A Hamilton woman is speaking out after she was denied permission to board a Royal Caribbean cruise ship because she told a customer service representative that she was pregnant. 

On the morning of Feb. 8, Michelle Ligori was in the process of checking her family in for a Royal Caribbean cruise leaving from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when the clerk asked her whether she was pregnant.

Ligori had only recently found out she was about two months' pregnant, so she answered “yes.”

“I regret it entirely,” she told CBC Hamilton of her experience.

'They left us in the middle of the pier with our suitcases and our children.' — Michelle Ligori

A chain of events followed that cost the Ligori family nearly two days of the cruise, added around $1,500 to their travel bill and turned their long-awaited family vacation into a “disaster.” As a result of the experience, Ligori is warning other women about the ordeal and questions whether she will travel with Royal Caribbean again.

Royal Caribbean says it is reviewing its policies, to determine what went wrong, and would consider further discussions with the family over what happened to them.

Fit to travel?

Ligori said the clerk told her that she would not be able to board the boat — the Oasis of the Seas, one of the largest cruise ships in the world — if she didn’t have a note from a doctor stating that she was fit to travel.

Oasis of the Seas

Ligori travelled on the Oasis of the Seas, one of the largest commercial cruise ships in the world. (Conrad Collaco/CBC)

The clerk contacted a supervisor, who told Ligori to obtain physician’s note. It was a Saturday, and she wasn’t able to get in contact with her family doctor, who didn’t know at the time that Ligori was pregnant.

She managed to reach an on-call physician and told her about the situation. The doctor sent the cruise line a note stating that Ligori’s condition sounded stable, but that the assessment was not made based on an in-person consultation.

Royal Caribbean staff, she said, told her they wouldn’t accept the document.

Time was running out until the boat's 4 p.m. departure time for the seven-day eastern Caribbean tour. With two children under five in tow, Ligori and her husband, Frank, faced the prospect of missing the cruise, for which they had paid about $8,000.

“They left us in the middle of the pier with our suitcases and our children," Ligori said. “I’m crying, I’m calling my travel agent, who was surprised and shocked.”

It wasn’t until 3:30 p.m. that Ligori was instructed to go to a local hospital. But by the time she obtained a doctor’s note, the boat had left.

Ligori's travel agent, Robert Simpson, said he contacted Royal Caribbean to ask what his clients’ options were. The company said it would honour the family’s tickets if the Hamiltonians wanted to go on a cruise that was set to leave the following day. However, Simpson said he received no guarantee that a cabin would be available for the family.

Not wanting to take that risk, Ligori and her husband chose instead to fly the next afternoon to the Bahamas to catch up with the Oasis of the Seas at its first port of call.

In total, Ligori said her family spent a total of about $1,500 for expenses that arose from the delay — including a one-night stay in a Fort Lauderdale-area hotel, airfare to the Bahamas and international calls to the doctor and to Simpson.

The family eventually boarded the cruise, but Ligori said they lost the better part of two days of the seven-day tour.

“It was bittersweet,” said Ligori of the vacation. “It was hard to get past all that.”

She went on to have a miscarriage in March.

Royal Caribbean apologizes

According to its website, Royal Caribbean doesn’t carry passengers who are more than 24 weeks’ pregnant. Women who are less than 24 weeks into their pregnancies are required to provide a doctor’s note stating that “they are in good health and not experiencing a high-risk pregnancy.”

Internet users can access the policy by clicking through to a frequently asked questions page that Royal Caribbean links to via a drop-down bar on its homepage. 

Ligori said the proviso isn't visible enough, and she warned women who may be pregnant to look into a cruise line’s health policies before booking a vacation on the seas.

Rob Zeiger, Royal Caribbean’s vice-president of corporate communication, said the company is “aggressively reviewing policies to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

In a telephone interview with CBC Hamilton, he said Royal Caribbean is “trying to understand what went wrong, what happened to this poor woman.”

He said Ligori shouldn’t have been asked whether she was pregnant and that the company’s policy requiring pregnant women to submit a doctor’s note is designed to “protect people at a much later stage of pregnancy.”

“It’s clear that somehow this got unfortunately misinterpreted,” he said.

Other major cruise lines, including Florida-based Carnival and California-based Princess, have similar policies posted to their websites. Both travel providers say they don’t carry women who are more than 24 weeks’ pregnant, and both require doctors’ notes from pregnant passengers who are less than 5.5 months’ pregnant.

In a statement on its website, Carnival explains the rationale for its pregnancy policy: “While at sea or in port, the availability of medical care may be limited or delayed. Prenatal and early infant care in particular may require specialized diagnostic facilities and/or treatment that are not obtainable during the cruise on board the ship or ashore in ports of call.”

Denise Réaume, a University of Toronto law professor who specializes in discrimination law, said that, in general, refusing a pregnant woman a service is illegal in many jurisdictions, including Ontario.

“To discriminate against pregnant people is to discriminate against women,” said Réaume.

She said exemptions are often made for policies designed to protect women in very late stages of pregnancy, and speculated that Royal Caribbean was likely acting out of an "abundance of caution."

But in Ligori's case, "that would not be regarded as a good enough excuse," Réaume noted.  

'Slap in the face'

Ligori also slammed the company for its customer service after the cruise. Through Simpson, the family requested compensation for their troubles. After a back-and-forth with his office, Simpson said, the company offered the family two vouchers for $240 in travel credit that will expire in March 2016.

Ligori called the offer “a slap in the face.”

“We’re in the business of giving people a great vacation,” Zeiger responded. “When we fall short of that, we’re not having a good day here. If we need to continue to have the conversation with the family, we’ll do that.”

After dealing with Ligori’s situation, Simpson says his office, Expedia Cruise Centres on the Hamilton Mountain, has started asking women travellers if they might be pregnant before booking a cruise.

“Normally, I would feel uncomfortable asking a lady if she’s pregnant,” said Simpson.

“In the office, we’re not in the habit of doing of it, but I don’t want anybody to have to go through this again.”