Royal Caribbean International has begun reaching out to guests booked on Panama Canal cruises aboard Rhapsody of the Seas to inform them that the sailings have been adjusted to an alternate itinerary.

While the ship will still begin from Colon, Panama, no canal transit is part of what are now Southern Caribbean cruises.

Rhapsody of the Seas will no longer be making a series of shorter Panama Canal sailings during the winter 2023-2024 season, unique itineraries that attracted many guests to this bucket-list experience of transiting one of the world’s greatest engineering wonders.

Instead, Royal Caribbean has been notifying guests that the sailings have been “adjusted” to a new itinerary, with no Panama Canal transit at all.

Photo Credit: TAH Media / Shutterstock

The original 7-night itineraries were to have begun by setting sail from Colon, Panama and visiting Cartagena, Columbia before cruising the complete transit of the Panama Canal. Two ports in Costa Rica followed – Puntarenas and Quepos – before the ship reached Panama City, Panama, for debarkation. Reverse itineraries are also impacted by this change.

Now, the sailings will be roundtrip from Colon, Panama and offered as Southern Caribbean cruises instead. Depending on the sailing date, Rhapsody of the Seas may still visit Cartagena, and visits such as Curacao, Aruba, and Bonaire are part of different itineraries. Exact details vary depending on departure date.

Guests on the impacted cruises have three options to choose from for their travel plans. They can opt to stay aboard the adjusted and now Southern Caribbean sailing, which will include price protection with a refund to the new price if the adjusted price is lower than the original fare.

Second, guests may rebook on any other Royal Caribbean sailing, on any ship, and at any date, and the non-refundable deposit change fees will be waived. Travelers will be responsible for any increase in price as well as taxes, fees, and other expenses.

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For both options, Royal Caribbean will also reimburse up to $200 USD per passenger ($400 for international guests) for non-refundable travel expenses or change fees, such flights, trains, rental cars, or hotels. Additional travel expenses will be considered for reimbursement with appropriate receipts and explanations, but are not guaranteed.

Rhapsody of the Seas Cruise Ship (Photo Credit: Aerial-motion / Shutterstock)

The third option is an outright cancellation, and guests will receive a full refund of the cruise fare, deposits, and any pre-paid purchases. The refund will be processed back to the original form of payment. If a future cruise credit was used, it will be reinstated at the original terms.

No further compensation is available to guests who choose complete cancellation. The cruise line does ask for patience as rebookings are managed, and notes that it may be necessary to temporarily place guests into “Guarantee” stateroom status (GTY) while details are finalized.

Guests are asked to notify the cruise line or their travel agent no later than August 29, 2023 about their decision, or they will be kept in a like-for-like stateroom on the new adjusted itinerary.

No explanation has been given for why Rhapsody of the Seas will no longer be offering any Panama Canal transits as planned. The email sent to booked guests does note that the change is “to enhance your experience,” but many guests are questioning the enhancement.

Transiting the Panama Canal is a once-in-a-lifetime cruise experience for many travelers, and these shorter cruises offering a full transit rather than a partial one were very popular and unique.

Speculation is that the costs and fees associated with transiting the canal have risen sharply, making the shorter voyages less financially viable for the cruise line.

Photo Credit: LukeandKarla.Travel / Shutterstock

It is also possible that conditions in the canal, including water levels due to ongoing drought conditions, are limiting some transit traffic, and cruise ships would not likely have priority over cargo vessels.

Lower water levels may also be limiting what times ship traffic can move through the canal, which may not align with the cruise line’s schedule.

Authorities have already restricted canal access to ships with a draft of 43 feet or less because of low water levels. The Vision-class Rhapsody of the Seas has a draft of just 25 feet, and therefore is not yet directly impacted by this restriction.

Fewer ships are being permitted through the canal daily, however, and it is possible that the cruise ship has been cut from the transit list by canal administrators.

Several longer, one-way Panama Canal cruises are still available for booking at this time. Radiance of the Seas has three transits planned, starting with a 16-night eastbound transit from San Diego to Tampa, departing on October 7, 2023.

In 2024, the ship is offering a 14-night westbound sailing from Tampa to Los Angeles on April 8, 2024, as well as a 16-night return eastbound voyage on October 5, 2024.

Brilliance of the Seas will also be making one eastward Panama Canal transit via a 14-night sailing from Los Angeles to New Orleans, departing September 28, 2024.

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