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Holiday cruise shipwrecked

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 9 - 2009

(Originally published January 20, 2006)

Retired college professor Bobbie Deemer had the perfect Christmas cruise planned, but eight months after she booked her reservation, things started falling apart. Imagine her surprise when she received her cruise documents and discovered the itinerary had changed. Neither her agent nor the cruise line had notified her of the change, and now it was too late for a full refund.

Last March, Deemer and her husband booked a five-day cruise aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Sovereign of the Seas, sailing from Port Canaveral. The cruise had the two things the Deemers were looking for: a Key West port stop and Christmas Day at sea. But when Deemer received her cruise documents the last week in November, she was dismayed to discover that the port stop would now be in Miami and that Christmas Day would be spent on Royal Caribbean’s private Bahamian island, Coco Cay.

“Miami has no appeal to us as we live two hours away,” says Deemer. “And we really wanted the day at sea on Christmas for a more formal atmosphere. Now it was just a beach day.”

Fax, lies and audiotape

The Deemers had booked their cruise through Cruise Value Center (also known as My Cruise Value) in East Brunswick, N.J. When Bobbie Deemer contacted Cruise Value Center to ask about the itinerary change, the agent said it was the first she had heard of it. The agent then contacted Royal Caribbean and was told a fax had been transmitted to the agency on October 3.

“Had we known this, we would have immediately canceled the cruise,” says Deemer. At that point, more than 60 days from sailing, the Deemers would have received a full refund. Now, less than 30 days from sailing, the Deemers could recover only 50 percent of the fare.

Upset, Deemer called Royal Caribbean to find out why the cruise itinerary had been changed. After being informed that the cruise line reserves the right to change the itinerary, Deemer pressed for the actual reason. She was told that Hurricane Wilma had damaged the docks at Key West.

The next day, Deemer ran into a friend who had just returned from a cruise that had stopped in Key West. The friend reported that there was no dock damage, a fact subsequently confirmed by two other sources: Gary Hansen, a port operations official with the Key West Port Office, and Caribe Nautical, Royal Caribbean’s own shipping agent for Key West.

Hoping to get the real story, Deemer again called Royal Caribbean. This time she got excuses ranging from “port congestion” to “operation constraints” to “immigration delays.” When the agent added “berthing conflicts” to the list, Deemer got mad. This, she knew, was untrue, because Hansen, the Port Office official, had told her that only one vessel was scheduled for Key West on December 24.

Deemer demanded to speak to someone higher up and was transferred to Royal Caribbean’s resolution specialist, Jennie Martinez, who informed Deemer that their conversation would be recorded. After going over the details of her complaint, Deemer asked if the Key West port stop could be reinstated. According to Deemer, Martinez became agitated, accused Deemer of not listening, and reiterated the company’s right to change the itinerary.

Deemer had gotten nowhere, so she asked Tripso to help.

I contacted Royal Caribbean’s Corporate Communications spokeswoman, Lyan Sierra-Caro, who gave me a copy of the fax that was sent out to agents about the itinerary change. It was dated August 25, not October 3, as Deemer had earlier been told. Sierra-Caro attributed the discrepancy to a limitation of the fax-recording system, which logs the date a fax is sent but not its content. Apparently, the Deemers’ travel agent, Cruise Value Center, had received two faxes from Royal Caribbean, but sadly, the Deemers received no information at all.

Cruise consolidator nightmare

The Deemers are regular cruisers who have sailed more than 20 times. The voyage on Sovereign of the Seas was to be their seventh cruise with Royal Caribbean. Knowing the exact cruise they wanted, the Deemers felt comfortable booking for the first time with Cruise Value Center, a large cruise consolidator.

Cruise consolidators purchase blocks of cabins from the cruise lines and then resell them to consumers. Because they buy in bulk, travelers can find deals with consolidators that they can’t find anywhere else. The Deemers may have saved a little money, but they certainly got shortchanged on service. Sometimes at large agencies things fall through the cracks — in this case, two faxes from Royal Caribbean.

When contacted for this story, a Cruise Value Center official stated, “This is in the hands of Royal Caribbean and the client.” When asked about the missing faxes, the agent gave a terse “No comment.”

“The whole point of having a travel agent is to have an advocate in situations like this,” says Lucy Hirleman, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J. “Mrs. Deemer’s travel agent should have worked harder for her. If I were the agent, I’d be on the phone to Royal Caribbean and to my local Royal Caribbean sales representative until I got answers.”

Sea of blame

So, who’s at fault? Royal Caribbean for lying about the port change or Cruise Value Center for losing the faxes?

Royal Caribbean created and sold a cruise itinerary that many customers bought into. Eight months after selling the cruise, the cruise line realized the itinerary was poorly planned, as it required two time-consuming immigration checks. But (as Deemer found out the hard way) lurking in the small print that comes with your cruise ticket is a big surprise: The cruise lines reserve the right to change itineraries for many reasons, and they are not required to offer refunds or compensation.

In fact, Royal Caribbean’s cruise ticket contract states that the cruise operator can make changes or cancellations for five stated reasons — strikes, lockouts, riots, weather conditions, and mechanical difficulties — and, for that matter, “for any other reason whatsoever.” True, Royal Caribbean got caught up in numerous lies and self-serving excuses, but legally it can change its itinerary in any way it pleases.

Thomas Dickerson, a judge in Westchester County, N.Y. and the author of “Travel Law,” says, “Consumers should be aware that the cruise ship’s duties and liabilities are governed not by modern, consumer-oriented common and statutory law, but by 19th-century legal principles — the purpose being to insulate cruise lines from the legitimate claims of passengers.”

As for Cruise Value Center, its agents provided inexcusably poor customer service, which led to the Deemers losing half their vacation funds.

And what about the Deemers? Do they bear any blame? Maybe. Some cruise experts will argue that travelers should never depend on a cruise itinerary, as too many circumstances can intervene between them and their port-of-call.

“You cannot book a cruise and depend on any particular port on a certain day,” says Linda Coffman, editor of Cruise Diva, a cruise Web site, and author of “Fodor’s Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises.” “A number of things can go wrong, like weather or propulsion problems.” Better to adopt a laissez-faire attitude and choose a cruise whose overall experience appeals to you.

How to avoid a shipwreck

So, how can you avoid a shipwrecked vacation? Here’s some advice:

Buy insurance. Several cruise lines including Royal Caribbean offer vacation-protection plans. For an additional fee, travelers on Royal Caribbean can buy cancellation insurance for covered events like sudden illness or a death in the family; the coverage provides a 100-percent fare refund for such events. The coverage also provides for non-covered events, typically giving travelers a 75-percent fare credit toward a future cruise when a non-covered event happens. When it comes to itinerary changes, Carnival Cruise Line has the most generous policy, allowing passengers 24 hours to cancel without penalty.

Use a local travel agent. If possible, use a local travel agency when you book your cruise. You may pay a few dollars more, but there’s nothing like personal service when you need it.

Join a cruise message board. Cruise Critic has a terrific message board section called “Roll Calls” where you can find other passengers booked on your cruise. Members post information and tips about your cruise and ports-of-call that you won’t hear from the cruise lines. In fact, many passengers on the Deemers’ scheduled cruise posted comments about the itinerary change in August. If only the Deemers had been watching.

In the end, Bobbie Deemer took a $907 loss on her cruise. She plans to remain a landlubber for a while. “I just don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she says. “I can guarantee you I’ll never book another cruise with Cruise Value Center nor sail on Royal Caribbean ever again!”

Filled Under Ombudsman