Cruising to forever with a shipboard nuptial vacation

Posted: September 25, 2011

Cruise-ship wedding ceremonies are increasing at a surprising rate, according to the Cruise Line International Association, the trade group for 25 major cruise lines.

More and more couples, including gay and lesbian ones, are going that route, buying wedding and civil union ceremony packages and getting built-in honeymoons at the same time.

Carnival played cupid last year to more than 2,000 couples who purchased its various wedding deals, and expects a 10 percent increase this year, says the cruise line's spokesman, Vance Gulliksen.

As for gay and lesbian ceremonies, Gulliksen explains, "We follow the legal marriage requirements of the location where the wedding is being performed, and would perform same-sex weddings so long as they are legally sanctioned in the particular state or territory whose waters the ship is in at the time of the ceremony."

Same-sex marriages are sanctioned in the District of Columbia and six states: New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire. They're also legal in the Netherlands, Spain, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, and South Africa.

In addition to the cruise fare, the cost of an onboard marriage or civil ceremony can range from $725 to $2,500, depending on the cruise line and package selected.

Examples: The minimum $725 package on the Italian MSC cruise line buys the services of a cruise officer, use of a decorated private room, recorded wedding music, a floral bouquet for the bride, a sponge cake decorated with chocolate hearts and the names of the bride and groom, a bottle of Asti Spumante, use of a photographer for an hour, an 8-by-10-inch photo of the newlyweds, and a symbolic wedding certificate.

On Princess vessels, $2,250, which includes the $450 marriage license fee, covers use of a wedding coordinator, a candlelit ceremony officiated by the ship's captain in the vessel's wedding chapel, live music, floral arrangements plus a rose bouquet for the bride and the groom's boutonniere, a photographer's service and selection of his photographs, wedding cake, champagne, two champagne glasses, and a keepsake wedding certificate.

Aside from their prices, wedding package details to a large extent are similar on Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival, Holland America, and Disney ships.

If you're interested in a ceremony at sea or at one of the foreign ports, shop around. Query cruise line wedding coordinators. And, above all, before sealing the deal with the required advance payment, make sure the at-sea or overseas shoreside wedding is legal and not just a symbolic exercise.

Los Angeles attorney Kelly Chang Rickert, who specializes in family law, says that under California law and in other states a marriage must be properly licensed and solemnized by a person identified in the state's Family Code such as a priest, minister, rabbi, or judge. "Select a reputable cruise line," she suggests, "and conduct research on their procedures, or to be really safe read up on the Family Code or hire a lawyer to investigate."

Lewis Kapner, a former Florida circuit court judge whose West Palm Beach firm specializes in marital and family law, put it this way: "I believe that the flag of the ship determines the country, so, for example, if someone got married on a Norwegian ship, it would be governed by Norway law. And if the marriage was under Norwegian law, then it would be valid here. . . . It would be as if the parties got married in Norway."

Most couples nail down arrangements six months to a year in advance.

Most large cruise lines also offer vow-renewal ceremonies for married couples. Prices go from Princess' limited-frills deal for $205 to Disney's $1,500 package.

Because of legal limitations, only captains of Princess, Celebrity, and Azamara cruise lines are allowed to perform wedding ceremonies. It depends on where the vessel is registered whether or not the captain may do the honors. And since Princess' 17 ships are registered in Bermuda and Celebrity's and Azamara's 13 in Malta, their captains are permitted to do it.

At a price, a variety of a la carte options such as an open bar, hors d'oeuvres, and sitdown dinners for guests, etc., are also available.

Cunard and smaller luxury lines such as Crystal, Silversea, and Seabourn do not offer wedding ceremony packages.

However, Mimi Weisband, Crystal's vice president in charge of communications, is quick to stress its $2,000 shipboard credits, and also that some of this year's fares for couples include free air transportation from a number of U.S. cities.

Bottom line: Would a cruise wedding be less costly than a traditional one near home? Maybe. To be sure, though, it will take a little more research and doing the math.

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