Theme cruises are different from regular cruises in many ways, with their special guests, a focus on a particular activity (like going to concerts, seeing movies or working out) and less attention paid to typical cruise activities, such as lengthy dinners and sleep. Another difference? Their payment and cancellation policies.
A standard cruise usually requires passengers to put down a deposit up front, with final payment due 90 days out. But charter companies run their cruises by essentially renting the ship from the cruise line. This gives the charter organizers more control over onboard activities and changing when it needs money from passengers to pay cruise line fees.
It also means that if you want to cancel your theme cruise, or your theme cruise gets canceled, your options are different than what they'd be if you had booked a typical cruise direct from the cruise line or a travel agent. Here, we explore theme cruise payment schedules and cancellation policies, so you don't get caught out and lose money if your theme cruise plans don't pan out.
What is the payment schedule for theme cruises?
Like typical cruises, theme cruise operators do not expect passengers to pay in full at time of booking, especially since most theme cruises can sell out months or year in advance. While exact payment schedules vary by operator, we found that most offer passengers a few options.
Monthly billing plan: Once you book, the theme cruise company will divide your remaining total by the number of months prior to your cruise, and bill you the same amount each month until you've paid off your cruise. Some lines offer an automatic payment plan for this, so you don't have to remember to send in your payment.
Installment plan: With this plan, the theme cruise company divides the amount owed into two or three installments that you pay quarterly or on dates determined by the cruise line.
Pay in full: You can also choose to pay in full at the time of booking. For some cruises, if you have pay in full at the time of booking and before a certain date, you'll get a discount off your cabin price. We found Sixthman (Rock Boat, Outlaw Country Cruise, Cayamo) and Entertainment Cruise Productions (Star Trek and '80s Cruises) as two theme cruise companies that gave a discount of 5 percent.
Late payments will incur a late fee. Payments that are weeks overdue risk the charter company canceling your booking.
What is the cancellation policy for theme cruises?
The most important thing to know about theme cruise payments is that they're nonrefundable -- unlike standard cruise vacations where often the deposit is refundable and final payment isn't due until three months prior to sail.
All of the theme cruise companies urge passengers to take out travel insurance, so if they must cancel the cruise for an insurance-covered reason, the insurance company can reimburse travelers for out-of-pocket expenses.
However, if you haven't bought insurance or your reason for canceling is not covered, some theme cruise companies give you one way to recoup much of your costs. You can transfer your reservation to another person, typically someone on the theme cruise's waiting list, for a fee; Sixthman, for example, charges $299. The charter organization would then refund any paid money, minus the fee.
What happens if my theme cruise gets canceled?
If the chartering organization or cruise line decide to cancel the cruise, your rights are spelled out in the terms and conditions you agree to when booking the cruise.
Sixthman's fine print says, "If the Cruise is cancelled completely prior to embarkation, each Guest shall receive a refund of his or her passage fare paid. If the Cruise is cancelled during the voyage, each Guest shall receive a refund of a proportionate part of his or her passage fare paid."
Likewise ECP's terms state, "In the unlikely event that the cruise has to be rescheduled to a later date, booked guests on the sailing would have the option to transfer their reservation and payments to the rescheduled date, to another one of our sailings, or receive a full refund without penalty."
StarVista Live (Ultimate Disco Cruise, Flower Power Cruise, Country Music Cruise) takes a different approach: "In the event that Charterer cancels the sailing entirely prior to sailing, Charterer's sole liability to Passenger shall be to only obligation to you will be to provide an alternative sailing." Which means that passengers will not be refunded their money, but can only choose to transfer their paid fees to a future StarVista sailing.
Be sure to read the fine print from your particular theme cruise contract before putting down a nonrefundable deposit or making a payment you can't get back.
How are theme cruises handling coronavirus-related cancellations?
In 2020, theme cruise companies had to handle last-minute cruise cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as uncertainty about summer and fall 2020 cruises. The different charter companies had a variety of approaches to the ever-evolving situation.
Fitness cruise WOD on the Waves was canceled by host cruise line Celebrity due to the pandemic. The cruise line announced it would refund all cruise fares, as soon as its money was returned by Celebrity. Also, the charter company was paying back passengers for any future cruise credit they held with WOD on the Waves, either for coronavirus cancellations or cancellations pre-2020.
The New Kids on the Block cruise was similarly cancelled as the world went into lockdown. As there is not a 2021 cruise planned, charter company Rose Tours refunded all fares.
However, StarVista was forced to cancel its 2020 Flower Power Cruise, and only offered passengers the option to simply transfer their reservation to the 2021 Flower Power Cruises (same cabin, same dining times, etc., with no extra money due) or to request a future cruise credit to be used on any StarVista Live theme cruise departing by December 31, 2021. Travelers had no recourse to get a full refund; however, this is consistent with the company's booking terms as mentioned earlier.
When the Dave Koz 2020 Cruise was canceled, organizer Flying Dutchmen Travel was able to reschedule the cruise with the same line, to the same region of the world and with the same guest performers to 2022. Passengers had several choices: transfer their reservation exactly to 2022 and receive a $200 per-person onboard credit plus first dibs on 2023 cabins; transfer funds to an existing reservation on the 2021 cruise; or receive a full refund.
Theme cruise companies are also issuing guidance on what passengers can expect should an upcoming summer or fall 2020 cruise be canceled at a later date.
ECP has already announced that should the March 2021 '80s and Star Trek cruises need to be rescheduled, "booked guests would have the option to transfer their reservation and payments to the rescheduled date, to another one of our sailings, or receive a full refund without penalty."
Sixthman, which still has theme cruises scheduled for as soon as August 2020, has assured passengers that "should your event be cancelled or postponed -- any booked guest with a current reservation will have the option of a refund of their payments, or that amount credited towards a future event."
StarVista has not yet announced any contingency plans for cancellation of its upcoming theme cruises. The next one is the Malt Shop Memories cruise in November 2020. As StarVista's booking terms say the company does not owe refunds for canceled cruises, passengers should expect that any reimbursement would be in the form of a cruise credit.
As the theme cruise companies suggest on their booking pages, you can protect your investment with your travel insurance; just be sure you understand what are and what aren't covered reasons for canceling and getting reimbursed before you pay for any policy. Insurance terms vary by policy, so you'll want to compare a few before purchasing.