Elaine Chan says she felt like she didn't have a choice about leaving her Holland America cruise early. The captain summoned her husband and her to his office while their ship was docked in Helsinki and accused her husband of assaulting a crew member.
"The captain gave us an envelope with tickets back to San Francisco," Chan recalls of the incident, which happened before the pandemic. While Holland America had only told her husband that he had to leave, she says she didn't have time to argue.
Chan says it was a case of mistaken identity. While they were disembarking the ship in St. Petersburg, she says another group of passengers argued with the crewmembers. But they weren't part of the group.
"If we did not leave on time, he said we would miss our flight," says Chan, an accountant from San Jose. "So we had no time to plead our case."
Passengers leave cruises for all kinds of reasons – some voluntarily, some not. But with cruise season just getting started, it's a good time to ask: Should I leave my cruise early? Also, what are my rights if someone makes you (forgive me!) walk the plank?
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In an email to the couple, the cruise line said it had looked into her claim and found no reason to change its decision to expel them. It regretted that the outcome of its investigation "could not be more favorable." It added, "We do hope you will continue to include Holland America Line in your travel plans."
I doubt they will.
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Do lines have the right to kick you off a cruise?
Let's start with involuntary disembarkations like Chan's. It turns out a cruise line has the right to kick you off a cruise, at least according to its ticket contract, the legal agreement between the passenger and cruise line. I have more details on your cruise rights in my free guide to taking a cruise.
Holland America's contract says the carrier may "disembark or refuse to embark you, confine you in a stateroom, quarantine you, restrain you …" Well, you get the idea.
Other cruise lines have similar policies. They basically give the company a broad right to remove you from a cruise at any time and for any reason. They don't even have to present you with any evidence of wrongdoing, which is what Chan said happened to her.
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I've dealt with dozens of other involuntary disembarkation cases as a consumer advocate. They are just as painful as Chan's situation. I remember one woman who experienced kidney pain shortly after boarding a cruise to Mexico. Carnival asked her to leave the ship in Long Beach, California. Another woman was ejected from her Holland America cruise after her brain-damaged husband urinated into the swimming pool. True story.
In each of these cases, the cruise line failed to refund the cruise until I asked about them. And that raises the most important issue when it comes to leaving a cruise: You probably won't get any of your money back, even if you ask, and maybe – maybe! – if I ask.
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What to do when you leave a cruise early
Before you get off the boat, talk to your cruise line. There are restrictions on transporting passengers under the Passenger Vessel Services Act that may result in fines to your cruise line. Also, it's the polite thing to let a cruise line know you're exiting your vacation early.
So when should you consider leaving?
► When someone tells you. The Chans had to comply with the captain's request. Plus, the cruise contract was clear about their obligation. Right or wrong, they had to leave the ship.
► When the service is subpar. Ben Taylor and his wife exited their cruise in Barcelona, at its first port of call, after a series of misunderstandings. First, a casino employee claimed Taylor had been given too much money by the cashier, provoking a stressful and lengthy dispute. "Then we returned to our cabin to find it full of sewage water – not good at all but especially undesirable for my wife, who was pregnant at the time," said Taylor, who writes a blog about working from home. Norwegian Cruise Line offered the couple a cruise credit, which they never used. "It was our first cruise and probably our last," he added.
► When you have an emergency. That's what Holly Haskins' husband, Ben, did. She'd fallen ill just before the Royal Caribbean cruise but urged him to go on the planned vacation with his extended family anyway. "I became increasingly ill," remembered Haskins, a grant writer from Lansdale, Pennsylvania. "He decided to leave the cruise on day four in St. Thomas and fly home. He told ship staff what was going on and they assisted him in disembarking and scheduling a flight. They were very helpful and kind."
► If there's a disruption of essential services. Under the Cruise Industry Passenger Bill of Rights, adopted by the major cruise lines, you have the right to disembark a docked ship if "essential provisions such as food, water, restroom facilities and access to medical care cannot adequately be provided on board." There are exceptions for the safety and immigration requirements of the port.
► Some cruises are not meant to be finished. If you think you're on one, remember to follow the laws and crewmember instructions. If the cruise line tries to push you off the ship, you can always fight for a refund once you're on dry land.
How to avoid an early cruise exit
► Ask yourself: Is a cruise right for you? If you're prone to motion sickness or don't like being confined to a vessel for days at a time, you might try an all-inclusive vacation on land instead. You'll never have to worry about voluntarily leaving a cruise early – or being kicked off one.
► Research your cruise carefully. Cruises come in all shapes and sizes. Choose your floating vacation with care. For example, your average octogenarian might prefer the Caribbean to the Antarctic. And some theme cruises aren't welcoming to younger guests. Shop around carefully.
► Hire an expert. A travel agent can help steer you in the right direction when it comes to the perfect cruise. Check the CLIA.org site for a qualified travel agent. Note: Agents take a commission, so they work for you. That means you can call or email your travel agent at any time for advice on leaving your cruise early.
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sometimes you have to leave a cruise: What to know in those cases