Cruise lines change policy on port fees

September 28, 1997|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Many passengers have long presumed that port fees are merely a pass-along of various taxes and government levies that ports require cruise lines and their passengers to pay when they come to dock. It's long been the cruise industry's custom to exclude those fees (anywhere from $80 to $200, depending on the itinerary) from the fare figure advertised in large print by cruise lines.

But over the last several years port fees have inflated, with many cruise lines adding other nongovernment expenses in with them, including payroll expenses, tugboat fees and phone bills. That practice allowed the cruise lines to keep their advertised fares down -- a useful strategy in a crowded, highly competitive marketplace -- and make up for it by boosting their port fees.

Such practices drew complaints from consumer advocates. Last year, the Florida attorney general's office launched an investigation, and the upshot in February 1997 was a settlement with six of the targeted cruise lines. Under the settlement, Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Celebrity Cruises, Dolphin Cruise Line and Majesty Cruise Line agreed to pay a combined $295,500, and pledged not to add any fees to their advertised initial ticket prices except specific charges from governmental and quasi-governmental agencies. (Los Angeles-based Princess Cruises, also named in a lawsuit by the Florida attorney general, struck a separate settlement, with an $85,000 payment in April.)

Many cruise companies took the Florida agreement as a cue to drop the port-fee charge from their ads altogether and incorporate it into a single fare price.

But Cunard does it one way, Norwegian Cruise Line does it another, Carnival has done it yet another. And the confusion doesn't end with the cruise lines. Some travel agencies are still buying ads to promote those companies' cruises and subtracting the port fees in the same old way that raised objections in the first place. Thus the same fare could end up advertised with two different numbers in large print.

Here's a sampling of the policies among some cruise lines:

At Carnival Cruise Lines, says spokesman Tim Gallagher, all national advertising since June has bundled port fees into one overall price. But the company's phone reservationists also have other numbers. Though an ad may quote a cruise price of $700, Gallagher says, the company's reservationists are still instructed to call it a $600 cruise with $100 in port fees. Why? Apparently because Carnival wants travel agents to understand that, like other cruise companies, it intends to continue basing its commission payments to travel agents on the lower fare figures, not the higher price that includes the port costs.

Cunard Line continues to set "port and handling charges" apart. William J. H. Spears, the line's senior vice president for communications, notes that those fees include various types of port-related overhead in addition to government fees, but remain a small portion of the overall price.

At Holland America, public relations director Larry Dessler says that since June the company's advertising and brochures have gone out with a single price.

At Norwegian Cruise Line, says spokeswoman Fran Sevcik, all new brochures quote a single price, and all Florida advertising quotes a single price. Outside Florida, advertised prices are being bundled this fall.

At Princess Cruises, nationwide ads since June 1 have included nongovernmental port fees in cruise fares. Government fees are kept separate. For example, on a seven-day Caribbean cruise with a bottom-end fare of $827, passengers also pay $81 in government fees and taxes.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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