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When a ship skips port, do you still pay port fee?

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When a cruise ship skips a port, do passengers still pay port fees?

If you've seen any cruise advertising, it might seem strange to see the words "port fees" at a normal size. Typically, the phrase is at the bottom of cruise ads in text smaller than high school badminton scores and accompanied by wording such as "... are extra," "... not included" and "Don't put away your wallet just yet" (or something to that effect).

Many companies don't even call them port fees anymore, resorting to the more officious and vague "governmental taxes and fees." The facts: It's a charge that cruise lines have to pay to park at a port, usually based on the size or length of the ship; and, technically, it's a cost of doing business -- the ship has to pay it whether you're onboard or not.

Unfortunately, in this highly unregulated industry, it was enough of a battle to get cruise lines to put "Governmental taxes and fees are extra" in the fine print -- the result of several high-profile lawsuits -- so it's unlikely they'll ever agree to build it into the advertised cost where it belongs.

The question posed to me recently, however, was this: What happens to port fees when your cruise misses a port?

Answer: It depends on which cruise line and who's responsible -- the ship or God.

Based on an informal survey of the refund policies of seven cruise lines, there is a chance you will get some money back, although most likely in the form of credit onboard the ship. How much? While rates vary from port to port and among cruise lines, Carnival provided this sampling of current port fees per person for comparison: three days on Fascination, one port, $33.95; five days on Fantasy, three ports, $41.58; seven days on Carnival Valor, four ports, $55.12.

The general policy at Carnival is to refund $20 per person if the ship misses a port and there isn't a suitable substitute. Clearly, there's lots of incentive to find a backup port -- on the 2,974-passenger Valor, for instance, the refund adds up to $59,480 if they don't. Several cruise lines that share Carnival Corp. as a parent company, including Princess and Cunard, have similar policies, offering a refund if the ship doesn't find a substitute port, and not charging extra if the substitute port fee is higher than the original.

Norwegian and Crystal cruise lines have similar policies, while a Regent Seven Seas representative said, "Every situation is a little different."

Most cruise line representatives who responded to the survey were eager to point out that situations -- and resolutions -- vary widely.

With Celebrity and parent company Royal Caribbean, a refund is not a slam dunk.

"We need to review situations of missed ports on a case-by-case basis, and base our decision on whether or not the port must be bypassed due to a weather-related problem (an 'act of God' nature), or a mechanical problem onboard the ship (which naturally becomes more the cruise line's responsibility)," Celebrity spokeswoman Elizabeth Jakeway said by e-mail. "After we've assessed the situation fully, we decide what the appropriate measures are -- which can vary from an onboard credit to complimentary beverages to an amenity of some kind."

So with some lines, if the ship misses a stop because of weather (or some other "act of God"), the money you gave the cruise line to pay the port is gone, even if the ship never touched that port. On a ship the size of Royal Caribbean's 3,600-passenger Freedom of the Seas, which likely pays some of the highest port fees there are, the company could, conservatively, collect $50,000 in fees for one port and neither pay it to the port nor refund it.

So where exactly is the incentive for captains to stop at all?

Bottom line: First, read the contract. It's truly an eye-opener about how few rights you really have onboard. The itinerary (port fees or not) is entirely up to the discretion of the captain. Second, if your ship misses a port for whatever reason and no substitute is offered, go to the front desk and ask about the port fees; let them know how deeply disappointed you are. The only thing cruise lines hate more than refunding money is having a ship full of people using the word "disappointed."

Source: Spud Hilton, SFGate News

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We were on the Sea Princess (Princess Line) last December and due to high winds we could not dock at St. Kitts. We were reimbursed for the port fees automatically on our bill the next day.

I'm sure no matter what line it is you could get the port fee back no matter what they call ...just by asking if they don't automatically reimburse you for it. It is enough for atleast acouple of drinks.

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