Stacy Benton expected her recent Carnival cruise to be filled with memories that would last a lifetime. And it was — just not the good kind.
When Benton’s father-in-law asked her to plan a New Year’s cruise last year for 22 extended family members, she agreed. Both of Benton’s in-laws have mobility challenges; her father-in-law uses a scooter and her mother-in-law, a wheelchair.
Benton factored those limitations into her planning. Carnival didn’t.
Benton told us that she spoke to Carnival representatives “many times” before the cruise to be certain that her in-laws had the correct accommodations. Despite her efforts, when the Benton clan arrived on-board the ship, it was clear that her in-laws’ cabin was not wheelchair accessible.
Benton describes what happened next:
The accessible suite that I booked for my in-laws was not bathroom accessible. There was a thin hallway that led to it that would not accommodate a wheelchair and then a step up to the facilities.
When we brought this to the attention of Carnival, they said I should have booked a “modified” room. After much back and forth, the only option that was available was a bedside potty. So she had no access to a bathroom for five days.
No access to a bathroom for five days? You’re kidding.
Benton explains that because the cruise was fully booked, Carnival could not move her in-laws to an appropriate cabin.
When she returned, Benton began writing letters to various Carnival executives asking for a complete refund for her in-laws.
When we initially reviewed her paperwork, this seemed like a reasonable request.
Of course, there is more to the story.
Part of the problem with researching this case and attempting to get a satisfactory resolution for the elder Bentons is that they did not contact us. We only have Stacy Benton’s version of the story and, as far as we can tell, her in-laws (who paid for the entire group) never made a formal complaint.
And Benton was a little murky with some of the details of her in-laws’ experience. For instance, she didn’t know how they bathed for the five days and offered, “Maybe their nurse gave them sponge baths.”
And this is the problem with advocating third-party complaints. It is always more compelling and accurate to have a first-person accounting of an experience.
Benton showed us her post-cruise correspondence with Carnival. Regrettably, her approach left something to be desired, and she invoked the always inadvisable position of “We will never again” go on a Carnival Cruise.
This tactic almost never works when attempting to resolve an issue with any company. If you tell a company you will never use them again, they have no incentive to help you.
Benton’s story did sound unbelievable, and so we went to Carnival to get some answers.
And so begins the “he said, she said” portion of our story.
Carnival furnished us with information that contradicted Benton’s accounting of her booking. Although Carnival does offer two types of specialized rooms for mobility-challenged passengers; Modified and Accessible, Benton booked all the rooms in her party as “Standard State Rooms.” But she did request extra assistance for her in-laws to board the ship, noting their mobility issues. Carnival explains that many of their guests use wheelchairs/scooters on board, but do not require or want accessible/modified rooms.
Carnival notes on their website that they are “dedicated to providing the finest cruising experience for our guests with disabilities.” To this end, they have designated a special division to serve their special-needs passengers. This is called the Guest Access Services Team.
It seems that when Benton requested assistance for her in-laws to board the ship; the involvement of the Guest Access Services Team was activated. Several months before the cruise, the team began attempting to garner more information about the extent of the elder Benton’s needs. The following is an excerpt from Carnival’s response to Benton’s letter of complaint:
Stacy, we are truly sorry for any misunderstanding. To confirm, all booking confirmations, including your in-laws’ and yours, state “Carnival Cruise Lines must be advised of any guest medical or physical requirement at least 14 days prior to departure by contacting Carnival’s Guest Access Services desk at email@example.com
Additionally, our Guest Access Services Team emailed our medical package on August 5, 2015 to stacyBenton@XXXX. This package offered their department’s contact information and requested additional information from Mr. and Mrs. Benton in order to ensure their comfort while on board.
Carnival told us that it made multiple attempts to clarify the extent of the elder Bentons’ needs, but Stacy Benton did not respond. Benton says she did receive “two voice mails” from this team before the cruise, but the office was closed for the day when she returned their call. She doesn’t believe that she ever received the email containing the medical packet.
Unfortunately, once the Bentons boarded the ship, all the modified and accessible cabins were occupied. But, there was one other option for the Bentons at this point. The executive I spoke to said that if the cabin was completely unacceptable to the Bentons, “they were entitled to invoke Carnival’s Great Vacation Guarantee which allows the guests to end their voyage early and receive a 110 percent refund plus complimentary transportation home, along with a $100 shipboard credit for a future cruise, should they be dissatisfied with their cruise for any reason. Guests need simply to notify Carnival’s guest services desk within 24 hours of departure.”
Presumably, every member of the Benton clan could have invoked this guarantee if the elder Bentons’ cabin was intolerable. But we assume that they evaluated the situation and decided to continue with the cruise.
Our advocates are always disappointed when we hear about a negative travel experience that could have been avoided. This case does highlight a few things that both sides could have done better.
First, Benton was under the mistaken impression that because she had informed Carnival that her in-laws had mobility issues, that they were booked into a special room. Despite Benton’s assertion that “This mistake falls directly at the feet of Carnival,” the written contract shows that the Bentons received the exact room that she booked for them.
In this type of complicated, multi-cabin reservation it would most likely have been very beneficial for Benton to engage an experienced travel agent who specializes in cruises. Not only during the booking process, but should a problem arise, a travel agent can offer invaluable assistance.
Carnival’s Special Needs team could have done better in this case, too. By their own documentation, they had the Bentons’ reservation flagged for some time before the cruise. They unsuccessfully attempted to contact Benton many times, and the medical package was not returned. Carnival should have been more forceful in their pursuit of this important information. Perhaps, a certified letter would have been prudent here.
Of course, ultimately, it is up to the passenger to make sure that they have booked a room that suits their needs. It is imperative to read the contract carefully and, often, these types of unpleasant surprises can be avoided.
So in the end, we can’t help Benton recoup any of her in-laws’ money. We don’t know the extent of the elder Bentons’ discomfort in their cabin during their cruise, but we sincerely hope that, despite this debacle, that they were able to create fond memories with their extended family.