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Our friend Barbara Dee calls it “the cruise from hell.” It was her first cruise, a 10-day trip aboard a small ship traveling from Quebec City to Boston. On the second day, the weather turned sour and the seas were rough; yet the captain forged onward. “The crew was passing around bowls of Dramamine,” Dee remembers. “People were falling; glasses and plates were tossed; the ship pitched and the piano in the dining room tipped over! It was horrible.” Dee bailed out in Nova Scotia, begging a friend to drive up from Boston to pick her up. She hasn’t been on a cruise since. “Call it post-traumatic cruise syndrome, but I have no interest in taking another cruise vacation,” she says.

While cruising remains one of the safest forms of travel, recent disasters remind us that bad stuff still happens: engine room fires, equipment malfunctions, power failures, weather woes, and noroviruses. What can you do if your smooth-sailing sojourn turns into mayhem at sea? Forty-one oceangoing members of the Cruise Lines International Association have implemented the International Cruise Industry Passenger Bill of Rights (www.cruising.org). Among them are the right to disembark a docked ship if essential provisions such as food, water, and restroom facilities are not adequately provided, and the right to refunds for trips that are canceled or terminated early due to mechanical failures. The caveat: It doesn’t cover other issues, such as rough seas, bad weather, changed itineraries, and illness. If you encounter these problems, you may be out of luck.

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“The cruise lines’ contracts of carriage that govern the legalities of each voyage are written to dramatically limit cruise line liability,” says Heidi Allison, publisher of All Things Cruise, a popular website for cruise enthusiasts. In other words, when you sign the passage contract — and you must — you pretty much give the cruise line the right to cancel or change anything it wants with limited or no liability. “But,ound that, although legally cruise lines may have documentation in place to limit their liabilities, they try to do their utmost to keep passengers happy and to exceed their expectations,” Allison added.

Some cruise lines, to garner goodwill and customer satisfaction, have offered some form of compensation to disgruntled passengers, especially in headline-grabbing incidents. For example, passengers on the ill-fated Carnival Triumph were offered a full refund for the cruise and travel expenses, reimbursement for on-board expenses, credit toward a future cruise, and a check for $500, after they were stranded in the Gulf of Mexico for several days when an onboard fire knocked out power.

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But compensation for encountering bad weather and changing itineraries is rare. In most cases, cruise ships, which have high-tech weather monitoring systems, will change course to steer clear of stormy skies and roily seas. “Ships are in contact with NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], the Coast Guard and national weather services and take whatever steps are needed to avoid bad conditions at sea or in port,” says Michael McGarry, CLIA’s senior vice president for public affairs.

But that means you might never see that can’t-miss port.

“We did a late-season Mediterranean cruise,” says Paul Kelley of Beverly. “The fare was really good, but we found out why. The weather was so bad, we weren’t able to dock. We missed nearly half of the ports on the itinerary. See ya never, Minorca!”

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Dan Rawling of Kittery, Maine, had a similar experience. “I wasn’t that interested in cruising per se; I took the cruise to see three different cities I’d never seen before,” he said. “It turned out we missed two out of the three because of bad weather. It was a real disappointment. When I asked about a refund or at least credit for another trip, the cruise line pointed out that they had no liability according to the passenger contract.”

While missing a much anticipated destination can be disappointing, it could be much worse. (Think norovirus.)

“When an outbreak occurs on a ship, the crew typically goes into a well-rehearsed drill,” says Paul Niskanen, president of Cruise Masters & Concierge Travel Advisors. Niskanen, who has been on 100 or so cruises, also serves on Travel & Leisure magazine’s travel advisory board. “They isolate the passengers in their staterooms (and bring in all food, medical care, and other necessities), and promptly sanitize the entire ship. Meanwhile, there is no self-service anywhere. If you want something from a buffet, properly-dressed and sanitized crew members will put the items you select on your plate for you.”

One passenger aboard the recent Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas cruise ship, where more than 600 passengers became ill — the highest number of sick people reported on any cruise ship in 20 years according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics — recalled her nightmare. (She wishes to remain anonymous as she is still hoping for further compensation.)

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“It was nasty,” she says. “Everyone around me was sick. People were forced to stay in their rooms; we missed ports and the cruise was cut short. I tried to be careful and stay away from people, but I came down with it anyway.

“They want to give me credit toward another cruise. Puh-leeze! I won’t be taking another cruise for a long while, if ever,” she says.

But, despite the stories and attention-getting headlines, odds are that you’re about 1,000 times more likely to contract norovirus on land than at sea. According to the CDC, there are about 20 million cases of norovirus on land in the United States each year. In 2013, one in 15 people on land in the United States became sick from norovirus. By comparison, more than 10 million passengers embarked on a cruise from a US port in 2013 with four norovirus outbreaks involving a little over 800 passengers. That amounts to about one out of every 14,000 passengers.

“To put this in perspective, the odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime are 1 in 3,000,” says McGarry. “The odds of hitting a hole in one are 1 in 12,500.”

Cruise experts say there are things you should do to stay healthy and safe on a cruise. Many are the same things you would do on a land-based vacation, including limiting your time in crowded public areas, spending as much time as possible outside in fresh air, staying hydrated, avoiding contact with railings and other places that could have been touched by an infected traveler, and using hand sanitizers that are strategically placed throughout the ship. Also before your cruise, research your ship options to see how each ranks in regard to cleanliness and potential risk for contamination.

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“Each ship operating from US ports is subject to unannounced, comprehensive inspections by the CDC, which also has the authority to detain a ship in port or prevent it from sailing if warranted,” says Bob Levinstein, CEO of www.cruisecompete.com, an award-winning website that pairs consumers with cruise travel agents and specialists. “The Vessel Sanitation Program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues reports on how the various lines and ships perform during inspections.”

Experts also recommend investing in independent travel insurance. “Travel insurance from outside vendors is usually much less expensive than insurance purchased from the cruise lines,” says Levinstein. “While there are good deals to be found, consumers should take time to read policies very, very carefully to understand what they cover.”

Finally, relax and have fun. While bad stuff could happen, it usually doesn’t, and surveys continue to show that cruisers have the highest satisfaction rate among vacationers. Do your research, take some simple precautions, and then try to go with the flow.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.