the cruise route. You may miss a couple of days of your cruise, but you may be able to salvage much of your trip. Contact your cruise line and let the agent know your unexpected change of plans.
Your options are limited if you miss your cruise entirely. Although you will be reimbursed for your canceled flight, cruise companies generally don't give refunds for missed cruises due to travel problems. You will be out the money you paid for your cruise.
You may be really mad and want to get back at the airline for ruining your trip. But don't plan on running to court. When you buy a ticket online, you agree to the airline's terms and conditions. That forms a binding contract.
We know that few actually read those terms, but if you did, you would see that the airline limits its liability for a canceled flight to the cost of the flight itself. They also won't pay for the consequences to you of the cancellation, such as the cost of the cruise. You essentially give up your right to complain.
A canceled flight doesn't have to mean a ruined cruise. But the best way to protect yourself is to get to your destination at least one day early. Enjoy an overnight at a nice hotel. And buy travel insurance. It's worth it.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.