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Archive for July, 2001

Question:

Dear Anita,

I and five others were to cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) out of New York City to Montreal, departing on September 16. However, soon after the events of September 11, NCL’s website indicated a change of departure port and date, leaving instead from Boston on September 17.

We called NCL and learned that our only options were to fly to New York, where the cruise line would then bus us to Boston, or fly to Boston. When we called US Air (our carrier to New York) to make arrangements, we found out that our reservations to New York were cancelled and that there was nothing available to Boston.

While monitoring NCL’s website, we noticed that the cruise line was offering future travel certificates for those passengers in the tri-state New York area. When we called, and subsequently sent them a fax, asking for the same treatment, our pleading fell on “deaf ears.” To date we have not even received a response acknowledging our request. I believe that we’ve been slighted, and I would like to report this callous behavior to other agencies and or websites who might be interested in this seemingly indifferent cruise line company. Any suggestions?

David M.
Oldsmar, FL

Answer:

Dear David,

To find out the whole story I contacted NCL on your behalf, and it seems that NCL did everything possible to reaccommodate its guests.

A NCL representative told me that after the September 11 attacks, all their air/sea passengers had been rebooked on flights into Boston. Because you booked your cruise with I-Cruise.com and your air separately, NCL was under no obligation to rebook your air.

Only consumers who purchase a cruise line’s air/sea package are covered in cases like this. Most cruise line conditions of carriage state that because airlines are independent contractors, the cruise line makes no warranty, and assumes no responsibility, for any failures or delays in their contractor’s (the airline) services.

In your case, however, NCL understood that many passengers had booked their own air, and went beyond what was required by arranging shuttles from New York to Boston. Furthermore, NCL provided a 24-hour hotline to help customers and travel agents find flights to Boston or New York. If passengers/agents did not try to contact NCL to assist with alternative travel arrangements, NCL had no way of knowing they would be unable to make the cruise.

I firmly believe that had you further pursued your dilemma with NCL and/or US Airways, they would have found you and your party flights to the New York or Boston areas, whether on US Airways or another airline. Flights at that time were operating into New York and Newark, Boston, and alternate airports near each area (White Plains, Hartford, Providence, and Manchester) on the date in question. Florida also has several airports that are within reasonable driving distance from your area.

NCL asserts that it did everything in its power to accommodate customers who were inconvenienced by the repositioning, and therefore, is unable to give you and your party a refund or credit. That said, as a resident of Florida, you are not entitled to the rebate/voucher that NCL offered. It was only for passengers who live in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut).

Furthermore, I doubt that insurance would have covered you either, as it would have only kicked in if there had not been any options whatsoever.

With your options for a refund waning, I contacted your “travel agent,” I-Cruise.com, to see what services they provided for their customers during this crisis. Unfortunately, they did not return any of my phone calls. I am very troubled because it seems that your representative at I-Cruise.com didn’t clearly convey NCL’s position and that this was a “use it or lose it” situation to you and your party.

When situations like yours occur, you can’t always blame the cruise line. A good travel agent is your best defense when things go wrong. He or she (not you) will do the legwork when a crisis comes up. When buying a big-ticket item like a cruise, know what you are dealing with, especially when booking online. Only experienced cruisers, or those comfortable with online booking, should consider Internet travel agencies because there’s no guarantee a real person can help out and tell you everything you need to know before setting sail.

I hope I’ve been helpful. Happy travels!

Anita Dunham-Potter

Filled Under Ombudsman

Question:

Dear Anita,

I just returned from an Orient Lines cruise taken on March 27, 2001. It was the Grand Pacific segment of their around the world cruise. My travel dates were February 22 through March 27, 2001. All went well except for the fact that we missed three ports due to a cyclone—two in Fiji and one in Western Samoa.

In defense of Orient Lines, I completely understand that weather is out of their control, and they did give us an additional port (Raiatea) that wasn’t on the original schedule. I appreciate that gesture, but feel, since we paid for three port charges and only had one, we should receive a refund in at least the amount of the two port charges. Not to mention that going to Raiatea didn’t compare with Fiji and Western Samoa. Most likely, I will never have the opportunity to go to Western Samoa again, so missing that port was particularly disappointing.

Finally, Orient Lines advertised that when we were at Christmas Island, we’d have a beach BBQ; but in reality, what we had was a bowl of fresh fruit and punch. Although I don’t imagine anyone suffered from a lack of food, the issue here is the false advertising or inaccurate picture that they portrayed. Having spent thousands of dollars for this trip, it was distressing to observe them being stingy! Thank you for any assistance you can give on this.

Kay B.
Calgary, Canada

Answer:

Dear Kay,

It is very disappointing when you don’t get the exact cruise you planned, especially if you miss a scheduled port-of-call. As you noted, it’s not the cruise line’s fault when weather goes bad. As cruise lines print in their terms and conditions, they have the right to change the itinerary should it become necessary. However, consumers need to be aware that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to such “fine print”—each cruise line varies in policy regarding port-fees.

Nevertheless, because most cruise lines will issue a refund, I was puzzled as to why Orient Lines did not refund you for the two ports-of-call that were not substituted. I contacted Orient Lines regarding your situation. Here’s part of their response:


” …As a destination-oriented cruise line sailing to some of the most exotic ports in the world, the safety of our passengers, staff and crew is always our first priority. We do share Ms. Bieber’s disappointment in missing three ports of call during Crown Odyssey’s Grand Pacific CruiseTour this past March, but the very safety of our passengers and crew was of paramount concern to our Captain as weather conditions in the South Pacific worsened.
Port charges are assessed to cruise lines whether or not a port of call is reached. This is similar to the fee levied by hotels when guests, for whatever reason, fail to honor a reservation. As we explain in the Terms and Conditions section of our brochures, there are times when factors beyond our control, such as weather, make it necessary to amend our scheduled itineraries. We regret that we are unable to offer Ms. Bieber a refund of the port charges….

Sincerely,

Michael Coleman,
PR Manager, Orient Lines ”

After I received this response, I contacted Orient Lines again to clarify why they did not refund the port charges. Orient reiterated the fact that since their destinations are not as mainstream as other cruise lines, they are subject to much stricter foreign government standards that determine whether they can refund. In the case of Fiji and Western Samoa, it appears that those islands opted not to return the port fees, therefore, Orient Lines could not refund the passengers.

Again, each cruise line varies in policy regarding port-fees. As stated in their terms and conditions clause, travel to certain destinations does carry some slight risks.

As for the beach BBQ turning into fruit salad, Orient Lines again appears to be subject to the island and what it can provide, which is also stated in their terms and conditions. As they wrote to me, “We make every effort to operate our CruiseTours as planned. With brochure printing deadlines so very far in advance of our actual sailing date, there are occasions when local conditions—as was the case on Christmas Island—prevent us from executing our plans.”

While the cruise didn’t go according to the original plan, without question, Orient Lines executed the safest and best alternative for their passengers. One of the best aspects of cruising is the ability to change course in the face of bad weather and salvage a vacation, something the tourists riding out the cyclone in the Fiji resorts would have envied. Again, happy sails on all your future voyages!

I hope I’ve been helpful. Happy travels!

Anita Dunham-Potter

Filled Under Ombudsman

Question:

Dear Anita,

I was on the doomed Crown Cruise Lines Crown Dynasty, booking 93596, on Saturday, March 11, 2000. Our charter airline had mechanical problems that delayed us getting to the ship in Aruba from Tampa. Needless to say, the ship sailed without 118 of us, and it was not until very late the following Monday night at another port that we got on the ship. Plus we went through hell to get on the ship considering the spring break shore inconveniences we encountered.

The reason I am writing you is that Crown/Commodore offered us two free cruises (no refund) that was to expire on March 31, 2001. Well, the line folded into Chapter 11 in December 2000.

Do I have any options? Do you think the cruise lines will re-surface? I truly have not given up hope. As a matter of fact, I was in contact with Mike Smith at Crown, attempting to re-book a March 2001 cruise. I know now why they would not confirm anything for me.

Thank you for any reply,

Marcy H.

Answer:

Dear Marcy,

This is a very complex issue. To find out if you have any recourse, I contacted Mark Pestronk, a Fairfax, Virginia-based attorney specializing in travel law and Travel Weekly columnist. He states, “Whether a voucher holder is a creditor in bankruptcy is a complicated question of bankruptcy law, Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) rules, and bonding law.”

The FMC has a certified bond program covering a company with a maximum of $15 million. However, passengers booked on ships sailing from non-U.S. ports are not covered. While the FMC administers the program, the cruise lines, or their underwriters, process claims. My attempts to contact Commodore were unsuccessful. The best suggestion is to fax a request for compensation to Commodore Holdings (Parent Company of Crown Cruise Line) at 954-967-2148. You can also call them at 954-967-2100.

Watch for Red Flags

Long before Commodore Holdings filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, there were warning signs. Financial difficulties at Commodore Holdings became evident last June when the company’s filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) showed a net loss of $14.4 million (for nine months ending June 30). This was a surprising development since the company posted a $2 million profit for the same period in 1999.

When it purchased the Crown Dynasty for $86.2 million in January of 2000, the company acquired a lot of debt. It also lost a revenue source by canceling the Enchanted Sun (another vessel it chartered, which was cancelled due to technical difficulties). The company was expanding too quickly, and so, it declared bankruptcy in December 2000.

Protect Your Vacation Investment

The best protection for any cruise consumer is to watch for red flags—even after booking the cruise. This is especially true for trips on smaller, less established cruise lines. One good way to find warning signs, besides seeking the advice of a cautious, well-informed travel agent, is to seek the experiences of other travelers via message boards on the Internet.

For your best protection against possible bankruptcy, always pay for your cruise by credit card. Moreover, third-party travel insurance (available from your travel agent) is a precaution against supplier bankruptcy. If you purchase the optional insurance offered by the cruise lines, you will not be covered if the cruise line goes into default.

I hope I’ve been helpful. Happy travels!

Anita Dunham-Potter

Filled Under Ombudsman

Cruising the Mexican Riviera ‘Love Boat’ style

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On July - 31 - 2001

Two days of Acapulco’s heat, humidity, and grime were enough. We were anxious to “fiesta” and “siesta” our way along the Mexican Riviera aboard Princess Cruises’ Sun Princess. Our seven-day cruise took us from Acapulco to San Francisco—with stops in Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas. Our voyage was a repositioning cruise, as Sun Princess was relocating from winter quarters in the Caribbean to summer quarters in Alaskan waters.

As our cab approached the pier, we got our first glimpse of the Sun Princess, a magnificent vessel. When launched in 1995, she was the largest cruise ship afloat and the first of the mega-ships, carrying a maximum of 2300 passengers and 900 crewmembers. Unlike the mega-ships that have since overtaken her in size, she retains a dignified and classy ambiance. She provides enough to keep couples and families satisfied, and would be even better with just a little tweaking.

More than 400 of Sun Princess’ 1011 cabins have private balconies; our verandah was pleasant with a lot of privacy. At 153 square feet (including verandah), the stateroom was small, but very clean and nicely decorated. It had all the creature comforts I have grown accustomed to on other vessels, including a small bathroom, adequate storage space, desk, chair, TV, and even a refrigerator. Four small cookies, and a note saying “Welcome Aboard,” awaited us on the table—a nice touch. During the cruise, our amiable cabin steward, June, dutifully took care of our needs; and to the girls delight, he placed extra chocolates on their pillows every night.

“Sunsational”

Sun Princessis the first of four vessels termed Princess “Grand Class” ships. (Her sister ships are Dawn Princess, Ocean Princess, and Sea Princess). All have classic teak decks and trim, dark woods, and brass touches. In addition, Sun Princess displays its two-million-dollar fine-art collection in public areas and hallways.

The ship’s heart is the soaring four-deck grand atrium. Waterfalls, spiraling staircases, domed stained-glass ceilings, and glass elevators highlight this elegant locale. The atrium is surrounded on various levels by shops, lounges (one with a dance floor, another with a piano), and restaurants.

Dining

Families and couples (or anyone for that matter) face an array of tempting dining choices as well as great service. One of our favorite places to eat as a family was Verdi’s Pizzeria. Decorated in wrought iron and stone floors, and offering a view of the kitchen while your pizza is made just for you, Verdi’s Pizzeria has some the best pizza I’ve had anywhere—even Rome! The pizzeria is just one of seven dining and snack areas aboard. Others include:

The Marquis & Regency main dining rooms: Serves wonderful International cuisine in an elegant atmosphere.

The Lido Café: Provides indoor and outdoor casual dining.

The Horizon Court: Offers ‘round the clock buffet style meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and panoramic views of the sea.

The Terrace Grill/Sterling Steakhouse: Serves al fresco dining overlooking the Lido Deck. (During the afternoon, the Terrace Grill serves luncheon fare; after dark, it transforms into the Sterling Steakhouse, setting a romantic tone. For a mere $8.00 per person, guests can choose their own cut of prime beef.)

Sundaes Ice Cream Parlor: Sells premium ice cream on the Riviera deck next to the pool area.
In addition to the main dining venues, 24-hour room service is available from a limited menu. It came in handy a few afternoons after a long day of touring.

The food is fabulous in the majority of the dining areas. Nevertheless, the main dining rooms stand out—not only for the wonderful fare, but also for the excellent service. We were assigned to the Regency dining room, and I was impressed that such a large dining area could have such an intimate ambiance. Teak tables are tiered on different levels and etched glass barriers create intimate, private dining spaces. Ceiling lights twinkle like stars overhead. The kids thought it was cool, and we found it to be romantic.

The wait staff was professional, friendly, and assured us of a first-rate dining experience. Playful staff members spoiled the girls; especially headwaiter, Francesco, who escorted them to the galley to choose any chocolate confection their hearts desired. In celebration of our anniversary and my birthday, the staff serenaded us, gave us complimentary bottles of wine, and presented us with special desserts.

A Bevy of Entertainment

Entertainment choices abound and include musical extravaganzas, calypso music parties by the pool, pianists, jazz bands, comics, magicians, movies, and lectures. There are two main show lounges: the Vista Lounge, which has a “dinner club” style atmosphere, and the Princess Theater, which has more traditional style seating. There is also a large casino, card room, library, and business center (with Internet access). If you are thirsty, Sun Princess boasts eleven “watering holes,” the most elegant being the Wheelhouse Lounge on the Promenade deck. This lounge, featuring nautical memorabilia, captures the essence of ocean liners from a bygone era.

For kids, there’s the “Fun Zone,” Princess’ dedicated activity center. “Princess Pelicans” is the program for children two to 12, and “Princess Teen Club” is designed for kids 13 to 17. A sign-in security system eases parental concerns, and beepers keep parents in touch. There are organized activities as well as free playtime. Multiple computers, large craft tables, a massive ball pit, large dollhouse, Puppet Theater, video screens, splash pool, and much more keep even the most “bored” child happy. The counselors were so attentive that my children often did not want to leave. There’s even a children’s dinner one evening held at Horizon Court to allow parents a romantic night out.

Spa & Fitness and Recreation

State of the art exercise equipment in the ship’s health club and spa makes staying “ship shape” easy, especially with its enticing sea view. The spa, operated by Steiner’s expert staff, offers the latest spa treatments and massage therapies. In addition, an open-air sports deck offers a basketball court, volleyball, badminton, paddle tennis, and a golf simulator. There are also five Jacuzzis, two pools, a splash pool, and a top-of-the-ship walking deck. The best deck to walk on is the wrap-around Promenade deck (deck 7)—three laps equals one mile!

A Few Things to Keep in Mind for the Kids

Aye Carumba! As great as the cruise was, there were a few things to look out for, especially when bringing the kids along. For example, when we reached the terminal in our cab, we were approached by a swarm of young Mexican padres. One boy opened the door, but many hands greedily reached out to touch us. There was a lot of pushing, shoving, and shouting as each jockeyed for a position to get tips. Normally, this would not have bothered me, but the experience traumatized our six and four-year-old daughters.

Also, although the onboard kids center is wonderful, the hours are extremely limited, giving parents less flexibility. On port days, the center is only open from 7 to 10 p.m. If you want its services before 7 p.m., you are charged a group, babysitting fee of $4 per child, per hour, and you need to make arrangements at least one day in advance. The same rate is charged after 10 p.m. During sea days, the center is open from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. (noon), 2 to 5 p.m., and 7 to 10 p.m.

The Love Boat?: Couples, Beware When You Bring the Kids

Unfortunately, Sun Princess made it extra difficult for a couple to be romantic if they decided to bring the kids along. When we arrived at our cabin, a verandah stateroom accommodating four passengers (a quad cabin), we were delighted to see that our door was decorated with festive “Happy Anniversary” balloons (as we were celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary). However, once inside, I was dismayed to see that the sleeping arrangements consisted of four bunk beds (known as “Pullmans”). I expected similar bedding configurations as other cruises I’ve been on with the kids, where the verandah quad cabins had Pullmans for the kids (or a pull-out sofa bed) and twin beds pushed together to make a queen-size bed for the parents. I thought this was supposed to be the Love Boat, but I felt trapped in a 50’s sitcom.

I tried to book a mini-suite or suite, but Princess allows only three passengers to occupy those categories. When I contacted Princess about their quad cabin arrangement, they stated that they are modifying the design on the new ships, which will debut over the next three years. The new quad cabin design (in balcony and ocean view cabins) will still have two Pullmans, but the lower beds will be able to be pushed together. (This configuration already exists on the Golden Princess, launched in May 2001.)

Location, Location, Location

Just when I thought I was beginning to get used to our cabin, things got worse. I picked our particular cabin because I thought the location was ideal, being close to the elevators and directly below the children’s playroom and the spa. Wrong. Every night we has to deal with a door slamming on the Riviera deck above, plus the sound of footsteps along the deck. Our cabin, A640, was also directly across from an ice station, room service area, and housekeeping supply room. The smashing of ice and clanging of house keeping carts served as a wake up call each morning at 6:15 sharp. On top of that, we had to listen to the noisy davits and pulleys lowering the ship’s tender boats into the water when we reached ports that required them. Sound was coming at us from every angle. I complained at the purser’s desk about the hall noise, but there was very little that they could do.

Final Thoughts

As we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge and gazed at gorgeous San Francisco, we felt our cruise coming to an end. Upon disembarkation at pier 35, I glanced back for a final look at Sun Princess and walked away with mixed feelings. There’s no doubt about it, Princess’ classy ships, great itineraries, fabulous food, entertainment, and crew equal a great cruise product. However, the quad cabin arrangement, the lack of flexibility to book suites for four, and the very limited hours of the children’s program are the three things I found lacking. Would I cruise them again? As a couple, in a heartbeat. As a family, absolutely, but with one reservation: only on the newer ships with the improved quad cabin.

Filled Under Reviews