Expectant parents Kerry and James Scarpinito were looking forward to a relaxing vacation this month on a Royal Caribbean cruise -- until Zika got in the way.
So instead of having fun on the much-anticipated trip, the couple was forced to cancel their babymoon -- the last vacation before their baby arrives – and have their disappointment exacerbated by the cruise line’s hardline stance against full cash refunds.
Royal Caribbean offered the Scarpinitos a voucher for a cruise to be taken in the next two years -- a trip they say they will not take with a baby.
“I understand they want you to cruise again,” said Kerry Scarpinito, who lives in Staten Island, N.Y. “But this is not the way to make me want to go.”
The Centers for Disease Control has now warned pregnant women and those trying to become pregnant to avoid travel to Miami-Dade County whenever possible, as well as travel to the Bahamas, other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- all popular cruise destinations. Port Miami is considered the Cruise Capitol of the World, with nearly 4.9 million cruise passengers this past fiscal year.
The Zika virus, spread by the bite of a mosquito, has been proven to cause devastating birth defects, including microcephaly and other severe fetal brain abnormalities. Researchers are now reporting children whose mothers were infected with Zika while pregnant may face other challenges not immediately evident.
The Scarpinitos had no choice but to cancel.
“I know cruises and infants don’t mix,” said Scarpinito, explaining her reluctance to use the voucher and travel with her child. “I feel like they are banking on customers like me not cruising and not using the voucher. I feel like I’m being scammed.”
The couple, who had used loyalty points to book the trip, won’t get those back either. After Scarpinito complained (and FoxNews.com reached out for comment), she was offered the $200-plus that she and her husband had paid for fees and taxes on the trip, but received only a voucher for the $300-plus they paid for a cabin upgrade.
Airlines have been more flexible in the wake of the CDC's unprecedented announcement. JetBlue, on the other hand, provided a full air fare refund immediately. “I didn’t even need to provide a doctor's note,” Scarpinito said.
But cruise vacations are expensive, and big liners are relunctant to implement flexible policies that could hurt the bottom line. Big-ship cruises typically average $100 per day per person, according to CruiseCritic.com.
“Generally cruise line cancellation policies are quite strict, leaving little room for refunds,” said Colleen McDaniel, Senior Executive Editor of CruiseCritic.com. Given that there are very few pregnant passengers who may be facing this issue, McDaniel thinks cruise lines are likely trying their best, though she was unable to offer insight as to why some people may be encountering difficulties on certain lines.
“In the case of the Zika virus, many lines have adjusted their policies to allow for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant to cancel their trips," said McDnaiel.
Carnival Cruise Line, which has 25 ships, will issue refunds to pregnant women and their traveling companions on a case-by-case basis, as will other Carnival brands -- including Princess, Costa, Holland America and Fathom. They also may give refunds to those trying to conceive.
“We are trying to be flexible and understanding, given the situation, said corporate spokesman Roger Frizzell, adding that thus far, the requests have been “pretty mild,” with no impact on their brands’ cruise business to date
Windstar Cruises, which attracts a lot of honeymooners on its sailing yachts, also is evaluating refunds on a case-by-case basis. Hotels are offering refunds, as well. “Every hotel in Miami has been gracious about refunds,” said Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations, one of New York City’s largest travel agencies.
Airlines are addressing this issue through direct communication with their customers, said Jean Medina, a spokesman for Airlines for America, which represents the airline industry. Delta and Southwest are among those offering refunds.
Royal Caribbean wouldn’t comment beyond referencing its Zika policy: “Royal Caribbean will assist any pregnant women who do not feel comfortable sailing to countries affected with the Zika virus by providing alternate itinerary options. This may include providing guests with a future cruise credit, valid for two years, so that they may re-schedule their voyage for a later date, with no penalty. “
Norwegian Cruise Line’s policy is similar. Nothing is being offered on NCL and Royal Caribbean to those trying to get pregnant, unless they have purchased a “cancel anytime” travel insurance policy. Those policies typically cost 40 percent more and will cover up to 80 percent of a customer’s non-refundable deposit, said Daniel Durazo, spokesman for Allianz Global Assistance USA. “Fear of contracting Zika is not something that a standard travel insurance policy would cover. The exception would be a female policy holder who becomes pregnant after they purchase their policy and is traveling to an area impacted by Zika,” he said.
But if cruise lines, which have not announced plans to alter port routes away from zones affected by Zika, start allowing exceptions for some, others could take advantage of the loosened restrictions.
“A few of the behemoth lines feel that if they start refunding some passengers it would open up a can of worms, setting a precedent about opening the door to cash refunds which would hurt their bottom lines since they never give refunds,” offered Jack Ezon, whose luxury travel agency Ovation Vacations books many cruises.
“Cruise lines always encourage guests to buy insurance for that very reason. The problem is that, even for people who bought insurance, Zika is not covered by most policies."
“I do think it will turn young people away from cruising especially since hotels and airlines are almost all cooperating with refunding people in full,” Ezon suggested
Since Zika can be transmitted by sexual contact, the CDC also recommends women and their partners preparing to have children avoid travel to areas with Zika -- a directive that has given pause to couples trying to get pregnant. One engaged couple posted on CruiseCritic.com what many likely are thinking – whether to cancel their Caribbean cruise honeymoon “as our desire to start a family is our priority.”
The CDC has just announced that $6.8 million will be awarded to national public health partners to assist state, tribal, local and territorial jurisdictions with their Zika responses.
But no one is expecting a quick or easy solution.
“The cruise lines can’t control this situation and neither can I,” said Kerry Scarpinito. “The message they are sending is that they don’t care about their passengers."
Eileen Ogintz is the creator of the syndicated column and website Taking the Kids. She is also the author of the ten-book Kid’s Guide series to major American cities and the Great Smoky Mountains. The third-edition of the Kid’s Guide to NYC has just been released.