Dear Tripped Up,
On Aug. 6, my wife, my two children and I arrived at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal to board the MSC Meraviglia for a weeklong cruise that included a stop in the Bahamas. I am a scientist in the United States on a work visa and awaiting my green card, so I followed my lawyer’s instructions and presented my Chinese passport and my “combo card” — an American document that grants immigrants in my situation permission both to work in the United States and to travel abroad. But MSC Cruises refused to let me board, saying the card did not guarantee I would be readmitted to the country when the boat returned to Brooklyn. I soon met two other would-be travelers in the same, er, boat: Fadia, a 79-year-old Egyptian grandmother set to board with 19 relatives and friends, and Nargis, a Bangladeshi woman ready to cruise with her husband. After hours of pleading our case, even getting Fadia’s immigration lawyer to speak to staff by phone, we were all sent home. MSC refunded me about $500 in fees and taxes, but I’m still owed about $2,300 for the cruise fare for my family of four. Nargis and her husband have also not been reimbursed, nor have Fadia and her son (who stayed behind with her while the rest of the group sailed). Can you help? Heng, New Haven, Conn.
I don’t need to tell you how complex immigration law is, but let’s get everyone else up to speed on how it affects cruise travel. Before ships allow you to board, they must verify that all passengers have sufficient documentation to re-enter the country at the end of the cruise. If the cruise company screws up, they face steep penalties from the federal Customs and Border Protection agency. (The same rules hold for airlines.)
That’s why they often err on the side of caution, with the stress in this case on “err.”
MSC Cruises said it will refund all three families and provide each a credit toward a future cruise. In a statement, Field Sutton, the director of communications for the American division of MSC Cruises, wrote:
“Several guests who were booked to sail on MSC Meraviglia’s Aug. 6 departure from New York City were unable to board the ship due to a misunderstanding over the documents they provided for international travel. We are very sorry for the inconvenience.”
It appears that in all three cases, the terminal staff was flummoxed by that “combo card,” a document the size of a driver’s license that the United States provided you and some other immigrants in anticipation of green cards, for which the application process can take years.