This has been a rough year for all three of the country's publicly traded cruise lines, but the smallest player is having the hardest time of the lot. Carnival (NYSE:CCL) (NYSE:CUK) and Royal Caribbean (NYSE:RCL) are trading 68% and 51% lower, respectively, as of Tuesday's close. Those shareholders are in a world of hurt, but smaller rival Norwegian Cruise Line (NASDAQ:NCLH) is getting even smaller with its 71% year-to-date drop.

You may think a lot of pessimism is priced into a stock where every $1 invested at the beginning of the year is worth $0.29 now, but hold on to your life preservers. We may not have seen the worst of the maelstrom at Norwegian Cruise Line. Let's go over some of the reasons the struggling cruise line operator may keep drifting lower in 2020 and beyond. 

A wave consisting of dollar bills and gold coin.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Nixed sailings keep piling up

The ball may drop before the anchor is raised on the cruising industry -- at least domestically. Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line have delayed their sailings until early November, but no one will be surprised if Election Day -- and inevitably New Year's Day -- comes and goes without any U.S.-departing cruises leaving the port.

COVID-19 continues to be a pesky global problem, and with cruise ships a melting pot of international tourists and crew members huddled together in a tight ship, this will be the last of the travel niches to resume operations. Financially speaking all three companies have braced for the grim reality that restart dates will continue to get pushed out. They have raised billions in liquidity since the March interruption, enough to get all three players deep into 2021. However, investors seem to lose patience with every delay. Norwegian Cruise Line has fallen the hardest because as the smallest player bears perceive it as the least likely player to survive in a shakeout -- and they're right.

2. Passengers are losing their patience

I'm not a fan of interjecting myself into the narrative, but I have a personal beef here. Today marks 111 days since Norwegian Cruise Line confirmed my successful refund request for a cancelled Baltic cruise that I was supposed to take earlier this year. I was originally told I would have my money back in 90 days, and I figured the cruise line was just underpromising. My son got his refund from Carnival in a couple of days when his late March cruise got nixed, and Royal Caribbean also seems to be responding reasonably to displaced passenger requests.

I waited 90 days before checking to see what was happening. I probably should've been more persistent in the weeks leading up to that day, but I figured the company was going through a lot. I'll be patient. I was initially told that my bank was holding my money because it was refunded two weeks earlier. When my bank denied that claim, I called Norwegian Cruise Line and was told a different story. The company did have my refund "in house," but it would take another 15 days to fulfill its promise since the accounting department was backed up. I'm still waiting -- for my money and for what will probably be a third story.

Most Norwegian Cruise Line passengers are getting their money back. The two other couples we were taking the same cruise with got their refunds 78 and 105 days after their refund requests. We all submitted at the same time in the narrow window the cruise line provided. However, I'm not alone. There's a private Facebook group with more than 1,100 members dedicated to people waiting for their NCL refunds. Why would Norwegian Cruise Line raise billions to stay afloat but then burn the passengers it will need to return to the brand when the crisis subsides? 

One thing that is clear is that Norwegian Cruise Line customers are a bit more nervous about using the money they paid on cancelled voyages for future sailings. It revealed recently that 60% of its passengers are jumping through the cash refund hoop. Royal Caribbean is seeing just 48% of its affected customers asking for their money back. 

3. Small isn't better in this case

Carnival is the world's largest player, with a fleet of more than 100 ships across its several brands. Royal Caribbean has historically commanded the strongest margins in the industry, a good place to be for an industry that's currently taking on water. Where does that leave Norwegian Cruise Line?

Cruise lines are losing a lot of money while their fleets sit idle now that crews have finally been repatriated, but the money won't start rolling in when paying passengers get back on board. There will be a lot of marketing involved in getting folks to forget the negative headlines that dominated the news during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. It's going to take money to coax crew members back or to train the next wave. Norwegian had $2.3 billion in cash and equivalents on its books at the end of June, but it also had $10.3 billion in debt. 

When the cruise lines start sailing again -- later this year or at some point in 2021 -- it will possibly be when we are waist-deep in a recession. It will be a promotional climate for the operators to fill their empty berths, and that will make it challenging waters for the bronze medalist to wade through. Things are bad now for Norwegian Cruise Line, but it doesn't mean that things will get better on the other side of this pandemic.