Holiday cruise shipwrecked
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
“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
Fax, lies and
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
So, who’s at fault?
Royal Caribbean for lying about the port change or Cruise Value Center for
losing the faxes?
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
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
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
So, how can you
avoid a shipwrecked vacation? Here’s some advice:
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
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!”
appears on MSNBC Travel &
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