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Debbie Swensen was travelling in a group with P&O Cruises earlier this year when one of her friends had to cancel at the last minute to attend a funeral. So one member of her group became a solo occupant of a cabin.

On some lines, this could have led to a plethora of extra charges as the line tried to make up for the vacant bed and even onboard spending at bars and facilities like spas.

But Ms Swensen was lucky. P&O didn’t charge them a thing. “We just boarded and told them at check in our friend wasn’t coming.”

And though the no-show passenger couldn’t get a refund, at least the group didn’t face any further financial penalties.

Welcome to the tangled world of cancellations, where there are many different policies, and where the small print rules the day.

On some ships, Ms Swensen could have faced a solo supplement as well as her friend loosing her fare. On others, there might have been a bigger administration charge.

There are no rules – exception those on your ticket. And too many cruisers don’t read those.

Each line has their own terms outlined and a Cruise Passenger investigation has found that they differ quite a bit. Most are neither comprehensive nor easy to understand. Often, we had to call customer service to get information.

Cruisers have three main options when faced with a last minute cancellation:

  • Swap one cruiser for another
  • Keep the booking and sail solo – facing a solo supplement on some lines
  • Cancel the whole booking – and loose all deposits and, in some cases, the fares.

In general, cruise lines ask their guests to notify the line or their Travel Agent as soon as possible should a guest need to amend or cancel their booking.

“A guest booking must be updated to reflect exactly who is travelling, this is why we ask that guests let us know when they are unable to travel even if this means there is no refund due,” says Princess Cruises.

But in giving advance notice, Cruise Passenger found that with lines like Princess Cruises and Viking Ocean cruises,  their terms and conditions could require guests who wish to keep the booking and sail solo to pay a solo supplement.

“If the remaining guest is to proceed with the sailing, fares will also revert to a sole occupant fare. Therefore, additional payment is required to cover the refund to the cancelling guest and the remainder of the sole occupant fare,” says Princess Cruises.

Some lines may charge an administrative charge for adding a replacement guest. However with Princess Cruises, there are no administration fees. But changes can only be made up to 48 hours before departure.

In trying to work out who charges what in the event of a cancellation, Princess Cruises was the most open and transparent in dealing with our questions.  Some lines chose not to discuss their policies. Others just sent us a link to their terms and conditions.

For the cruise line, a no-show has an immediate business impact. The line often relies on onboard spending, and may have won the business with a very low upfront fare. So a no-show without warning could make a cabin unprofitable.

So what happens when a guest doesn’t turn up?

“When a guest does not arrive for check in, our Customer Service Team will contact the guests to confirm if they are cancelling altogether or planning to join the ship at another port. If they are cancelling altogether then we cancel the booking, or cancel a guest from a booking if there is only one guest cancelling,” says the line.

“If guests have been delayed and wish to join the ship at another port then we work with the ship to confirm clearance for the delayed guests to join at another port. There are some ports where guests are not allowed to join so this must be checked before we advise them of where they can join.”

Viking maintains that if one guest has to cancel, and the other wishes to continue, the guest who cancels is subject to the penalty schedule for their portion of the cruise and the remaining guest will have to pay the single room supplement to have sole occupancy in a two persons.

Viking’s policy document states that the substitution of another person for original booked guest is considered a cancellation. They are also able to replace one guest 121 days prior to departure date with a $50 amendment fee.

Other lines handle it differently

On Royal Caribbean, if you request a change within 45 days of departure, this may be treated as a cancellation of your original booking and cancellation charges as set out in the terms and conditions will be payable. The changed arrangements will then be treated as a new booking.

“Where any cancellation reduces the number of full paying party members below the number on which the price, number of free places and/or any concessions agreed for your booking were based, we will recalculate your holiday cost and re-invoice you accordingly,” Royal Caribbean states in its terms and conditions.

But an exception is made if a travel partner is unable to join due to medical reasons, and a passenger will be given up to 7 days to inform Royal Caribbean in writing.  They will permit the name change of one passenger with an administration fee of AU$50.

With Norwegian Cruise Lines and Carnival Cruise Line, their policy states that no refunds will be given on any cruise for no-shows. Their customer representative also confirmed that there are no fees involved in a name change and there would be no additional cost if the remaining passenger proceeds with the sailing.

Guests are also able to swap out one guest on the booking for free on both lines. Guests can do so up to 72 hours of their sailing on Carnival Cruise Lines and up to 48 hours of their sailing on Norwegian Cruise Lines.

It’s best to be prepared

So if you think that you might have a last minute cancellation for your cruise, it pays to know what your line’s policies are.

Though we cannot be sure, it could be that waiting until you are booking in could be a better deal. But this can be risky, and you won’t be sure of the results.

Buying insurance cover for your cruise is one of the best way to protect yourself from unexpected related costs when your holiday plans have to change at the last minute.

“Depending on the reason for your cancellation, you may be able to reclaim these cancellation charges (less any applicable excess) under the terms of your travel insurance policy. Claims must be made directly to the insurance company concerned,” states Royal Caribbean Cruises.

P&O Cruises cancellation policy also notes that your travel agent may also have different cancellation and refund terms.

We outline below how each line manages last minute cancellations:

Princess Cruises

The refunds or cancellation charges that will be payable depend on the departure date of the cruise or cruise tour and the amount of notice provided. If one guest in a booking needs to cancel, the other guests can still travel as a sole occupant in the cabin.

There are no administration fees for adding a replacement guest to the booking. However, one original guest from the booking must always remain in the stateroom. Changes can only be made up to 48 hours before departure.

“If the remaining guest is to proceed with the sailing, fares will also revert to a sole occupant fare. Therefore, additional payment is required to cover the refund to the cancelling guest and the remainder of the sole occupant fare,” says the line.

Viking Ocean Cruises

The Viking policy document states that the substitution of another person for original booked guest is considered a cancellation.

But Viking you are able to replace one guest in the cabin before 121 days prior to departure date (before final payment) with a $50 amendment fee.

After this date it would be considered a cancellation and regular cancellation penalties will apply for the cancelled guest. If the reason for the cancellation is for an insurable reason they will be able to reclaim some of this cost if they have travel protection.

If one guest has to cancel and the other wishes to continue, the guest who cancels is subject to the penalty schedule for their portion of the cruise. The remaining guest will have to pay the single room supplement to have sole occupancy in a two person cabin.

P&O Cruises

One original guest from the booking must always remain in the cabin.

To replace a guest on your booking:

Free for Value Plus and Value fares. $50 per change for ‘Go fare’.

The line is unable to accept new bookings or new guests on existing bookings after 5pm (Sydney time) on the day prior to departure.

Royal Caribbean

All guests must be checked-in and onboard the ship no later than 90 minutes prior to the published sailing time or they will not be permitted to sail. If you are not onboard at least 90 minutes before the ship’s scheduled sailing time, we are entitled to assume that you do not intend to travel. Your booking will then be cancelled, 100% cancellation charges will be payable and no refund will be made.

If you or any of the people travelling with you are prevented from taking the cruise, such as due to medical reasons you/ they may give your/their place on the booking to someone else (suggested by you). In this situation, providing we are given not less than 7 days’ notice in writing of your wish to make the change, we will permit the name change on payment of an administration fee of AU$50. A maximum of only one passenger name may be changed per stateroom.

Outside of these circumstances, if you request a change within 45 days of departure, this may be treated as a cancellation of your original booking and cancellation charges as set out in these terms and conditions will be payable. The changed arrangements will then be treated as a new booking.

Where any cancellation reduces the number of full paying party members below the number on which the price, number of free places and/or any concessions agreed for your booking were based, we will recalculate your holiday cost and re-invoice you accordingly.

Norwegian Cruise Lines

The policy terms state that:

No refunds will be given on any cruise for no-shows.

Name substitutions are also considered cancellations and cancellation fees will apply. However, the customer service representative says that guests are able to swap out one guest on the booking for free up to 48 hours of your sailing.

The customer service representative also advises that if you were to proceed with the sailing alone, there will be no additional charges on the remaining guest. If the cancellation is done within 30 days or less of the sailing, the cancelled guest will lose 100 per cent of the cruise fare but will be refunded port charges, taxes and fees.

Carnival Cruise Lines

Reservations will be held until 30 minutes prior to departure. No refunds will be made in the event of “no shows”, unused tickets, partially used tickets, or cancellations received less than 14 days prior to departure or after the start of the cruise.

If you have to make a name change, one original guest from the booking must always remain in the stateroom. Changes can only be made up to 72 hours before departure.

A Carnival Cruise Line customer representative confirms that there are no fees involved in a name change and there will be no additional cost if the remaining passenger proceeds with the sailing.

Oceania Cruises

No refunds will be given on any cruise for no-shows.

Name substitutions are considered cancellations and cancellation fees will apply.

With regards to cruise booking amendment, where they can meet a request, all changes will be subject to payment of an administration fee of $100 Australian dollars per person per change being charged, as well as any applicable rate changes or extra costs incurred.

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