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That's Ridiculous! Cruise Lines and the Passengers They Carry

The complaints started pouring in even before the storm had subsided.

Passengers were outraged — outraged! — that their ships had operated even with a hurricane approaching in late October.

One guest, who had just disembarked from a Disney cruise, was livid. “The pools on the upper decks were closed the entire time and the fine dining down below was canceled because of the excessive motion from the extremely rough seas,” she reported.

The sailing should have been canceled, according to her and one other passenger on the same cruise. Instead, Disney offered its seasick customers a 25 percent discount off a future voyage.

Absurdly high expectations — that pretty much summarizes the ridiculousness of cruising in the 21st century. Theirs and ours.

I’m taking one last swing at each segment of the travel industry on this column’s farewell tour, and today it’s cruising’s turn.

On the face of it, the passenger demands to cancel a cruise with an incoming hurricane, and the complaints about a measly 25 percent discount seem perfectly reasonable. But they are not.

A cruise is, by definition, a journey on the ocean. The ocean can be unpredictable, even dangerous. So these people who are complaining — they booked their vacation during the Atlantic hurricane season. What were they expecting, a river cruise?

Disney would never take a $500 million ship for a joyride in a Category 1 hurricane, not just because it cares about the safety of its passengers (which I’m sure it does), but also because it doesn’t want to lose a ship that cost more than half a billion dollars.

At the same time, there are powerful forces pushing any cruise line to sail on schedule, if it can safely do so. Chief among them: all the passengers that will whine if they don’t run the cruise, “ruining” their vacation of a lifetime.

You just can’t win.

But there’s plenty of stupidity to go around. Cruise lines have an unsustainable business model, which is based on registering their ships in countries with zero standards, paying their third-world crew substandard wages, evading American taxes, charging artificially low cruise fares and then making up the difference with “gotcha” fees and extras.

I know that was a lot to absorb. But believe me, I’ve been following this business for long enough that you just have to take my word for it. The cruise industry is the proverbial ship of fools, whether you’re buying or selling. (Travel agents, can I hear an “amen”?)

I’m not going to waste your time reviewing the evidence that cruising is an unsustainable, if not irresponsible, vacation activity, propped up by bad tax laws, overpaid lobbyists and our insatiable appetite to get something for nothing.

Instead, let’s focus on the solution.

We need to lower our expectations. What do I mean by that? If you own shares in a cruise line, those 40 percent gross profit margins are a dangerous fantasy. Cruise lines will do whatever they can to squeeze every last dollar out of their employees and passengers while bending every government rule and regulation standing in their way. That must end.

And passengers? Didn’t your momma ever tell you that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is?

What do you call cruising the Caribbean at $49 a day, all meals included? There’s no win-win when prices are so low — someone pays for the nonsense. And if you don’t believe me, then strike up a conversation with one of the deckhands or cabin attendants on your next cruise and ask them about their standard of living.

When it comes to cruising, it’s not a question of what is ridiculous. It’s more a question of what’s not?

Christopher Elliott is the author of “Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals” (Wiley). He’s also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)

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