Last summer, Carol and Arnie Rudoff booked a seven-day cruise aboard Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess, sailing from Galveston, Texas. The Rudoffs thought the cruise looked great: It was on their favorite cruise line, and it offered great destinations for all members of their family, who were coming to celebrate the Rudoffs’ 40th wedding anniversary. It would be the Rudoffs’ 12th Princess cruise.

The trip started badly when, after a turbulent flight from Phoenix to Houston, Carol became air sick. Fortunately, the Rudoffs had booked a pre-cruise hotel package through the cruise line, so Carol was able to rest and recover overnight. Feeling better the next morning, Carol was astonished to learn that Princess would not let her board the ship. Why not? The cruise line had heard of her illness and thought she might have contracted a norovirus.

Just say no to noroviruses

Formerly called the “Norwalk virus,” the group of intestinal pathogens now called “noroviruses” has become a big problem for cruise lines in the past decade. According to records kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Vessel Sanitation Program, 2,032 passengers and crew aboard 13 ships operated by five different cruise lines were infected with noroviruses during the first six months of this year. The viruses are highly contagious, and while they seldom do any lasting harm, they can cause some very unpleasant symptoms.

In order to keep their ships healthy, some cruise lines take a no-holds-barred approach to the viruses. Princess, for example, screens all its embarking passengers, asking whether they have experienced vomiting or diarrhea in the two days before sailing. Anyone checking “Yes” on the health questionnaire is subject to further assessment by the ship’s medical staff.

It happens that Carol Rudoff checked “No.” She knew why she’d been sick, and she was feeling fine now, so she decided to just let it go. Unfortunately for Carol, a Princess agent had witnessed her air sickness at the Houston airport and had flagged her for an embarkation check.

Carol was surprised to be confronted by Princess officials in Galveston. “I was no longer sick, I had no diarrhea, no fever, no abdominal pain, and no headache,” she says.

According to the Rudoffs, there was no examination by the ship’s doctor, either.

“He simply entered the cruise terminal, asked where Carol was and informed her she was sick,” Arnie says.

The only way to confirm a norovirus infection is through medical testing, which can take a long time. Not wanting to risk having the virus aboard, Princess denied the Rudoffs boarding. The rest of the family could sail. In fact, if they didn’t sail, they would lose their entire cruise fare.

Princess was within its rights. Located deep in its ticket contract are statements that the cruise line can deny boarding to anyone the cruise line deems to be ill and without any refund of fare. Because the Rudoffs were such good customers, Princess did offer them the option of boarding the ship in Belize, after a three-day quarantine. Princess also offered to reimburse the couple for expenses incurred to stay in Houston and travel to Belize, including hotel charges, air tickets, meals and transfers.

The check’s in the mail

The Rudoffs did catch up to the ship in Belize and enjoyed what was left of their family cruise. Upon returning home to Arizona, they submitted a bill to Princess for expenses totaling $3,100.30. After more than three months of what Arnie calls being “stonewalled” by the cruise line, the Rudoffs asked Tripso to help get their money.

I contacted Princess Cruises’ Manager of Media Relations Karen Tetherow to see what was going on with the Rudoffs’ claim. Several weeks later, the Rudoffs received a three-page letter from Princess standing by its decision to keep Carol from boarding the ship and promising that a check for their expenses would be mailed soon.

Asked why it took so long to resolve the claim, Tetherow said: “We sincerely apologize that our response was delayed. It was a regrettable oversight on our end.”

Protect your cruise

Princess did the right thing in the end. But what if something like this happens to you? How do you protect yourself?

First, get travel insurance and know how it works. Under the Rudoffs’ policy, if Princess had not offered reimbursement, Carol would have had to seek medical assistance immediately and obtain a doctor’s note documenting her air sickness. Travel insurance will not kick in without medical documentation of this kind. Of course, if you have in fact contracted a norovirus, stay off the ship. If you don’t have a norovirus infection, but have some symptoms that mimic the illness, make sure your doctor specifies your diagnosis in writing.

Norovirus is no joke, but you don’t have to fall victim to a false alarm. Know your rights and you’ll set sail with the rest of the passengers.

Cruise for a Cause!

Tripso wants to take you on a cruise for a cause! See how far New Orleans and Cozumel have come since Katrina and Wilma. Join us October 26, 2006, for four nights on Carnival’s Fantasy, one of the vessels that Carnival offered for hurricane relief. Chat with your favorite Tripso columnist and contribute to a worthy Gulf Coast relief organization. Space is very limited. For more information, e-mail us or check out our cruise page.