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Months later, angry consumers are still waiting for refunds from canceled cruises

By RON HURTIBISE | Sun Sentinel | Published: August 14, 2020

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down cruising, customers are still complaining that they still haven’t received refunds for prepaid fares and fees.

The first time Ken Knox called MSC Cruises’ Fort Lauderdale headquarters to ask when his family would get refunds for the cruise that was canceled on April 29, he was told within 30 days.

The next time the Tucker, Ga., resident called, he was told the family would have its refunds within 60 days. And the time after that, he was told within 90 days. It’s now been more than 100 days and the family is angry. They want their $13,000 back.

After all, Knox said, the cruise line wasted no time taking his seven family members’ money for the seven-day Caribbean voyage scheduled to depart PortMiami on June 13. Why is it taking so much time to give it back?

It’s a question that continues to clog cruise lines’ social media pages, review sections of websites operated by Yelp and Better Business Bureau, and email accounts of consumer-focused travel websites such as The Points Guy.

“We have been getting a stunning amount of complaints from readers about this,” said Gene Sloan, senior cruise and travel reporter for The Points Guy, a travel advice site. “They come in over our tips line and directly to me by email. At least two of every three emails I get from readers these days are about missing refunds.”

The Better Business Bureau gives MSC Cruises an “F” rating for the amount of unresolved and unaddressed consumer complaints, as well as the amount of time it has taken to respond to complaints.

The cruise would have been Knox’ first, he said. “My birthday was in May. It was to be a postponed birthday celebration. We were all excited,” he said. “My children have all been on cruises but I never had. They said it will be special. So I said, ‘Let’s do it.‘”

Knox says he can’t imagine that MSC Cruises is having a cash-flow problem that would prevent it from processing refunds faster. The cruise line is a subsidiary of one of the world’s largest container shipping conglomerates, Mediterranean Shipping Company, which operates a 560-vessel fleet out of 500 ports in 155 countries.

MSC Cruises did not respond to a request for comment about the BBB’s rating and Knox’s complaint.

Sloan says he believes cruise line representatives who say they’ve have been overwhelmed by the volume of refund requests. Royal Caribbean and its affiliated lines have canceled more than 1,500 sailings, “some on ships that carry 6,000 people,” he said.

“That’s a lot of refunds to process. But cruise lines are doing a terrible job of communicating the situation to customers, and it’s causing real angst, It’s damaging their reputation and could cause long-term damage to their brands. I have had many readers tell me they are done with this-or-that cruise line because of the way they have handled the refunds.”

Cruise lines willing to address criticism about the delays say they’ve been struggling to meet an unprecedented challenge.

Chris Chaimes, Carnival Cruise Lines’ chief communications officer, addressed the issues in an online discussion on brand ambassador John Heald’s Facebook page.

“As we’ve said before, the volume of cancellations is something we have never seen, and frankly, could never have imagined,” Chaimes said. “We annually sail more than 5 million guests. We have canceled cruises for more than six months — from March through October — including the very busy spring break and summer vacation periods. So our guests can easily do the math with regard to the millions of cancellations we have had to process (and continue to process).”

He blamed “small pockets of refunds” yet to be issued from spring cancellations on “some back end technical glitches where the refunds were literally stuck in a queue that we could not see.”

As a result, “we have had to go in and manually pull, sort and process them,” he said, adding “these were mostly transactions where guests had used multiple forms of payment or some group bookings.”

Royal Caribbean spokesman Jonathon Fishman said “a majority” of that company’s refund requests are taking less than 30 days. “Our top priority is making sure our guests are taken care of and that they are receiving refunds and future cruise credits in a timely manner,” he said.

The Better Business Bureau gives Royal Caribbean and Carnival its highest rating, A+, despite recording hundreds more complaints than the smaller MSC Cruises. For those companies, the bureau’s site notes no examples of unaddressed complaints or delays in responding.

In an Aug. 10 conference call with investors to discuss Royal Caribbean’s second-quarter $1.3 billion net loss, Chief Financial Officer Jason Liberty said about half of all customers who booked cruises that were later canceled requested refunds rather than credits toward future cruises.

When the pandemic forced the global cruise industry shutdown in March, cruise lines behaved as if they expected to resume operations within weeks and continued to book voyages scheduled after expected expiration of no-sail orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the CDC has extended its order three times — from April 13 to July 15 to Sept. 30. In early August, the cruise industry voluntarily extended its suspension of U.S.-based sailings to Oct. 31.

With each extension comes new cancellations and new refund requests.

Whether the suspension is extended a fifth time past Oct. 31 depends, presumably, on how the infection rate evolves over the next several weeks. Currently, numerous major cruise lines are selling cruises scheduled to depart South Florida ports in November and beyond.

The greatest number of complaints coming into The Points Guy’s site, Sloan said, are about Crystal Cruises. “It’s a wonderful line, with a beautiful luxury product, but it has really dropped the ball on refunds in a way that is damaging its brand.”

Like MSC Cruises, the Better Business Bureau also gave Crystal Cruises an F, citing its failure to respond to two complaints.

Susan Robison, Crystal’s director of global public relations, said in email that the company has canceled hundreds of cruises and refunded tens of millions of dollars.

“While we strive for an up-to 90-day turnaround, the reality is this has been challenging to achieve and that in quite a few cases, we have not been able to meet this original good faith estimate,” she said. “We understand our guests’ frustration and we sincerely apologize to those who are affected by this situation.”

In addition to posting complaints on Yelp, the Better Business Bureau’s site, or cruise lines’ social media pages, frustrated consumers can also file complaints with the Federal Maritime Commission’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Dispute Resolution Services at https://www.fmc.gov/resources-services/cruise-passenger-assistance. While the office cannot force cruise lines to provide faster refunds or any other kind of compensation, it can help consumers make contact with someone at the cruise line, which could expedite resolutions.

The Federal Maritime Commission has proposed regulations that would require cruise lines to provide refunds within 180 days of any cancellations resulting from a government order or declaration, such as the CDC’s no-sail order. Such a six-month window would be of little help to Knox or the thousands of other consumers angry that they don’t have their money back.

Sloan says frustrated consumers seeking faster refunds have little recourse but to be patient. “Just keep bugging them,” he said. “And call, don’t just email.”

©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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