A confused couple was booted off their cruise and left stranded in South Korea — and thousands of dollars out of pocket — over a simple but profound error they made when booking their trip.

And their mistake is a lesson for all of us, said Michelle Couch-Friedman from consumer rights group Elliott Advocacy, which was not able to get compensation for the devastated couple.

American man William Coates and his wife had booked a 14-day Holland America Line cruise through Japan, South Korea and China on the Westerdam cruise ship in October.

"This is a trip we had planned for a long time. At 71 years old, we were looking forward to this adventure," Mr Coates told Elliott Advocacy.

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The couple flew to Japan, where they boarded the ship at Yokohama and settled into the voyage as the Westerdam cruised to South Korea.

But on the third day of the 14-day trip, a member of the ship's guest relations staff told the Coates they would be kicked off the ship when it reached the South Korean port at Busan.

They would have to gather their things and leave, their journey suddenly over.

"She (the staff member) told us that it was our responsibility to get ourselves home. We couldn't believe it," Mr Coates said.

The reason the Coates were told to leave the ship was because they didn't have the necessary visas to enter China.

The couple made it only to day 3 of their two week cruise on the Westerdam. Photo / Holland America
The couple made it only to day 3 of their two week cruise on the Westerdam. Photo / Holland America

While visitors from countries like New Zealand can be issued with a 72 hour transit when arriving by air to one of China's 18 eligible cities. However, visitors on cruise journeys have to have the right visas for all ports of entry on the voyage.

Americans need to apply in advance for entry visas to China, where authorities "strongly enforce penalties for entry and exit visa violations" according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Mr Coates said that was the first time they were made aware of this.

"Holland America removed us from the ship. They left us, literally on the dock," he said.

"It was up to us to find our way to the airport and then pay US$2400 (NZ$3490) for additional airfare to get home."

Holland America said its ship staff tried to arrange emergency visas for the Coates at Busan, and had even negotiated with Chinese authorities that the couple would not leave the ship during its stops at Chinese ports.

"The Chinese border patrol rejected all of the alternatives," the company said.
The Coates said Holland America should have told them about the need for visas.

"Getting thrown off the ship was a most embarrassing and difficult experience for us," they told Elliott Advocacy.

"Our loss is approaching US$9000 (NZ$13,460). Holland America should have alerted us to our missing travel visa and the stringent requirements. No one did.

"We think that something this serious would be part of the travel professional's responsibility."

Michelle Couch-Friedman said if it was true the consultant had never mentioned a visa, the couple might have had a case for getting at least a partial refund.

But according to the itinerary Holland America sent to the Coates in January, it had.

Checkpoint: Not all countries are granted automatic entry visas. Photo / Miguel Candela, Getty Images
Checkpoint: Not all countries are granted automatic entry visas. Photo / Miguel Candela, Getty Images

A clause in the terms and conditions read: "It is the guest's sole responsibility to obtain and have available when necessary the appropriate valid travel documents. All guests are advised to check with their travel agent or the appropriate government authority to determine the necessary documents.

"You will be refused boarding or disembarked without liability for refund, payment, compensation, or credit of any kind if you do not have proper documentation, and you will be subject to any fine or other costs incurred by carrier which result from improper documentation or noncompliance with applicable regulations, which amount may be charged to your stateroom account and/or credit card."

Refusing the couple's appeal for a full refund, Holland America said it had also sent the couple two extra alerts about the visas.

The couple was unable to argue they'd been travelling without access to a computer for a few months and didn't see those alerts.

Mrs Couch-Friedman said there was an important lesson for all travellers in the Coates' mistake: Read the fine print of your booking. You are responsible for your own visas.

"Before you set off on any cruise, it's imperative to read the contract in its entirety," she said.

"Remember that your entry requirements are unique to you, and it's your responsibility to obtain all necessary documents.

"In the end, Holland America refunded the couple for their unused return airfare as a gesture of goodwill but declined any other refund."

New Zealand is one of the countries on China's new 72 hour transit visa. However there are tight stipulations as to the validity of these visas, such as entry and exit points and method of arrival. There are various kinds of visas, which are explained by the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in New Zealand.

Travellers should also remember it's not enough just to have a passport — they have to make sure there are a certain number of months left before it expires, which varies from country to country.

To enter China, for example, passports need to be valid for six months after the intended departure date.

This is the responsibility of the traveller and not their booking agent or travel company.