Can a cruise line ban you … for complaining?

The story of a couple who had cruised often on Royal Caribbean and was banned by the line for, presumably, complaining too much via a number of channels, appeared yesterday on -- and the piece has ignited massive controversy with its claim. "What on earth did they do to get a lifetime ban?" writes Anita Dunham-Potter, author of the piece. "They complained, and they complained loudly."

The story of a couple who had cruised often on Royal Caribbean and was banned by the line for, presumably, complaining too much via a number of channels, appeared yesterday on — and the piece has ignited massive controversy with its claim. “What on earth did they do to get a lifetime ban?” writes Anita Dunham-Potter, author of the piece. “They complained, and they complained loudly.”

We’ll leave the merits of the couple’s beef against Royal Caribbean to other discussions in other places. What’s frankly more intriguing is the perception fueled by the story that cruise travelers who kvetch about a cruise-related problem, via online reviews or message board posts on Web sites like Cruise Critic, run the risk of being told to take their business elsewhere. Mrs. Moran, in particular, has been a prolific contributor of posts and reviews to Cruise Critic.

It’s an issue of particular concern today to members of Cruise Critic’s community. More than 20,000 cruise reviews, submitted by travelers, are featured on the site; 13 million posts deal with a wide variety of issues. And some of them, in fact many of them, point out ways in which cruise lines could improve.

Does that mean that travelers who write such reviews, or post such messages, are in danger of being banned by their cruise lines of choice?

As far as Royal Caribbean is concerned, spokesman Michael Sheehan says passengers are never banned from the line’s ships just for complaining. “A legitimate complaint or concern that is raised is something we want to resolve and something we want to learn from.” It’s a sentiment expressed by executives elsewhere. “If you write an opinion,” says Carnival Cruise Lines’ Jennifer de la Cruz, “and you just go up and say my cruise stunk and my cabin steward was a jerk, well we’re not going to get involved in that. We’ve never banned someone from our ships for writing a negative review online.”

What then do you have to do to get banned from a cruise line?

Cruise line executives are somewhat reluctant to offer details about policies on banning passengers from cruising on their ships — but all do have them. One source told us that filing a frivolous lawsuit against her line was one surefire way to find the gangway closed next time the traveler wants to cruise with the company. Several noted that abusive, aggressive or violent behavior toward a crewmember or a fellow passenger was a bona fide way to get cut off (and may get the instigator booted off the ship before the current journey even ends).

Another cruise executive told us that “it should come as no surprise to anyone that people who cause serious problems onboard a cruise ship or pose a potential hazard to others will receive very little sympathy regarding their desire to sail within a cruise line. They’ll be told to take their business elsewhere and that’s what our customers want. They don’t want to go a ship where people are sloppy drunks and causing fights or where they’re witnessing domestic abuses or where their girlfriends are going to get groped. Passengers want a nice, civilized vacation and we are working harder to make sure that’s the case. People who don’t act appropriately — well, sorry.”

Royal Caribbean (along with sister companies Celebrity Cruises and Azamara) has put into place one of the industry’s most concrete procedures and processes as related to its “no sail” list. First, it established a “guest conduct policy” that identifies specific behaviors it considers worthy of “no sail” potential. These, available in every passenger cabin on its ships, include but are not limited to harassment, solicitation, underage drinking, reserving deck chairs (okay, chances of being banned for snagging deck chairs are, er, minimal but it’s in the policy), smoking in non-designated areas, and carrying illegal drugs onboard. It also spells out unacceptable forms of unsafe behavior, including “sitting, standing, laying or climbing on, over or across any exterior or interior railings or other protective barriers.”

We have no policy, Royal Caribbean’s Sheehan tells Cruise Critic, “for banning people who write negative reviews or posts.”

The conduct code also lays out the consequences. These range from verbal warnings or removal from the ship to being quarantined in a holding cell or denied boarding on any future Royal Caribbean cruise.

As well, issues relating to passenger behavior are chronicled by onboard staffers and addressed on a monthly basis by a committee of executives from areas such as security, maritime operations (captains), legal, public relations, hotel operations and reservations. Those customers whose actions ultimately warrant them being placed on the banned list are notified if and when they attempt to book a future cruise with the line.

Gary Bald, senior vice president of Royal Caribbean and the line’s security chief, oversees these initiatives and notes that “no sail” status is fairly rare, with one in 20,000 passengers winding up on the list. “Just to keep it in perspective, we really are doing everything we can to provide a wonderful guest vacation. Unfortunately, it is necessary, on rare occasions, to take more drastic steps when there’s an unruly guest. But we’re not in the business of throwing people off ships.”

If “no sail” status is fairly unusual industry-wide, what does annoy and even occasionally infuriate cruise line staffers is when rumor-mongering runs rampant in online communities. “If the information is wrong we want it corrected,” says Holland America’s Rose Abello. “For instance, when people are speculating, via message boards, about deployments for our ships in, say, 2010, and we haven’t made any announcements and the info is misleading, we would reach out [to sites like Cruise Critic] and say ‘can you fix it’ — and you guys have.”

But here’s where cruise sites and, more specifically, Cruise Critic, weigh in firmly about cruise line meddling. “When a cruise line calls about inaccurate information,” says Cruise Critic community manager Laura Sterling, “I’m perfectly happy to publish a rebuttal, clearly stating that the cruise line has forwarded this to me to post. Those instances are few and far between.” She recalls a recent series of threads concerning pre-cruise restaurant booking privileges offered to Azamara’s past passenger club. “The comments on the thread showed that people were clearly confused about the issue and Azamara asked if we would publish info that would clarify. We’re happy to do that and the message clearly stated that we were posting at the line’s behest.”

But that willingness to clarify has nothing to do with a negative member review or post, Sterling says. “Cruise lines have never, ever — and seriously I’m not joking — asked us to take down something that reflected badly on them.”

Sterling notes that posts that violate community guidelines may be removed. “But it’s never because a review is negative. We have two venues: published reviews and the boards. I don’t care if a submission is totally negative, we’ll publish it. We’re not here to pass judgment on reviews or posts or to edit them in any way.”

In the meantime, it’s already well known to many Cruise Critic members that, negative or positive, cruise lines are watching and reading what’s being said online. In fact, some cruise lines have actually created jobs where staffers survey cruise-related online sites and report back to executives. “We do have staff that look at what’s going on in the online forums for a variety of reasons,” says Carnival’s de la Cruz. “First and foremost, it’s a valuable form of feedback.”

“Bottom line,” says Sterling, “is that I truly don’t believe that any passenger is banned from a cruise line because of something they posted on our site. I would hope that the cruise lines would use the feedback on the boards for good purposes.”

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