Stuart Gantman and his wife had hoped to take their grandchildren on a Windstar Cruise to Central America. They booked two connecting cabins through American Express for an eight-day cruise to Panama and Costa Rica for themselves and their grandchildren, and upgraded so that they could receive two “free” days on the ship, at the beginning and end of their cruise.
But they ran into unexpected barriers – both physical and financial.
The cruise was canceled on the third day after the ship ran into an undersea barrier of an as-yet-undetermined nature, thought to be either a sand bar or a coral reef.
Instead of continuing their vacation, the Gantmans endured a six-hour bus ride to San Jose, Costa Rica, and three nights at an InterContinental hotel. Then they flew home. Windstar promised to refund their cruise fees in full.
I suspect you already know where this is going.
Gantman was under the impression that he would receive all of what he had paid Amex for the cruise. But Amex told Gantman that $1,420 of their payment, which covered the hotel costs, were not “free” or even part of his cruise fare. In fact, the Gantmans owed Windstar for the “free” nights for which they had upgraded their cruise package, because those nights were “not part of the cruise package.” According to Amex, the charge was “associated for internal accounting purposes.”
Gantman calls this shoddy accounting, reminiscent of Enron. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Windstar Cruises (owned by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a subsidiary of Anschutz Company), is operated by online agency Vacations To Go (VTG) out of Houston, Enron’s hometown — and my own. (Disclosure: I’m an accountant and I agree that the charge is shoddy accounting.)
Since Gantman couldn’t get anyone at Amex to issue him a refund for the hotel costs, he asked our advocates for assistance.
VTG’s website, which advertises Windstar Cruises, states the following about the terms of any cruise:
Much of the information on this site is supplied by third party providers, and VTG accepts no responsibility for errors, omissions, inaccuracies or misleading statements which may appear anywhere on this site, whether or not they were supplied by third party providers.
The cruise lines, airlines, hotels, tour operators, car rental companies, and travel gear and accessory manufacturers on this site are third party providers, and VTG has no control whatsoever over their actions or inactions. VTG is not responsible for third party failure to perform, breach of contract, or any action, intentional or negligent, which results in any loss, injury, delay or damage to you or your property or to anyone traveling with you, or to the property of that party. VTG cannot and does not guarantee third party provider reservations, timeliness, employee conduct, or the performance of scheduled flights, cruises or tours, or the availability of hotel rooms or rental cars.
It’s a classic adhesion contract: The passenger has to make all the guarantees and assume all the responsibilities to a company that doesn’t have to do a thing in return.
But Gantman makes a really good point: A promise of a “full” refund should mean that the company issuing that refund should not be subtracting any other charges from it. And a company that promises “free” travel days, whether part of a base charge or an upgrade, for any reason should not be charging its customers for those days.
Regardless of the escape clauses in its contract, Windstar should have given Gantman the refund and free days it promised, instead of claiming an “accounting” reason for not doing so. The only reason they didn’t was to keep the fares on their own books instead of having to reduce their bottom lines. And that’s wrong.
Houston, do we have a problem?
Update: Windstar Cruises has issued a full refund to Gantman. He and his wife are planning to sail again on another Windstar cruise. According to Gantman, “As it turned out, their customer service department did a remarkable job.”
Editor’s Note: I understand that the art work accompanying this story may be offensive to some. I’ve had words with the artist who, ahem, happens to be related to me. Thanks for your emails.