Bryan and Fola Nelson were excited about their upcoming five-night Bahamas cruise on the Carnival Fascination. It was to be their last vacation before the birth of their first child.
Then, not long before their scheduled departure, Carnival delivered some bad news: Not only would Fola Nelson be denied boarding, but the cruise line would also pocket her entire fare, minus port taxes.
"My wife will be 10 days over that," says Bryan Nelson, a teacher in Minneapolis. "And despite her doctor's OK, the cruise line is sticking to its policy."
Cruise lines' rules on pregnancy are a common source of complaint from travelers. But like so many other cruise industry policies, this one wasn't always a hard-and-fast rule. Had Nelson become pregnant a decade ago, the company probably would have let her reschedule her trip at a minimal cost.
Not today. And the change is something that her cruise line seems happy to let the world know about.
Carnival's policy allows pregnant women to sail only through the 24th week of pregnancy. Every passenger who is expecting must show a physician's letter verifying that mother and baby are in good health and fit to travel. The letter must also include the estimated date of delivery. "Carnival's pregnancy guidelines are put in place as a precaution to protect the unborn baby and the mother," says Aly Bello, a spokeswoman for the cruise line.
That makes sense. Cruise ships offer reasonable emergency medical facilities for guests and crew members. But prenatal and early infant care can require specialized diagnostic facilities or treatment that might not be available on a ship or in the nearest port of call.
Even with the rules in place, complications can arise. This month, a 31-year-old passenger was airlifted from the Disney Magic, 180 miles off the Texas coast, because of medical problems related to her pregnancy.
Other companies have virtually identical policies. Norwegian Cruise Lines refuses to admit passengers past the 24-week mark. So does Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. "This decision is made because of the unique nature of a cruise ship being at sea for extended periods of time and the possibility of a guest's medical condition becoming critical during those times at sea," says Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez.
But not every pregnancy is planned, and cruises are often booked months in advance. You'd expect cruise lines to help passengers who get pregnant in the months between the booking and sailing dates, particularly if the company can re-sell the cabin to another customer.
But Carnival turned down requests from both the Nelsons and their travel agent to waive its rules. Bello noted that the Nelsons should have bought the travel insurance that Carnival offered. If they had, they would have received a 75 percent future cruise credit.
That's becoming an increasingly common response. Cruise lines appear eager to make a public example of customers who didn't buy travel insurance. The reason? Travel protection now accounts for a significant portion of their profits, and bending a rule would effectively undermine the business model.
"I don't think it's unreasonable for the cruise lines to adopt pregnancy policies, particularly given the limited nature of the medical facilities on cruise ships and the absence of doctors who are experienced in obstetrics and gynecology," says James Walker, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attorney specializing in maritime law. "The problem arises when there is a good-faith misunderstanding by the pregnant passenger, and the cruise line takes a rigid attitude and pockets the consumer's money."
The Nelsons say that they're troubled by the way their situation was handled. Neither their travel agency nor Carnival bothered to disclose the pregnancy restrictions in a clear way before they booked, they say. "We reviewed cruise tickets from our travel agency and found nothing about pregnancy," says Bryan Nelson.
I asked that agency, Orlando-based Cruise Vacation Outlet, what it tells its customers. Todd Elliott, the president, said that the agency directs all clients to complete an online check-in to review any terms and conditions. The agency's welcome letter to new customers also directs them to the terms and conditions, which contain information about a cruise line's pregnancy restrictions.
In an email to the Nelsons, their travel agent, Jay Garcia, bottomlined it: "We are not responsible for unforeseen circumstances that are beyond our control."
Nelson is not entirely satisfied with that response. He says that the welcome letter refers only to visa and passport requirements and that he was never told to review the terms and conditions on the cruise line's website. His wife's pregnancy was flagged a few weeks before the cruise, when they tried to check in online.
Even if they'd booked their cruise using Carnival's website, they would have had to wade through four screens of information before reaching the details about cruising and pregnancy. It's something they could have easily missed.
As someone who once had to postpone a family cruise because of the 24-week rule, I'm sympathetic to Nelson's problem. I don't think it's right for him to lose his entire cruise. No one is arguing that the cruise line policy on pregnancy is wrong. But waiving a rule for a borderline case such as the Nelsons' wouldn't affect Carnival's stock price, and it would go a long way toward creating loyal repeat customers.
At any rate, making an example of the Nelsons seems insensitive and opportunistic -- even if Carnival's contract allows it.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)