When the phone rang at 2:30 in the morning, July 2, 2019, travel advisor Stephanie Goldberg-Glazer sprang into action. The call was from a family of six, including two elderly grandparents, stranded on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Pearl in Barcelona.
The cruise was scheduled for two more ports of call, and was to wrap up its 13-day itinerary in Rome, where Goldberg-Glazer had booked the family’s flights back home. Now, Norwegian was telling passengers that due to a mechanical issue, the trip would end in Barcelona, and passengers had until midday July 5 to disembark.
Goldberg-Glazer, who owns Live Well, Travel Often, Hollywood, Florida, immediately started searching for flights from Barcelona to Rome for her client, including two children 11 and 13, two parents, and grandparents in their 80s. The best option was a $450 fare.
“Getting six people on one plane, during high season in Europe is not that easy,” she said. Complicating things further was the fact that the family’s departure flight from Rome was at noon on July 5.
Given that the family would have to collect their luggage upon arrival in Rome, recheck it, and need time to be processed through security for their flight back to the U.S., a 6:30 morning flight was their only realistic option.
This meant her clients would need to leave the Pearl at four in the morning, “with all that luggage, two elderly grandparents, etcetera,” Goldberg-Glazer said.
Norwegian passengers received a 50% refund for their trip, and $300 per person towards transportation costs incurred due to the issue. While most of Goldberg-Glazer’s clients purchase travel insurance, this family hadn’t, so they also would be out about $150 per airline ticket. (The total cost of the family vacation was about $20,000.)
At the request of Travel Market Report, TravelInsurance.com ran quotes for a similar hypothetical trip, with six family members of about the same age. That family, paying $20,000 total, would have had a premium of about $250 per person. (For a total cost of $30,000, the premium would have been about $374 per person.)
“Considering the expenses a family could have incurred for this change in their vacation plans, add in the value of missing ports of call, and not including things like non-refundable shore excursions, those premiums could have paid for themselves,” said Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com, an online insurance aggregator.
Then there were the nearly 2,400 cruise passengers who were booked to depart Rome for 10 days starting July 5, stopping in ports like Santorini, Mykonos, Athens and Naples. With just three days’ cancellation notice, many of those passengers had already arrived in Rome.
On CruiseCritic.com, user mickeyfanz had a group of nine booked to depart July 5 for a birthday celebration, including post-cruise non-refundable days planned on the Amalfi Coast. “We are stuck and I need to figure out a plan for 2-weeks last minute. All of that planning for nothing - we are devastated and don't know what to do!" he wrote.
Travel protection loopholes created complications
“We recommend travel insurance for everyone, but it’s so helpful for travelers taking cruises in faraway destinations, especially with the time zone differences and possibly needing 24/7 assistance,” said Mark Simoes, vice president, leisure & global hotel partnerships, Balboa Travel, Austin, Texas.
Standard protection plans are less likely to offer the trip interruption insurance many of the Norwegian Pearl’s passengers could have benefited from, said Sandberg. Not all plans cover something like the Pearl’s mechanical issues. Direct clients toward premium plans, Sandberg said, but always remind them to look at the terms and conditions in their certificate of coverage before purchase to ensure mechanical events are covered.
“Travel insurance policies are ‘named peril policies,’ which means in order to receive benefits, it must be for a specified named reason listed in the policy language,” said Cory Sobczyk, vice president business development, travel, at Arch RoamRight Insurance.
Three potential named cancellation/interruption perils could potentially come into play during a mechanical breakdown affecting travel arrangements, Sobczyk said. They are policies that cover:
1. “complete cessation of services due to a mechanical breakdown of a common carrier.”
2. “a delay of a common carrier that causes you to miss more than 50% of your trip.”
3. Cancel For Any Reason coverage, for those whose trip hasn’t begun.
Many plans also offer trip delay benefits to cover things like meals and accommodations during a delay, Sobczyk noted.
Nationwide Mutual Insurance has three cruise plans. Their basic coverage offers “transportation change cost reimbursement” (if eligibility requirements are met) of $250 per person, $500 per person under its Choice Plan, and $1,000 under its Luxury Plan.
However, coverage for an issue like what the Norwegian Pearl experienced could depend on where a client lives. Nationwide would cover a client from Massachusetts, for example, but state regulations prohibit this type of coverage for residents in places like Florida, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington.
Not everyone had a Goldberg-Glazer looking out for them
Even if passengers had travel insurance, they still needed to find airline seats to get back to Rome, or whatever destination they may have been headed to after disembarking.
“For the most part, NCL made good with credits and refunds to reduce the financial burden. But then you are left with needing help in that moment,” said Beth Godlin, president, Aon Affinity Travel Practice.
Passengers like Vieta Rusanova, complained on Twitter: “on the way to the airport in Barcelona. Had to make own arrangements for flight to Rome... No layover hotel coverage.” “We’re on our own to plan our flights home,” Tweeted @Ghughes20.
Many passengers called home to family for assistance. “4am call from my 75yr old parents stuck 2 days so far on the #norwegianpearl ship in Barcelona,” Tweeted Laura Mustard @lauramustard. Tweeted @karen64840858: “My daughter and family stranded in Barcelona....I’d like to see how far 300 Dlls. helps to get back to Mexico City.”
For American travelers, the complications of coordinating long-haul connections back to the U.S. can make rebooking even more complicated without a travel advisor, Simoes and Goldberg-Glazer said.
With so many passengers needing to make new plans at the very same time, and trying to do it direct on a hotel’s or airline’s website or app via the ship’s WiFi, travelers struggled to rebook.
”My senior parents are on the ship and say they have no idea what to do,” Tweeted @lauramustard. “They also said WiFi and phone service wasn’t working.”
“WiFi is very slow on board,” @Ghughes20 confirmed via Twitter.
In some respects, the Norwegian Pearl’s passengers were lucky that the mechanical issues happened so close to the end of the itinerary. The 13-night cruise began in Amsterdam and made its way around Europe’s Atlantic coast before arriving in Barcelona, a city with much more frequent air and rail service than many of the other ports of call, like Malaga, or Palma de Mallorca.
“With thousands of passengers seeking seats out of the same airport, during peak summer season, those seats get booked up quickly, so acting fast is important,” said Simoes at Balboa Travel. He has received those early morning calls and texts often as an agent, he said. “This is where a travel agent really can shine.”
“Nothing is better than having a good travel agent,” said Aon’s Godlin. “They work off hours. They have the best access to suppliers to fix problems. That’s who I would call.”