By Linda Burbank, special for USA TODAY
Question: A group of seven members of our extended family booked a last-minute, four-day cruise to the Bahamas on Carnival just before Christmas. We booked late because of a serious illness that required medical clearance to go, and were looking forward to time together as a family. We were to fly from Washington, D.C. to Orlando and cruise out of Port Canaveral, Fla.
Unfortunately, that weekend happened to be the "snowstorm of the decade" in the mid-Atlantic. Our flight was canceled the morning we were to leave, and we spent hours trying to find a way to get to Florida without success. We called Carnival throughout the day and ultimately told them we were unable to make the ship due to the weather.
We had not purchased trip insurance, but asked the Carnival representative if we could have our fare transferred to an upcoming cruise. The representative indicated that Carnival took each appeal on a case-by-case basis and encouraged us to send weather reports and newspaper articles, along with a letter detailing our experience. We sent the letter immediately and in the weeks that followed were subjected to the most confusing information you can imagine. We finally received an e-mail rejection of our request.
My complaint is this: If a cruise line's policy is to offer no refund or transfer if you don't have trip insurance, why even bother to tell a traveler they can write a letter of appeal? We asked every Carnival representative we spoke with and got no satisfactory answers, so perhaps you can shed some light on this subject.
- Monica Barlow, Baltimore
Answer: After December's storm of the decade, and then February's "Snowmageddon," there are plenty of travelers facing similar punitive cruise line cancellation policies. But cruisers need to stop thinking about cruise fares like they do airline tickets, and more like concert tickets. We've grown accustomed to being able to change our flights at the last minute (with a fee, of course). But you wouldn't ask Madonna or the Met to reschedule a performance because you couldn't make it. Cruise lines are likewise the divas of the travel industry, with some of the toughest cancellation policies out there.
If you cancel at the last minute, and don't have travel insurance, you will typically lose your entire cruise fare, with no possibility of a refund or credit. The cruise industry isn't likely to change, so as travelers, we need to reframe our thinking to protect our vacation dollars. I've heard the most heartrending accounts of missed cruises due to deaths in the family, catastrophic illnesses and freak accidents. Add in job layoffs, aberrant weather and garden-variety flight problems, and that's a lot of disappointed would-be cruisers. The number of exceptions cruise lines make for these folks is, on balance, infinitesimal.
Carnival's official cancellation policy varies slightly depending on the length and destination of the cruise. But it's clear that all last-minute cancellations carry a 100% penalty.
Barlow's missed cruise saga
stands out because she says her group was advised by a Carnival representative to plead its case, and that there was a possibility of receiving a refund, or transferring to a future sailing. She did so, duly faxing in a detailed letter. From there, Barlow says, multiple Carnival agents continued to give ambiguous information—and the family received the distinct impression that Carnival might refund their fares or rebook them. One agent indicated it would take a minimum of 30 days to process their request, but he'd put a rush on it. Another said she would do whatever she could to get the family rebooked on the Jan. 3 sailing they'd asked about. Yet another suggested to Barlow's mother that she write a personal plea to Carnival's CEO, and gave her an e-mail address and fax number, neither of which worked. The family eventually received a form letter denying their request.
Buttressed with Barlow's detailed chronicle of false hope, I asked the cruise line to investigate her complaint. Carnival held fast to its firm cancellation policy.
"We apologize that she was given erroneous guidance in that regard and the matter has been brought to the attention of our Guest Solutions management so that guidelines for how to respond to this type of inquiry are re-emphasized with front line team members," says Carnival representative Jennifer De La Cruz.
Carnival declined to give Barlow's family a refund, rebooking, or future cruise credit. The family lost the entire $3,880 they paid for the trip.
"Given the many options for travel insurance coverage and so as not to undermine the benefits of our program for those who opt to purchase it, we do not make exceptions to our cancellation penalties as a result of weather," says De La Cruz.
How can you avoid trouble?
• Buy travel insurance for your cruise. It's a small percentage of your travel cost, and can save you a lot of grief if the unthinkable happens. Figuring out which insurance option is right for you will take some research. You'll need to consider factors beyond cost, like pre-existing conditions waivers, and whether buying a third-party policy is better than buying direct from the cruise line. Sites like insuremytrip.com can help, as can your travel agent.
• Make sure you understand the policies governing your cruise. Cruise lines often have their ticket contracts online, and you should receive the terms and conditions with your cruise information packet.
• Don't put faith in verbal hints or promises from company representatives. Look to written policy to find out what your rights—and limitations—really are.
• Consider spending a little time in the departure port before your cruise, if your schedule allows, so you'll have a time cushion in case of flight delays.
Linda Burbank first began troubleshooting travelers' complaints for the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. She now writes regularly for Consumers Union publications and is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your question may be used in a future column.