'Feels very unfair': Families say cruise lines are using a 'technicality' to refuse refunds
Thousands of cruiser plans were shattered earlier this year when coronavirus closed the cruise industry.
The disease control and prevention centers issued - and later extended - a no-sail order, which will expire on July 24, although many lines have extended their sailing suspensions after that date. In fact, the Cruise Lines International Association, the leading commercial organization for the global ocean cruise industry, announced on Friday that its member cruise companies are voluntarily extending the suspension of US cruise operations until September 15.
While many cruisers have opted for refunds and are waiting to get their money back, due to cruise ship cancellation policies, some are unlikely to get any money back at any time.
Seattle cruisers tried to "be good citizens" by canceling their trip. Another canceled less than an hour before reimbursement was possible, and another was unable to board due to health reasons, but cruise ships do not budge in many reimbursement cases.
No cruises until September 15th: The cruise industry announces voluntary sailing suspension
The Seattle family tried to be good citizens by canceling the cruise
Akshay Ahooja from Seattle had planned to meet 14 family members who were leaving Florida on Celebrity Cruises with an immediate and extended family, and was due to embark on March 15. Then on March 6 in King County, Washington, including Seattle (one of the first hot spots in the United States) released a message with supportive guidelines that recommended that workers stay at home. Governor Jay Inslee had already declared a state of emergency on February 29.
When the call came to stay at home, Ahooja turned to Celebrity to cancel his cruise and asked about his options, he told USA TODAY.
"They are telling us that the cruise is still ongoing and the only way at the moment is to cancel and get a credit," he said. "If we don't, we run the risk of losing all our money if it goes to sea."
Ahooja and his family decided to cancel and accept the credit, although they are unlikely to use it.
FCC: What is a future cruise credit and how can you use it if you missed a corona virus cruise?
They spent over $ 20,000 on state rooms alone, he said. With the remaining payments for onboard services, flights, and hotels, the total was approximately $ 31,000.
Refund was not an option on March 6. This was the case less than a week later on March 13th. Ahooja noted that Celebrity Cruises issued a voluntary sailing ban and offered refunds. His cruise was due to sail two days later. "It feels very unfair."
Jonathon Fishman, spokesman for Celebrity's parent company Royal Caribbean, told USA TODAY that Ahooja received his future cruise credit on May 2 after everything was processed.
But Ahooja would have preferred a refund.
"I think if they canceled the cruise, every passenger should get their money back," Ahooja said. "They promised us a service for this cruise and couldn't deliver it, so they should give us the money back."
"We tried to be good citizens [by canceling]," Ahooja said. He said it was risky to leave a hot spot and possibly take the virus on a cruise, especially from an obvious hotspot like Seattle.
"It wasn't just that it wasn't safe for us," he added, noting that his father and mother-in-law who sailed with them are immunodeficient. "It would not be safe for the whole ship."
Ahooja believes that Celebrity's cancellation policy, which allows them to refuse a refund based on the timing of the request, no longer makes sense given the pandemic.
"You are only hiding behind this technique that you wanted to cancel yourself," he said.
No exceptions for seniors or people with disabilities
Debbie Deland of Oviedo, Florida, who was booked on a Norwegian Cruise Line cruise, canceled prior to the company's sailing ban and will not get back the more than $ 5,000 she spent on the trip.
She had planned to go on a Caribbean cruise on March 23 with her 25-year-old daughter and 80-year-old mother, a double cancer survivor.
Deland informed the USA TODAY that they canceled on March 10, just a few days before Norwegian issued a formal sailing ban on March 13.
"Debbie canceled on March 10, 2020 under the Peace of Mind Policy and received a 100% future cruise credit," Christine Da Silva, vice president of communications for Norwegian, told USA TODAY.
On March 11, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Vice President Michael Pence presented a plan proposing industry-wide improvements as ships were exposed to corona viruses. One proposal suggested refusing boarding for people over 70 unless they were able to provide a doctor's letter confirming their suitability for travel on a cruise ship.
Norwegian accepted this proposal shortly after its publication.
Deland turned to a doctor and received a written message that her mother was not eligible for a cruise, hoping to improve her chances of getting a refund. Deland's mother's doctor issued a note on May 21, as the USA TODAY letter showed. Despite the later publication of the letter, Deland Norwegian had told about her mother's cancer and her age when she had canceled.
"When I spoke to my team, I was told we didn't ask Debbie or her mother for a medical fitness certificate," said Da Silva. "The need for a form came after it was canceled."
Thirteen days after the cancellation, she made a refund request and was told that she was not eligible for a refund because she canceled before the cruise line.
"If guests cancel under the Peace of Mind Policy before we stop sailing, they will receive future cruise credit," said Da Silva.
The directive leaves no room for exceptions.
"We drove from Iowa to New Orleans with a young adult in a wheelchair with a weakened immune system," said Jamie Nelson USA TODAY on Facebook.
Nelson's son was born with Spina Bifida and uses a wheelchair. He also has a seizure disorder and is prone to upper respiratory problems due to his lack of mobility.
"This week, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and the CDC warned of cruises," his wife Jennifer told USA TODAY.
The couple said they didn't want to expose their son to "one of the biggest hot spots" just to find out that their cruise had been canceled. In addition, her employers would have asked for a 14-day quarantine without the option of teleworking when she returned.
Their notice period ended on March 13th at 12 noon as part of the Norwegian peace of mind policy. Since this was not a "safe option", they called to contact the cruise line.
When the deadline approached, they canceled. Norwegian suspended all cruises less than an hour later by April 11, she added.
In a copy of an email the Nelsons had received from Norwegian Cruise Line's guest relations team and which the United States had received TODAY, a representative told Jamie that the cruise line understood the "complexity" of the situation, but did not take special cases into account would.
"You chose to cancel, which we respect. The others had to cancel," the email said. "That's why the compensation is different."
"Jennifer and Jamie canceled on March 13, two days before sailing and before our trip was interrupted," said Da Silva. "They had no travel protection, so the standard cancellation policy applied."
Da Silva added that a number of refund requests are being received on the cruise line. "[We] strive to do everything to put our guests first while being fair and fair to everyone."
Is the "technology" legal?
The short answer? Yes.
"From a customer relationship perspective, offering a refund would be the appropriate answer," said Jeff Ment, a Connecticut-based travel lawyer. "However, legally there is no obligation to offer someone a refund if none was owed at the time of cancellation."
Despite the legality, Miami-based lawyer Michael Winkleman told USA TODAY that he believed cruise liners were badly handling the situation. "It is very common for cruise companies to be very draconian when it comes to processing refunds."
When you buy a cruise ticket, you're essentially agreeing to a legal contract, Winkleman explained. The fine print gives details of when you can cancel, how much money you can get back, etc. But coronavirus has broken new ground like many others.
Winkleman said he received about 100 calls and emails from cruisers about how cruise companies handle refunds and refund policies.
Winkleman believes it is possible to initiate cruise line arbitration involving an arbitrator to resolve a dispute between an unhappy customer and a cruise line, but the arbitrator is likely to be friendlier to the company, he said.
"I think the impact will mainly come from customer complaints, customer losses, and the like," said Winkleman.
When frustrated customers try to file a lawsuit against cruise ships with technical means, it will be a "tough fight," he added.
Uphill struggle: Centuries-old laws can protect the cruise industry from huge payouts in coronavirus suits
My cruise was canceled due to corona virus: Experts say you should navigate refunds and credits
This article originally appeared in the US TODAY: Cruise Cancellation: Refunds Elusive for Some Who Claim "Technical"
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