Bad Trips Don't Require Just Rewards

SANTA ANA, Calif. —After three days of overflowing toilets, cold food, warm beer, dark corridors and cold rooms, the passengers who disembarked from the ill-fated Carnival Splendor didn't seem to be holding a grudge.

In between hugs and laughs (and even a song to the tune of the "Gilligan's Island" theme), I was struck by how passengers shrugged off much of the inconvenience and seemed content with Carnival's offer of a full refund, travel expenses home and a future free cruise.

It's a good thing because under law, the passengers aren't entitled to anything more. In fact, it's much less. As was the first to point out, the language on the tickets for the Carnival Splendor passengers is very specific about what happens when problems arise at sea:

"If the performance of the proposed voyage is hindered or prevented by ... breakdown of the vessel ... Carnival may cancel the proposed voyage without liability to refund passage money or fares paid in advance."

This "contract of carriage" language is fairly standard in travel documents. Airlines, rental car companies, hotels and other travel providers have variations on the same idea. Even if you don't read the fine print, it applies. And the courts have overwhelmingly favored travel providers over customers.

With a few notable exceptions, such as the recent tarmac delay rules for airlines, it is the company that decides when something has gone wrong and how much you are due in compensation.

While the overwhelming number of my travel experiences have gone splendidly, I have a catalog of cancelled flights, rerouted cruise itineraries, lost hotel reservations and overbooked rental car companies leaving me with no wheels at my destination despite a piece of paper saying there's supposed to be a Ford Taurus with my name on it.

I always document what has happened, get names, try to make the best of the situation short term and not upend my vacation by stewing over the incident. Then when I am home, I contact the travel company, lay out the details and ask for a specific remedy — usually a refund and a credit for a free equivalent booking in the future. Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don't.

I've learned that companies will usually minimize their "exposure" to a refund for whatever it is that you didn't get. So when JetBlue stranded my wife and kids at Long Beach Airport in April by cancelling a flight, half the fare was refunded. The company didn't pay for the $750 I shelled out for last-minute one-way tickets on Alaska Airlines to get them to Seattle the next day (the JetBlue flights were fully booked).

In the case of the Carnival Splendor, anyone who wants to sue would have to file the case in Florida (where Carnival is based) and could only do it as an individual, not as part of a class-action suit involving the passengers as a group. The deadline for filing is six months after the incident. With the Splendor's Mexico cruise price starting at around $500 per person, the lawsuit math isn't going to pencil out for most people.

Companies usually go further than the law in compensation, particularly in high profile cases like the Carnival Splendor. Carnival almost immediately announced the compensation package. While some of the 3,300 passengers will swear off Carnival for good, the company is betting that most will write off the incident as a bad bit of luck and take Carnival up on its offer of trying the trip again in the future.

Unless someone can prove that Carnival willfully and maliciously sought to disrupt the cruise and put the passengers in danger, there's little basis for a lawsuit. It's the same with most disrupted trips. Even then, there's sometimes little U.S. officials can do.

Though the Carnival Splendor is owned by Miami-based Carnival Cruise Line and counts Americans as the overwhelming majority of its customers, the federal government actually has little oversight of the ship.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been invited to look into the fire's origin by the government of Panama. Why Panama? Because the Carnival Splendor is officially registered as a vessel of that small Central American country.

These "flags of convenience" are a long-standing practice by cruise ship operators. It lets them skirt labor and other laws of major countries by registering in countries that specifically set up their registration systems to be as lax as possible. Another popular flag of convenience in recent decades has been Liberia, which has been busy fighting a bloody civil war that probably makes it a little tough to look into workplace hygiene issues on cruise ships.

Even when there are some meager resources to staff registry offices, there's little motivation to go after any problems. Should a nation crack down, the cruise ship operator has other countries more than willing to take their registration fees.

One option for travelers is to purchase travel insurance, though policies differ on what they cover. It's good to have a travel agent explain what is in and what is out on a policy before signing up. On a trip such as the Carnival Splendor, the only real out-of-pocket expenses for most travelers was the cost of the cruise, which was refunded.

The bottom line is that there's a difference between responsibility and liability in all things, including travel. What you pay for and what you think you are paying for are often two different things. When things go wrong, what is fair and right isn't the legal test.

During the last round of El Nino, I received a flurry of calls from angry cruise ship passengers who paid for a Mexican cruise to Cabo San Lucas only to get to sea and be told that due to bad weather, the ship would go no farther south than Ensenada. But the cruise lines contracts all said such changes were within the rights of the company. That was little comfort to those on board.

One lady from Dana Point, Calif., said her ship spent much of the four days at sea in the waters between mainland Southern California and Catalina.

"I swear I could see my house from the ship," she moaned.

Some resources for checking out your travel rights:

California Department of Justice Seller of Travel Program: The state attorney general's office is primarily involved in possible fraud by travel agents or others doing business in California. 300 South Spring St., Los Angeles, Calif. 90013. or call 213-897-8065.

Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement: The federal office, in the Department of Transportation, that handles airline passenger problems. 1200 New Jersey Avenue SE; Washington, D.C. 20590. or call 202-366-2220