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Archive for the ‘Ombudsman’ Category

Indecent proposal: Honeymoon cruisers fight for insurance claim

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On February - 19 - 2010

Minnesota residents Kristen and Joe Wegleitner just wanted to start their October honeymoon off in grand style with a romantic 7-day Mediterranean voyage on Celebrity Cruises. Unfortunately things began to unravel when bad weather and a hodgepodge of missed airline flight connections forced the newlyweds to scuttle their cruise plans. Thankfully the couple had the foresight to purchase travel insurance and thought the claims process with Travel Guard would be hassle free. Or so the Wegleitners thought.

Bumpy flights

The Wegleitners were already tightly scheduled on their Delta Air Lines flights from Minneapolis to Atlanta with only one hour connecting time for their flight to Europe. When their flight landed 65-minutes late into Atlanta they knew they had missed their connection, which meant they would not be able to board the ship in time. The couple immediately contacted Celebrity Cruises to make arrangements to board the ship in the next port – Cannes, France. Delta was able to rebook the Wegleitners the following day on a flight to Nice, France via New York’s JFK airport; however, they would have to spend the night in Atlanta.

Unfortunately another day didn’t make a difference as bad weather forced their New York-bound flight to arrive 68-minutes late, which caused another missed flight to Europe. The Wegleitners felt trying to get another flight to catch the ship would be a moot point since much of the cruise would have been missed. They came to the conclusion that it was best to rebook the sailing for another time. “At this point we contacted Travel Guard to insure that if the trip was aborted we would be covered under our insurance,” said Kristen Wegleitner. The Travel Guard representative assured them that since the issues were weather related they would be covered. After spending the night in a hotel near JFK airport the couple flew home to Minneapolis dejected, but still hopeful that their honeymoon could be salvaged at a later date.

A few days after returning home the Wegleitners submitted a claim to Wisconsin-based Travel Guard for the amount of $3,900 for the missed flights, cruise, transfers and hotels.

Travel Guard too guarded

Imagine the couple’s dismay when they opened an envelope from Travel Guard a month later that contained a check for $1,758. The check stub stated the amount was for the missed cruise and transfers and since some of the airfare had been used by the couple there would be no refund.

Kristin Wegleitner was livid. “What they gave us won’t even cover our plane tickets!” She did not understand why they couldn’t be reimbursed fully. “Is that not why we purchased the insurance in the first place”, she asks. After going back-and-forth with Travel Guard, the Wegleitners contacted Consumer Traveler for help.

Claim bliss

I contacted Travel Guard on the Wegleitner’s behalf to find out their side of the story. I spoke with company spokesperson, Dan McGinnity. After checking on the couple’s claim McGinnity stated that there had been a mistake by Travel Guard and a misunderstanding by the Wegleitners. “After completing the review of the Wegleitner’s claim, Travel Guard will be sending an additional reimbursement check of $1,760.22, for a total claim payment of $3,518,” said McGinnity. He noted that the first payment was for the cruise/transfer portion of the trip and when the check was sent out; an accompanying letter stated that “a portion of your claim is still under review.” He said because the cruise/airfare/transfers were bundled into a single cost, Travel Guard was corresponding with the travel agent that booked the flight to determine the value of the unused airfare. “We estimated the cost of the used flight (roundtrip Minneapolis to Atlanta twice) at $440 and that amount was deducted from the total claim payment.”

Having seen the Wegleitner’s documentation from Travel Guard stating there would be “no refund” for air I asked McGinnity why that was on the check stub that led to all the confusion. “There was a miscommunication between the analyst who was working the claim and the processing person who sent the check,” said McGinnity. He noted the information on the check stub is typed in by the claims processing person as a notation for what the amount of the check covers. “In retrospect, we could have done a much better job of communicating with the Wegleitners. In fact, we are planning to use this as an example in our claim processing training.”

“It’s too bad that the Wegleitners didn’t take advantage of our 24/7 travel assistance when they ran into travel problems,” added McGinnity. That benefit is included in all Travel Guard policies. “In a case such as this, we have travel counselors available by phone who will help rebook canceled flights and make other emergency travel arrangements. I think we could have saved them a lot of hassle and may have been able to get them to Barcelona in time to catch their cruise,” he said.

As for the Wegleitners they are happy with the outcome but leery about having to fight so hard for clarity from the company. “Although this process has been a pain, we are getting mostly refunded which will allow us to take another trip without spending a lot of time saving-up,” said Joe Wegleitner.

An ounce of prevention

I am glad Travel Guard came through for the Wegleitners and this case clearly highlights why travel insurance is so important to protect your vacation investment.

That being said, much of the Wegleitner’s travel woes could have been minimized with practical travel planning. First, if you live far from the embarkation port, try and get there a day early. Padding your travel time may cost a bit more, but it pays off in the assurance of a stress-free start to your vacation. Second, just say no to short connection times for international flights. Rule of thumb – do not book a flight with a connection time of less than 90-minutes, especially in the busy airports like Atlanta, New York, Chicago, etc. Taking the earlier flight to the connecting city may seem like a waste of time, but it’s time well spent and it just adds on to your options in case things go astray.

Filled Under Advice, gallery, Ombudsman

Agony on the Ecstasy

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On February - 5 - 2010

The DeBorde family of Galveston, Texas had high hopes for their first-ever cruise vacation – a four-day sailing on the Carnival Ecstasy from their hometown to Mexico. According to the DeBordes the cruise didn’t live up to what was promised in Carnival’s brochure or website and they wanted the line to own up to its “Vacation Guarantee” so they could get off the ship and get their money back. There was just one big problem – they didn’t tell Carnival they wanted to leave.

Finding the perfect getaway

The DeBordes have been through a lot as their 10-year-old son has endured a chronic health condition that has required over thirty-five surgeries in his short life. Kristi DeBorde told me that she promised her son when he was healthy enough to travel the family would go away on a special vacation. When the doctors finally gave the go ahead for the family to travel she scoured the Internet for two months searching for the perfect getaway within their budget.

The family decided on a cruise aboard the Carnival Ecstasy from Galveston since it offered everything they wanted in a vacation including a children’s area with many activities to suit their son. The DeBordes had never been on a cruise and Kristi wasn’t completely sure if it was the best option for her son. Before booking she called Carnival for reassurance to confirm that all the activities listed in the brochure and online would be onboard during the cruise, she was told yes. She was sold and booked the cruise.

This is not like the brochure!

When the family boarded the Ecstasy they were not happy because the virtual tour on Carnival’s website did not match the actual ship. “The queen bed that was promised by phone from the Carnival representative was actually two twin beds pushed together, our window was cloudy, dirty, and could hardly see out of it,” said Kristi DeBorde.

She complained that the food was “horrendous” and was upset that the laser tag that was on the Camp Carnival children’s program was cancelled and that there was only coloring and finger-painting. Additionally, there was no basketball court on the Ecstasy as depicted on the website and the miniature golf course was impossible to use because it was too windy. The aforementioned activities were important to DeBorde’s son because he is not allowed to swim since he has a stomach catheter. On the second day of the cruise she says her son wanted to go to the 12-14 year old room to play X-Box, however, he wasn’t allowed because he was only 10.

By this time Kristi DeBorde had had enough and went to Guest Services after noticing Carnival’s Vacation Guarantee. The guarantee states if a guest isn’t completely satisfied with their cruise experience Carnival will refund the unused portion of the cruise fare and pay for the flight back to the embarkation port. There was one stipulation – a guest must notify onboard managers before arrival of the first non-U.S. port of call. Since the following day the ship was docking in Cozumel the family met the criteria.

Kristi DeBorde says she was in tears when speaking with personnel at Guest Services and stated that she wanted to go home. The crew member told her that the hotel director would call her in the morning. The following day when the ship docked in Mexico there was no call. Upset, DeBorde returned to Guest Services only to be told that Camp Carnival was going to have a party for her son. She advised them that this was not good enough and demanded to speak with a manager. Later in the evening, while the ship was headed back to Galveston, the hotel director called the family and invited them to come to his office.

Since Kristi DeBorde believed Carnival’s website was full of “false advertising” the hotel director went over the website with her. In regards to her complaint that the pictures did not match the ship he told her that the online pictures were just general photos and that information about the Ecstasy wasn’t up to date in regards to basketball court. He tried to reassure DeBorde that the dining and other activities onboard for her son would be better. Still, she was not satisfied, and the hotel director typed a letter with a reference number and advised DeBorde to call Carnival headquarters in Miami when the family returned home.

When the DeBordes returned home they immediately called Carnival to vent their complaints. A guest relations supervisor stated it wasn’t the line’s fault because her son couldn’t find something to do and that food complaints were subjective. When she asked why she wasn’t allowed to use Carnival’s Vacation Guarantee the supervisor told her since she didn’t specifically state “I want to disembark the ship” she did not qualify. “I am not sure how they could misunderstand what it was I wanted as I was crying and telling them we wanted to go home,” said DeBorde.

After getting nowhere with Carnival, the DeBordes contacted Consumer Traveler for help.

Carnival’s Vacation Guarantee

In an industry that sells fun, sun, fine dining, and adventure, glossy brochures and spiffy websites can raise some very high expectations. Clearly, the DeBordes cruise to Mexico didn’t live up to what they expected from Carnival’s website. Were their expectations reasonable? Could Carnival have done more?

I contacted Carnival to get their side of the story and spoke with Carnival spokesperson, Vance Gulliksen. While researching the family’s complaint Gulliksen told me the DeBordes complaints and meetings with ship personnel were logged through a tracking system that is tied to guest relations. The report confirmed Kristi DeBordes account regarding food and activities, but she never requested to leave the ship in Cozumel. “On Carnival ships, if you invoke the Vacation Guarantee, you are absolutely allowed to do so and disembark the ship and get a partial refund as long as you follow the parameters,” said Gulliksen.

Cruising isn’t for everyone

Kristi DeBorde is very disappointed in Carnival’s stance. “I would have gone to Disney World had I known the only thing for my son to do was watch a couple of 200-pound women dirty dancing on each other or watch other sweaty people get belligerently drunk for 4 days. There are many different ways I could have spent our $1,600,” she said.

While I sympathize with the DeBordes all of this could have been prevented if they had consulted with a knowledgeable travel agent, especially since it was their first cruise. An agent would have briefed them on what cruising is really like from accommodations (all cruise ship staterooms have convertible beds) to amenities, facilities, and clientele to make sure it met their requirements. Most importantly for the DeBordes, a travel agent would have gone to bat for them when they weren’t happy with their cruise and would have told them to invoke Carnival’s Vacation Guarantee.

Filled Under Advice, gallery, Ombudsman

Royal splash – luggage goes overboard

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 13 - 2010

Stacey and Jason Bandish were looking forward to some much needed sun and fun on their September Caribbean cruise. The Pennsylvania couple boarded Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas in Port Canaveral in a festive mood and felt at ease when they handed over all their luggage to the porter, which would later be delivered to their stateroom. As the ship headed off into the sunset the festive mood turned into frustration when their luggage never showed up.

Missing bag quandary

After dinner the Brandishs realized their bags were never delivered to their stateroom. Immediately they informed their cabin steward to see if he could find the missing bags. When the couple returned from the evening show they were happy to see their luggage had arrived, but there was one piece missing. Even worse it was the carry-on bag carrying important prescription medications. Ironically, this was the bag that Stacey Bandish kept with her during her airline flight to the port.

The couple went to the Purser’s Desk to inquire about their missing bag. They were informed that there was a group of luggage being detained after being X-rayed because they contained irons. Personal irons are banned on cruise ships because they are considered a fire hazard. The Bandishs did not pack an iron, but thought their bag must be in the group –it wasn’t. They were then told to file a report with Guest Services.

At this point Stacey Bandish’s allergies were acting up and she was beginning to worry about not having her medications. Shortly after filing the report and returning to their stateroom they received a call from Guest Services stating that the bag had been found and they could pick it up. After receiving the bag they realized something was terribly wrong – all the contents inside were wet. “We were amazed that there was no warning of the luggage being ruined – or what had happened,” said Stacey Bandish.

Luggage overboard

Bandish1A frustrated Jason Bandish returned to Guest Services to find out why the bag and all its contents was water damaged. He was then told by a crew member that there was an “incident” and that the bag had fallen into the water while being loaded on the ship. The crew never could explain why the couple was not informed of the incident and subsequent damage when picking up the bag. Bandish was then told to return in the morning to file a personal property report.

The damage to the bag’s contents was devastating – five expensive prescriptions and a number of over-the-counter medications that were packed in daily dose pill containers were destroyed along with costly cosmetics, personal grooming items and appliances, and small electronic equipment. Additionally, Stacey Bandish’s beaded jewelry was damaged.

Fortunately, most prescriptions were able to be quickly refilled by the ship’s medical staff; however, not all items were available and some that were re-filled were substitutions from original prescriptions. Unfortunately, the interruption and substitution of medications led to some health problems. On the fifth day of the cruise Stacey Bandish had an asthma attack and had to be put on additional medications by the ship’s doctor. To add insult to injury much of the couple’s time in port was used to fill prescriptions and over-the-counter medical supplies not available onboard the ship.

When the Bandishs returned home they wrote a letter to Royal Caribbean detailing their issues along with an itemized list of what was destroyed along with the current replacement costs – a whopping $2,150. A Royal Caribbean luggage department employee wrote back stating that jewelry and electronics were not covered in any claims. Additionally, the employee noted that receipts must be provided for each item and that the receipts could not be older than six months from the sail date in order to be accepted.

After going back-and-forth with the cruise line she was told they would pay $990.62 in cash along with a $700.00 future cruise credit. An e-mail to Bandish from Janelle Valentino, a senior executive in Royal Caribbean’s Guest Services, stated that the offer was “fair and far above what we normally cover according to your Cruise Ticket Contract and we stand behind this decision.”

Feeling cheated the Bandishs contacted ExpertCruiser for help.

Royal Caribbean speaks

I spoke with Cynthia Martinez, manager of corporate communications for Royal Caribbean. She wasn’t sure how the luggage ended up in the water, but she noted that 13 guests in six staterooms also had their luggage damaged. According to Martinez, Royal Caribbean’s liability limit that is stated in the ‘Cruise Ticket Contract’ is $300, but they went way above that amount for the Bandishs.

Martinez says the line replaced medication that totaled $483.60. Additionally, visits to sick bay were covered at a cost of $295. The line also covered daily hair styling in the salon for Stacey Bandish at a cost of $212.00. Overall, the Bandishs will receive $990.62 for the aforementioned expenses and a $700 future cruise credit.

The couple is disappointed by Royal Caribbean’s stance. Is the compensation fair? It all depends how you look at it. The line did promise to cover the onboard expenses and tried to pamper Stacey Bandish with daily salon visits since all her hair styling equipment was destroyed. Unfortunately, the monetary compensation doesn’t cover all items lost – including the very piece of luggage destroyed. I have mixed feelings about future cruise credits in these situations. Basically, it’s telling the guest that receives it to spend more money to recoup the loss.

An ounce of prevention…

Stacey Bandish admits she made a big mistake handing over her carry-on bag to the porters. It’s a common error many cruisers make once they get to the pier – they get too comfortable and let down their guard. After all, the bag is there next to the ship, it will get to my stateroom damage free, right? Au contraire. I’ve witnessed cruise line luggage handling that rivals the bag thrashing showcased in the old Samsonite gorilla commercials.

Never check medication and expensive items, always carry them with you. That way you’ll be able to enjoy your cruise and sail off into the sunset without a care in the world.

Filled Under Advice, gallery, Ombudsman

Paging Dr. Anita: How to vaccinate your next cruise vacation

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On November - 7 - 2009

Last spring, thousands of cruise travelers with stops in Mexico had their cruises changed or canceled after a swine flu outbreak in the region. However, the swine flu, or H1N1, and seasonal flu strains aren’t just in Mexico anymore. Currently, 46 states have reported widespread flu outbreaks.

It’s clear: The flu pandemic has potential to ruin your vacation. So, how to you protect your hard-earned cruise vacation? Here are some options.

Personal health check

The Centers for Disease Control says a number of travelers have an increased risk of complications from the flu and may want to consider postponing their travels. The agency states that adults older than 65, infants and children under 5, and those with chronic illnesses are the most at risk. Pregnant women have special concerns not only with travel risks, but also with cruise line rules. The majority of cruise lines do not allow women pregnant by 24 weeks or more may to cruise. The aforementioned should always seek the counsel of their doctors prior to considering a vacation.

An ounce of protection

Most cruise lines offer travel insurance, as do a number of independent third-party insurers like Travel Guard, Access America, and Travelex, to name a few. The cost of the insurance premium is determined by the price of the cruise vacation and the age of the traveler. A basic policy is on average 3 to 5 percent the cost of the trip.

Most travel insurance policies include coverage for five kinds of problems: trip cancellation (or interruption), trip delay, emergency medical expenses, emergency medical evacuation and lost or stolen luggage. Some policies even offer job loss insurance.

Basic insurance will kick in only if the traveler actually contracted swine flu or some other illness before or during a trip, each insurer’s terms for medical care would kick in, providing for reimbursement for the canceled trip or the ongoing portions of a trip that are delayed and for medical care away from home. But beware, not all insurance are alike and exclude certain illnesses. For example, there are some policies that exclude coverage of pandemics. So, it’s vital to understand the terms of a policy.

Most basic travel insurance policies do not cover passengers who cancel or delay a trip merely because the itinerary has changed because of a flu pandemic. The only insurance option is to purchase a ‘cancel for any reason’ add-on to a regular travel insurance policy that is offered by some insurers and cruise lines. Depending upon the insurer, cancel-for-any-reason policies provide a cash payout of a portion of a canceled trip’s cost or for a cruise line a voucher for use on a future trip. This flexibility comes at inflated price – the add-on cost is approximately 50 percent the cost of the regular travel insurance policy.

Should you get ill during your cruise it’s important to understand that ordinary medical insurance coverage doesn’t travel the same way aboard ship as it does within the United States. Sometimes coverage doesn’t extend to foreign travel at all. Medicare beneficiaries should always purchase travel insurance when they cruise, because they do not have Medicare coverage outside the country.

Keep in mind third-party insurers usually provide primary coverage, i.e., the insurance company pays the traveler directly for any medical claim. Most cruise line insurance policies provide secondary coverage, which means that you must file your claims through your regular medical insurance carrier, then seek reimbursement from the cruise line’s insurance company.

The diagnosis is clear: Travel insurance is one way to vaccinate your cruise vacation investment.

Filled Under Advice, gallery, Ombudsman

Is your cruise line ignoring you? Maybe it’s something you said

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On September - 11 - 2009

Elaine Goldman had just returned home from a disappointing cruise experience on Royal Caribbean. Traveling with her elderly mother, Goldman says she found the food “terrible” and the crew “rude”, which she says a far cry from her previous pleasing voyages with the line.

Goldman conveyed her issues to the onboard managers, to no avail. So, when she returned home she did what any self-respecting angry customer would do – she wrote the cruise line about her negative experiences. After six months of no response from Royal Caribbean, Goldman contacted me for help.
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Panama cruise shipwrecked

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On September - 4 - 2009

Fred and Deborah Marenna were looking forward to celebrating their 25th anniversary on the Carnival Miracle. It was the perfect itinerary for celebrating as it would visit exotic Panama and Costa Rica.

But the day before the Connecticut couple was to fly to Fort Lauderdale, things started to fall apart. Their travel agent called with bad news: The Miracle’s entire itinerary was being altered and the ship would no longer be visiting Panama or Costa Rica. The couple had the option to continue the cruise with the revised itinerary that would include a $50 onboard credit or they could opt to receive a full refund.
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