'We found out while we were flying': Last-minute cruise cancellations leave travelers scrambling

·10 min read

Micah Cooper and her mother LaQuinta Spears left their home in Dallas Friday for Micah's long-awaited high school graduation trip: A cruise on Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas.

They arrived in Miami in the afternoon. Their cruise, which had been originally canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, was meant to set sail Saturday. But as they waited to check into their Airbnb, they received a text message update from Royal Caribbean at 3:04 p.m.

Their cruise had been canceled once again.

"Yesterday around 3:00 (p.m.) we got a message from Royal saying the cruise had been canceled and that was it," Cooper told USA TODAY Saturday while waiting to board a flight back to Dallas.

She was angry. Then disappointed and frustrated.

Cooper and LaQuinta were stranded in Miami. Their flight home was scheduled for Jan. 16 and their Airbnb reservation was for one night only.

The cruise line, they said, didn't offer any help with arranging travel home or with finding a place to stay in Florida.

►Omicron: Will the cruise industry shut down as it did in March 2020?

►Royal Caribbean: Halts new bookings for cruises departing through early January

Left scrambling, they turned to booking service Hopper and American Airlines for help. Spears says she was on the phone for four hours before reaching a solution around 11 p.m. Friday.

"We had been on the phone with the airlines and they said a lot of the flights were booking up fast because the cruise had been canceled," Cooper said.

Luckily, they were able to find a flight Saturday afternoon, for an additional $250 in total.

"The most frustrating part is my mom called them last week to make sure everything was still a go," Cooper said.

Spears said she decided to call Royal Caribbean last week because she saw reports of COVID-19 cases rising. She heard that cruise ships were having to skip ports because of it. When she called, she was told the cruise was on.

"I understand there is an unpredictable pandemic out here. I get it," Spears said. "I’m not saying what happened was horrible but at the same time I think the communication could have been a whole lot better."

For Royal Caribbean to simply send a text announcing the cancellation, was insufficient, according to Spears.

"What are you going to do to help these people that are pretty much stuck?" Spears asked. "And it’s hundreds of us, not just a handful."

Micah Cooper (right) and her mother, LaQuinta Spears, from Dallas, were stranded in Miami when Royal Caribbean canceled their cruise on Symphony of the Seas less than 24 hours before it was meant to sail.
Micah Cooper (right) and her mother, LaQuinta Spears, from Dallas, were stranded in Miami when Royal Caribbean canceled their cruise on Symphony of the Seas less than 24 hours before it was meant to sail.

Cooper tweeted at the cruise line Saturday.

"@RoyalCaribbean has canceled my cruise less than a day before we’re set to sail. They also haven’t at least offered assistance for accommodations on how to get back home leaving my mother and I stranded in Miami," she wrote. "This is no way to treat your guests."

Royal Caribbean had not publicly replied to Cooper by Saturday afternoon.

Emerald Rose had a similar experience. Rose found out midflight on Friday that their Royal Caribbean International cruise was canceled less than 24 hours before they were meant to board with their family.

"I was traveling from up north and now my family and I are stranded," Rose wrote in a tweet. "I understand covid but NOT the cancellation less than 24hrs! We found out while we were flying!"

On Friday, Royal Caribbean International joined Norwegian Cruise Line in canceling sailings as COVID-19 continues to surge and after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised travelers against cruising. Some of those sailings were set to depart as soon as Saturday, leaving some cruisers in a lurch.

►After disembarking, she tested positive: A cruise line didn't provide a COVID test to a symptomatic passenger

Royal Caribbean, Norwegian cancel sailings due to COVID-19 surge

Royal Caribbean said it will pause operations on multiple ships due to COVID-19, canceling some sailings and pushing back one ship's return to cruising.

"Despite stringent health and safety measures, including vaccination and testing requirements for guests and crew, and extensive contingency planning, we have had to move forward with this decision," the cruise line said Friday in a statement shared by spokesperson Lyan Sierra-Caro.

Four ships have been impacted by the pause:

  • Vision of the Seas, which is being used to quarantine COVID-19 positive crew members, has had its return to cruising postponed until March 7.

  • Serenade of the Seas sailings between Jan. 8 and March 5 have been canceled. The ship will return to service on April 26 after dry dock.

  • Jewel of the Seas sailings will be canceled between Jan. 9 and Feb. 12, and it will return to service on Feb. 20.

  • Symphony of the Seas sailings between Jan. 8 and Jan. 22 have been canceled. The ship will return to service on Jan. 29.

Like Royal, Norwegian has canceled sailings on several ships.

Norwegian Cruise Line canceled cruises on eight of its ships Wednesday as COVID-19 continues to surge with the emergence of the omicron variant.

"Our first priority is the health and safety of our guests, crew and the communities we visit," Norwegian said in a statement, noting that the cancellations and sailing modifications have been made "due to ongoing travel restrictions."

The cruise line canceled sailings on eight ships including:

  • Norwegian Getaway's Jan. 5 cruise.

  • Norwegian Pearl cruises embarking through Jan. 14.

  • Norwegian Sky cruises embarking Feb. 25.

  • Pride of America cruises embarking through Feb. 26.

  • Norwegian Jade cruises embarking through March 3.

  • Norwegian Star cruises embarking through March 19.

  • Norwegian Sun cruises embarking through April 19.

  • Norwegian Spirit cruises embarking through April 23.

How are lines reimbursing cruisers?

Passengers who booked sailings on the Royal Caribbean ships on which operations have been paused will have "compensation options" including a full refund.

Royal Caribbean provided cruisers who were set to sail this weekend with a 100% refund and a 100% future cruise credit, Sierra-Caro said.

All passengers booked on any of the sailings canceled by Norwegian will receive an automatic refund and an additional "Future Cruise Certificate" valid for an unspecified amount for a cruise in the future.

Michael Winkleman, a cruise attorney, told USA TODAY that cruisers should be aware that this is a unique period for the industry. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't ask for a reimbursement.

"I think cruisers need to be understanding of the unprecedented situation and try to work with the cruise lines," Winkleman said. "Having said that, they certainly have leverage to ask for some extra perks for rescheduling."

Cancellations coming after CDC warning against cruise travel

While most cruises still haven't been canceled, the CDC advised against cruise travel last week.

The agency noted the decision was made as coronavirus cases are increasing on ships, in the U.S. and around the globe.

Between Nov. 30 and Dec. 14, cruise ships operating in U.S. waters reported 162 cases of coronavirus to the CDC. Between Dec. 15 and Dec. 29, cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters reported 5,013 coronavirus cases to the CDC.

That's nearly 31 times the number of cases reported in the first two weeks of December, the CDC said.

►CDC warns 'avoid cruise travel': After more than 5,000 COVID cases in two weeks amid omicron

►It comes down to personal choice: Should you cancel your cruise as COVID surges?

Cruisers scrambling to adjust plans thanks to cancellations

Even for travelers who had cruises canceled a week or more out, the cancellations are a headache.

Kristian Cosme, from Orlando, Florida, was scheduled to sail from Miami on Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas this Saturday, eight days from the cancellation date.

On Friday, Cosme was looking at how to adjust other bookings including a hotel stay and his work.

"I wish the decision could’ve been made earlier so we aren’t scrambling at the last minute," he told USA TODAY.

Olivia Danilko, from Wilmington, North Carolina, was also set to sail on Saturday on Symphony of the Seas for a graduation trip – she just wrapped up her master's degree.

"I already took time off of work and spent money on COVID tests in preparation," she told USA TODAY.

'We just happened to be on one of the ships'

Michael and Rachel Oliver were booked on the Jan. 22 sailing of Symphony of the Seas out of Miami.

Rachel turns 30 that day.

They were nervous about potential cancellations given the COVID-19 outbreaks on ships but were still taken aback when Royal Caribbean emailed the news of the cancellation on Friday.

“It’s cruising during COVID so it’s a gamble you take,’’ he said. “But at the same time, they only canceled (sailings on) four of their ships. We just happened to be one of the ships.’’

The Symphony cruise was to be their first cruise since March 2020. They were due to sail in January 2021, but the industry didn’t resume operations in U.S. waters until June.

“It’s disappointing,’’ Oliver said.

The couple asked for a refund for the cruise because they didn't want to book another pricey cruise on Royal Caribbean and have it canceled too.

“The cruise industry is taking a step back, not forward,’’ he said.

They plan to celebrate Rachel Oliver’s birthday on a Carnival cruise later this month under a cruise line casino promotion that only requires a payment of taxes and fees so they won’t be out much money if it gets canceled.

Will more cruises be canceled?

Royal Caribbean only paused operations on four of its ships and Norwegian canceled sailings on eight – that doesn't cover either line's full fleet. And other cruise lines haven't canceled sailings yet.

"It’s going to be a brutal month likely laden with cancellations and itinerary changes, but it will improve once this surge ends," Winkleman predicted.

Some cruisers are already wondering if their scheduled trips will be canceled. Several have taken to social media platforms like Twitter, to discuss the matter.

"The cruise industry is a mess at the moment. Booked a cruise many months ago with @RoyalCaribbean and still have no idea whether it’s sailing or not," Jeff Dover tweeted. "Then there are the testing requirements even though I’m vaccinated that make scheduling even harder."

Others aren't as concerned.

Brian Robinson, a travel agent with Travel Planners International, told USA TODAY Saturday that he's "not really" worried about potential cancellations in the future, even though he's already had one sailing canceled.

"I just got off Celebrity Apex, which happened to be our 9th cruise since July and getting on another cruise tomorrow," Robinson said. "We did have a reservation impacted by the cancellation and will get it rescheduled."

'This is extensive': Royal Caribbean transferring COVID positive crew to out-of-service cruise ships

Cruising during COVID-19: Cancellation, refund policies vary by cruise line

Contributing: Dawn Gilbertson, Bailey Schulz

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruise lines' COVID cancellations shock travelers as some ships pause

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting