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Irene's Gusts Strand Cruise Ship Passengers In San Juan

SAN JUAN (CBSMiami) - The rough seas and heavy rains of approaching Tropical Storm Irene left some cruise ship passengers in San Juan stuck on not-so-dry land Sunday, as their ship was ordered away from the dock before they were able to board. Some have been told they have to find their own way home.

The passengers left behind were scheduled to sail on the Serenade of the Seas, a ship owned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. The ship was scheduled to leave Sunday at 8:30 pm, for a 7 day Caribbean cruise.

However, when passenger Nicole Washington of Baltimore arrived at the docks Sunday shortly after 5, she found the gates locked and the ship gone.

"There was nobody there," she said. "Everybody was gone and there was nobody there to tell me where the ship was."

Stunned that her cruise had left without her, she tried to contact Royal Caribbean, and said she had problems getting an explanation was to what happened.

Royal Caribbean said Monday that they were given no choice.

"On Sunday, due to the projected path of Hurricane Irene, and the weather forecast to reach San Juan, Puerto Rico that evening, authorities at the Port of San Juan limited traffic in and out of the port," Royal Caribbean spokesperson Cynthia Martinez told CBS4 in an e-mail. "As a result, Serenade of the Seas was required to depart earlier than our originally scheduled time of 8:30 p.m."

The problem was, nobody told Washington and other passengers like her.

"In the time before my cruise, they were contacting me and e-mailing me about things," she said by phone from San Juan. "I can't believe this big, billion dollar company couldn't have contacted me to tell me the ship was leaving early. They had my phone number!"

Washington admitted she had never checked in at the ship.That means officially, the cruise line did not even know she was in San Juan.

Martinez said the cruise line did reach some passengers, the ones who had airfare to the island booked by Royal Caribbean, passengers known in the industry as "air-sea" travelers.

"We accommodated our air sea guests at a hotel in San Juan," she said. However, the cruise line did not make the same offer to passengers who booked their own travel to San Juan, known as "independent" travelers."

"Independent guests were advised of hotel availability in the area, but the expense was on them given that it was a weather-related event," Martinez said.

That means passengers like Washington will have to pay for their own hotel until they can use their return air tickets next Sunday, or they will have to book new tickets at their own cost.

Unless they booked travel insurance, they may also lose the money they paid for the cruise, since the ship was forced to leave port due to safety. That decision is up to the cruise line.

Barbara Hacker, President of Kendale Lakes Travel, said that travel insurance can be purchased to guard you against weather-related disruptions or cancellations, but it can be expensive and does not always cover you at 100%.

She said that no two cruise tickets are the same when it comes to weather-related disruptions.  Carnival, according to Hacker, will give you a refund if a weather "watch or warning is posted at least 48 hours prior to scheduled departure."

"Each cruise line is different," Hacker said.  "Each cruise line's policy is stated on its web site as to what they will cover.  Different cruise lines cover different weather issues," she said, but almost always only if the traveler has purchased protection.

Despite Washington's complaint, Martinez said, "There was no way to notify our guests of this change in departure time. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused our guests, but this decision was made by the Port of San Juan to ensure the safe transit of all guests and crew through the port."

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