For their sixth wedding anniversary, Mark and Melissa Hill looked forward to a four-day Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Ecstasy.
''We get one vacation a year,'' said Mark, a telephone technician from Dallas. ``And this was our first trip alone together since we had kids.''
The Hills now wish they had stayed home. Their story shows how cruising during hurricane season can create a perfect storm of problems.
With Hurricane Ike headed toward Galveston, Texas, where their ship was to depart Sept. 11, the Hills tried to cancel their booking, but Carnival said they would forfeit their cruise fares, about $1,100 total, if they did.
So the couple drove to Galveston and boarded the ship. Two days later, Ike devastated the coastal town and flooded vehicles parked at the port, including the Hills' 2003 sport coupe, which was destroyed.
The Ecstasy cruised safely. But unable to return to Galveston, the ship diverted to New Orleans and later to Houston. The Hills, like more than 1,200 of their fellow cruisers, disembarked in New Orleans. After finding ''not a single rental car,'' Mark said, they paid nearly $400 total to fly home.
The Carnival Ecstasy's plight has kept cruise chat rooms buzzing. Some people blame the cruise line for the fiasco; some say it did the best it could; some say passengers were foolish to sail.
Mark said he and Melissa weighed ''a guaranteed loss of money'' against ``a risk of something possibly happening to my car.''
''We took the risk, and we paid,'' he said.
To avoid such a Hobson's choice, you must evaluate the risks of a Caribbean cruise during the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs June 1 to Nov. 30. Your trip could be trouble-free, of course. But if bad weather develops, things can go very wrong.
As some Carnival passengers learned, safeguards that seemed sturdy can crumble faster than a sand castle in a rainstorm. Here are some of the issues that arose and the lessons cruisers can take from them.
• Can I get a weather-related refund?
It's logical to expect a cruise line to return your money if the ship's departure city is under a hurricane warning. Logical, but in this case wrong.
Cruise lines generally decline last-minute refunds. Carnival's ticket contract says, 'No refunds will be made in the event of `no shows,' unused tickets ... or cancellations received late or after the start of the cruise.''
Like the Hills, Chris and Shelly Nors of Waco, Texas, tried to cancel their Ecstasy bookings because of Ike. If the ship sailed, Carnival said, it would keep the couple's money, whether they boarded or not.
At 9:30 a.m. on departure day, Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas ordered an immediate, mandatory evacuation of the city. And the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning that included Galveston.
Surely Carnival would cancel the cruise now, the Norses figured. But when they called around noon, the company again said the Ecstasy would sail. And when the ship departed that afternoon with 1,694 passengers, the Norses were on it.
In interviews and e-mails, Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz said the Galveston port and the U.S. Coast Guard cleared the Ecstasy to sail.
She also said that the ship's guests were allowed into Galveston. But despite several opportunities to do so, she did not say which agency authorized guests to enter the city despite the evacuation order.
Carnival sailed because it knew it could operate the voyage safely, De la Cruz said, and it didn't want to disrupt its customers' vacation plans. At the time, she added, the company was ''optimistic'' that the ship would be able to return to Galveston.
She confirmed that Carnival declined pre-cruise refunds, but after the cruise, De la Cruz said, Carnival would review, on a case-by-case basis, requests from customers who canceled because of ''specialized circumstances.'' She did not define the circumstances or possible remedies.
From Sept. 9 to 11, more than 600 Ecstasy customers canceled, she said.
Al Anolik, a San Francisco travel attorney and co-author of The Frequent Traveler's Guide, said that despite what a ticket contract might say, passengers shouldn't have to pay for a cruise if its departure city is under a mandatory evacuation order. Here's the logic, he said: If fulfilling your end of the deal might require you to break the law, the contract is canceled.
Lesson 1: Don't count on a refund.
• Can I get a refund if the itinerary changes?
Unlike many other people who canceled their Ecstasy cruise at the last minute, Shanna Sutton of Texas City, Texas, got her money back.
Her secret? When she phoned Carnival on departure day, the agent told her the ship would miss its scheduled call on Cozumel, Mexico, and instead call on Veracruz, Mexico. Sutton asked for a refund and got it: $782.96 total for herself and a friend.
Carnival's brochure says customers may cancel without penalty if a ship's itinerary is changed before departure. You must cancel within 24 hours after being notified of the change.
Carnival decided to make Ecstasy's port switch the morning of departure, De la Cruz said. It notified passengers about the change as they were boarding, without reminding them that they could cancel without penalty, she said.
By the time the Hills and the Norses said they figured that out, it was too late.
Lesson 2: Read the cruise brochure.
• Will a ''Vacation Guarantee'' help?
Under this program, Carnival says that if you are not satisfied with your cruise, you can get your money back. But you must notify the ship's information desk before arriving at the first port of call and disembark at the first non-U.S. port of call. (Carnival would then pay for your flight back.)
By several accounts, the Ecstasy cruise went pretty well until Veracruz, the first port of call, which some cruisers found disappointing, or later, when they learned they wouldn't return to Galveston as scheduled. By then it was too late to protest.
Lesson 3: Absolute guarantees don't exist.
• What about insurance sold by the cruise line?
Many travel insurance polices will reimburse you -- with various restrictions -- if a hurricane affecting your destination interrupts your trip or causes it to be canceled. But not the Cruise Vacation Protection Plan that Carnival offered.
Under covered reasons for trip interruption and cancellation, that plan listed a hurricane affecting your home but not your destination.
On the sunny side: Because ''inclement weather'' was covered for trip delays, policy holders who got off the Ecstasy in New Orleans or Houston might be entitled to collect as much as $500 for air fare they paid to get home and other costs, according to Carnival and BerkelyCare, the plan's administrator.
Lesson 4: Be wary of insurance sold by your travel supplier.
• What about traditional travel insurance?
''We didn't buy travel insurance,'' Mark Hill said. ``We could have kicked ourselves now.''
But the truth is, it's unlikely that such insurance would have solved all the Hills' problems.
''The policies are killers,'' Anolik said, because they are full of exceptions and complicated definitions.
For instance, travel insurers typically don't cover vehicle losses.
Some travel policies require that a hurricane make your destination uninhabitable, defined in various ways, for you to collect. Or they might require that it cause ''complete cessation'' of travel services for 24 hours. Some cover evacuations, but some don't. How these provisions apply to cruises is not always clear.
Representatives for three insurance companies I interviewed agreed on one point: Their policies won't pay for trip cancellation solely because your destination is under a hurricane warning and you're worried it could affect your trip.
''Insurance does not cover your state of mind,'' said Dan McGinnity, spokesman for AIG Travel Guard in Stevens Point, Wis. ``It covers events that actually occur, not events that might occur.''
Lesson 5: Insurance won't cover everything.
• What about ''cancel-for-any-reason'' coverage?
This might be offered as a stand-alone policy or an optional addition to a traditional travel policy. Details vary, but it typically allows you to cancel your trip for nearly any reason.
It can spare you from haggling with your insurer over definitions. But generally, you won't be reimbursed the full cost of your trip; some policies pay as little as 50 percent. You might not be able to cancel any later than 48 hours before departure, which might be too early for forecasters to predict a hurricane's path. And premiums are often higher.
Lesson 6: The smaller you want to make your risk, the greater your cost.
• Will a credit card save me?
If you buy a product or service with a credit card and fail to receive what you paid for, you are entitled, under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, to ask the card issuer to remove the charge from your bill. Other means of payment don't have this protection. It's not foolproof, but many travelers get refunds this way.
Lesson 7: Sometimes it makes sense to charge it.
All this brings me back to my original suggestion: Be wary of sailing during hurricane season, no matter how good the deals.
As I was reporting this story, a news release touting fall discounts arrived from Carnival. It said, in part:
'In addition to offering excellent value, October is the perfect time to book a `Fun Ship' cruise for some much-needed R&R as it is positioned perfectly between the busy summer period and the often-hectic holiday season.'' The first cruises mentioned: trips to the Caribbean and Mexico.
The last time I looked at my calendar, October was still part of hurricane season.
Source: LA times