No one likes to hear that a cruise port has to be skipped, especially after months of planning and anticipation. But changes in a cruise itinerary simply must happen from time to time.
Cruise passengers often book their cruise based on the ports of call and itinerary. Sometimes, it’s a dream destination with planning that has been years in the making. But even after booking excursions and pre-paying for tours, unforeseen circumstances can throw a wrench into those plans, causing ports to be skipped or swapped.
In this article we will look at 8 things that can alter a cruise ship’s originally planned route, which may also affect which ports of call it will visit.
1. Weather conditions
One of the most common reasons a cruise ship may have to alter a scheduled port of call is weather.
Weather can be unpredictable, but cruise lines have been sailing for decades and are prepared for this. They use advanced technology to track the weather and stay ahead of or go around any storms.
If bad weather is approaching, cruise lines will take steps to avoid it. They may reroute the ship, skip certain ports, or extend the cruise at sea. They will also keep passengers informed of any changes and offer alternative activities.
And if plans do get shaken up, cruise lines will often compensate passengers with onboard credits or discounts. Although, you shouldn’t bank on this.
Sometimes high winds can be the culprit. It might be a beautiful sunny day, but high winds will make it difficult for a giant cruise ship to dock safely, without doing damage to a pier.
It’s another reason to have cruise travel insurance as soon as you book your cruise and make sure any 3rd party cruise excursions are refundable.
Hurricane season often leads to a disruption in plans, leading to reroutes, cancellations, or itinerary extensions. For instance, Hurricane Lee, impacting New England and the Atlantic in September of 2023 affected several cruise lines. Royal Caribbean rerouted four ships, while Norwegian Cruise Line altered one’s course as well.
2. Mechanical issues with the ship
As much as we would like it not to happen, stuff breaks from time to time. Mechanical issues can force cruise ships to reduce speed or stop at unscheduled ports, altering itineraries. This can be a relatively minor repair, such as fixing a switchboard malfunction, or it can be a more major repair, such as propulsion issues or problems with the emergency generator.
If the repair is expected to take a significant amount of time, the cruise line may cancel or reroute the cruise. A reduction in speed because of a mechanical issue may not allow you to reach a scheduled port in time.
Here are some examples of how mechanical issues have altered cruise ship itineraries in the past:
- On August 13, 2018, Carnival Horizon had to change its planned route because of a mechanical problem. As a result, it couldn’t stop at Amber Cove, Dominican Republic. The captain told everyone on board that this issue made it harder for the ship to dock safely and travel at its usual speed.
- Ovation of the Seas had to cancel two ports of call on a cruise last year while sailing out of Sydney, Australia. In this case the change was due to both a mechanical issue with the propulsion and a medical evacuation as well.
- While on a 13-night sailing a few years ago Norwegian Pearl experienced a mechanical problem that forced the ship to travel at reduced speeds. This led to two ports of call being missed and some extra sea days. Norwegian refunded passengers 50% and offered a 50% future cruise credit on top of it.
3. Medical emergencies
When a passenger experiences a medical emergency onboard, the cruise ship’s medical team provides immediate care to the best of their ability. But not all the equipment or expertise is always available on board.
Depending on the severity of the medical emergency, the ship may need to divert to the nearest accessible port. In some cases, if the patient’s condition is critical, an air evacuation may be necessary. The ship may rendezvous with a rescue helicopter or arrange for an emergency disembarkation at a nearby port with better medical facilities.
There have been some cases where a cruise ship had to return to a recent port of call because of a medical situation in which the waters were too rough for a helicopter to safely land on the ship. Turning around a ship of this size takes time, and the entire event could mean the next port of call will be skipped or you will arrive much later.
4. Port restrictions
Sometimes, a cruise ship has to skip an intended port of call because the port itself has denied entry. This could be because of a myriad of issues like security concerns, port maintenance, or even health concerns.
On a cruise around Iceland a couple years ago there were several ports that denied our ship access because of health concerns during the pandemic. These were ports that consisted of only a few hundred residents, so there was some extra caution with 900+ cruise ship passengers disembarking at their location. I was disappointed to have missed these iconic destinations in Iceland. There was an island with a dormant volcano I was very excited to see.
But cruise travel, like any other form of travel, requires a level of flexibility with the planning process. And sometimes skipping a port is beyond the cruise line’s ability to control. After all, cruise ships need to have permission from the port authority to dock at the port.
Read more: 15 top cruise ports for starting a cruise
5. Scheduling conflicts
Once in a while there can be port congestion with too many ships trying to dock at the same port, so cruise ships need to find another place to go. This can happen if weather or the cancellation of a certain port causes these vessels to have to change their itinerary at the last minute. They suddenly have to find a new port for docking, and this can turn into some logistic issues.
Cruise lines will communicate with each other and with ports of call to resolve these schedule conflicts. It doesn’t happen often and is usually due to an unforeseen event.
6. Geopolitical changes
When a cruise port is faced with regional conflicts, wars, or civil unrest, cruise lines must act quickly to change itineraries and find other places for their passengers to enjoy their vacation.
Last year, Carnival Magic had to cancel a port of call in San Juan, Puerto Rico, because of demonstrations and protests against an energy company in the port city. When geopolitical unrest takes place and the cruise line deems the port city unsafe for travel, a new port of call will be chosen.
Sometimes this happens at the last minute and it’s more difficult to make other arrangements because of logistical issues and schedule conflicts with other ships.
7. Other types of natural disasters
The recent wildfires in Hawaii have been devastating to the local communities. Understandably so, cruise lines have altered itineraries to affected areas, so as not to exacerbate the situation.
Other natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and flooding can severely impact a port city, making it impossible or just a bad idea to inject cruise traffic to that destination. Cruise lines take into account both the safety of their passengers and the role cruise traffic may play in an area affected by natural disasters, with the goal of not making matters worse for any community.
8. Shifts in environmental regulations
Cruise lines plan years in advance with ports and itineraries. By the time embarkation day comes you might see a different itinerary due to environmental regulations that have been imposed at a certain port of call.
New emissions regulations may require cruise ships to use cleaner fuels or to change their sailing routes to avoid sensitive marine areas. This could lead to increased fuel costs or longer sailing times.
New regulations may also limit the amount of time that cruise ships can spend in certain ports or may require them to use shore power when they are docked. This could limit the number of ports that cruise ships can visit or the amount of time that they can spend at a destination.
Also, new regulations may prohibit cruise ships from visiting certain areas altogether. This could force cruise lines to change their itineraries or to cancel cruises, but that is always a last resort.
Taking a cruise sometimes requires being a little flexible with your plans. I’ve had my itineraries change only a handful of times, but each time the cruise line sought to find another great port or offer compensation if they felt it was necessary.
On the flip side, one of the great benefits of a cruise vacation is that you don’t have to have your entire trip cancelled because of some of these events above. At least most of the time this is the case. Your cruise ship can simply sail to another destination or group of islands to avoid bad weather. The same can’t be said of booking a resort where a hurricane is barreling down on it.
Still, we recommend having cruise travel insurance for any cruise you take.
Have you ever had your cruise itinerary changed at the last minute? Let us know your experience in the comments below.