Viking Eir river cruise ship


Viking Eir river cruise ship
The Viking Eir river cruise ship (Photo by Freddy Sherman)

You may have read about the recent cruise ship stranding when Norwegian Cruise Line seemingly left a group of passengers behind on an African island. As a travel writer who has taken almost 50 cruises (both ocean and river), I wanted to comment on the situation and point out some key takeaways every traveler can learn from it. The headlines make it seem like Norwegian is the bad guy, stranding some of its passengers on a deserted island, and forcing them to fend for themselves and get themselves to the ship’s next port to re-board. The real story is a lot different.

What really happened

While their cruise ship did leave without them, there are some key details which greatly change the narrative. These passengers chose to go on a private, unofficial tour, passing up official options available through the cruise company. These (usually cheaper) excursions are always an option for cruise passengers but they come with some risks travelers may not be aware of.

These eight passengers, who were on a Norwegian cruise from Cape Town to Barcelona, took a private tour boat to explore a nearby island in the African country of São Tomé and Príncipe. For whatever reason, they returned more than an hour late for the posted 3 pm deadline. Despite radio calls and even the involvement of the local coast guard, the ship, which was physically still in the harbor, refused to stop and continued its departure procedures. The passengers, some of whom were without medicine, credit cards and other essentials, were left to fend for themselves, having to get to the ship’s next port at their own expense and on their own, to then re-board and continue the cruise.

From what I’ve read in multiple media reports, the tour operators assured the passengers they would be back in time for the ship’s deadline and even as the hour got late and the passengers got worried, the tour operators continued to assure them they would be back in time.

Norwegian makes it clear that passengers are essentially on their own if booking these private tours or excursions as they have no knowledge of the safety, skills or experience of the operators.

A view of Holland from a river cruise (Photo by Freddy Sherman)

Ship schedules

Whether you’re on an ocean cruise or a river cruise, a key part of the logistics is that passengers have to stick to the deadlines for returning to the ship. Whether the ship is moored in the water, requiring tenders to the dock and back, or docked directly at a dock or shoreline, there are deadlines to be back on board.

Any cruiser knows these departure deadlines are communicated over and over, via the public address system as well as being posted in the daily printed or email bulletins. They also post physical signs at the points where you exit the ship, again reminding you of the deadlines.

Catalina Island
Cruise ship docked off Catalina Island (Photo by Freddy Sherman)

Why cruise ship deadlines are important

The process of a ship leaving a port starts hours before, with all kinds of preparations necessary. The physical moorings and ropes must be removed and sometimes a local pilot and or tugboats are required. The ship needs all passengers on board so they can begin or finish this process. It’s similar to an airplane, you might see the plane just pulling away from the gate, but it can’t just stop, open the door and let a passenger in.

There is also an economic situation in that ships pay fees to be at a dock and just like parking your car in a paid lot, there are penalties if you stay over your time. For a cruise ship, this can be thousands of dollars a minute.

And of course, there is the inconvenience of 3,000 other passengers. Should they be delayed because eight people couldn’t follow the rules and return to the ship on time?

Long Beach harbor
A view of a Carnival cruise ship from the Queen Mary (Photo by Freddy Sherman)

Differences between official and unofficial excursions

The key difference between an official excursion (booked through the cruise company) and an unofficial excursion (booked on your own) is that the ship will wait for passengers on an official excursion that is late. In the most extreme circumstances, the ship may depart, but the cruise line will pay for and handle the arrangements to get those passengers to the next port to re-board the ship. Passengers who book private excursions or tours on their own, are just that, on their own.

Danube River lock
A lock along the Danube river during a river cruise (Photo by Freddy Sherman)

Key Takeaways

Consider those unofficial excursions carefully. While it may seem like you have a long time, what if you encounter bad weather, or rough seas or traffic if it’s a excursion by car or bus. Review the official excursion options and compare prices. Also consider the reputation and experience of the tour provider. Is it someone you’ve researched online or just the most aggressive tour at the dock.

Read more of Freddy Sherman’s take on travel on his Go World Travel Blog. You can also follow more of his adventures on his YouTube channel or his @luxuryfred Instagram.

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