Every now and then, it’s useful to take a peek behind the scenes in the travel industry to see how the machinery works. But don’t stare — it could drive you mad. That’s what almost happened to me when I tried to mediate the case between Jerri Olsen and Carnival Cruise Lines.
Before you continue, a warning: The following case contains information that some travel agents might find offensive. The rest of us are likely to just be confused.
Here’s Olsen’s gripe.
My husband, son and I took a cruise on Carnival that got shortened by a day. For the inconvenience Carnival gave us a 20 percent discount on a future cruise.
Carnival said the discount would be on any price we were able to get. We signed up for a cruise that met the requirements. We called an agent who did not know about our discount when she quoted us a price for the cruise. When we told her about the discount she said she would not deal with it. I had also been getting quotes from a Carnival agent.
The difference between what Carnival quoted and what we paid for the three of us was $86 The agent booked tickets for us and 6 other people who we convinced should take the cruise with us. Shortly after booking with this agent I called Carnival and was told we would receive a refund of $243, which was 20 percent of the ticket price, and it would be back on my credit card in 7 to 10 days.
We received a credit of $64.
I started calling both Carnival and the agent trying to get the rest of the promised refund. I tried to get this resolved before the cruise. The agent keep telling me she would check into and call me back. That never happened and unfortunately the agency has since gone out of business.
Can you offer any suggestions on how to get Carnival to make good on the offer they promised us?
On the surface, this looks like a case in which Carnival didn’t honor its deal. But it turns out this was the tip of … oh, let’s just scrap the tired nautical metaphors. There’s a lot more to this story.
Here’s Carnival’s response.
According to our records, Ms. Olsen had been offered a 20 percent discount which could be applied to any fare extended by Carnival. In the meantime, it appears that the travel agency involved with the booking offered Ms. Olsen a discount of their own based on rebating part of their commission. This is not something that Carnival was aware of at the time nor is it something we condone.
We also do not account for commission rebating by travel agencies in our billing and refunding process. The total amount due at the time of booking was $1528. This amount includes the cruise fare and government fees and taxes for both guests. A 20 percent discount in the amount of $127 was applied to Ms. Olsen’s fare, bringing the new total to $1,400. The commission due to the agency was $138, leaving a net due to Carnival in the amount of $1,262.
According to our records, the guests paid $1,342 (apparently based on the rebating arrangement with the travel agency). The difference of $80 was sent to the agency as part of their commission. Given the guests’ arrangement with their travel agency, we were unable to refund them any monies as they had underpaid the reservation. Any monies due to the guest would have been forthcoming from the agency and not from Carnival. Carnival fully honored its commitment to apply a 20 percent discount to the cruise fare.
Whoa. So the travel agent, who is now out of business, cooked the books and put Olsen in an awkward position. How interesting.
Some travel companies consider rebating an unethical practice, as my colleague John Frenaye pointed out recently.
Earlier in this post, I suggested the information you’re about to read might drive you mad. And I certainly am mad. I think Olsen should have been aware of this issue so she could have made a purchasing decision based on all the facts.
If her agency had quoted her a total price that included a complete breakdown, including their commission, taxes, fees and port charges, maybe she could have.
Stuart Harstrom applied for a Carnival Sea Miles MasterCard in 2004 and used it for most of his purchases, hoping to redeem his points for a “free” vacation. Then the cruise line pulled the plug on his plans, he says.
His story is a cautionary tale about vague promises made by loyalty programs, imprecise wording on Web sites, and the fleeting nature of points.
Here’s what happened to him:
We used our card for every purchase we could and earned over 135,000 miles, which we thought was more than enough for a “free” cruise. The Sea Miles site said the Alaska cruise we wanted would cost 87,000 per stateroom.
But when we called to redeem our points, we were told it was 87,000 was per person, not per stateroom. We were so shocked because we when first got the card, the points were per stateroom, not per person!
We used all of our points, plus we had to pay an additional $800. We contacted Sea Miles after this and told them that the Web site did not indicate that the points were per person, so we would like to have the difference in points restored to our account and the difference in money, less any taxes or fees not covered by the points. There was no asterisk, number, or alphabet to refer us anywhere on the site that indicated the points were per person.
Since we called this matter to Sea Miles attention, they have changed their site to indicate that the points are per person, not per stateroom. We contacted our attorney and she wrote a letter to SeaMiles in December of 2008. She gave Sea Miles 60 days to respond. She, or we, have had no response from Sea Miles.
No kidding. Here’s a screen shot Harstrom took from the Sea Miles site.
I asked Carnival about the “per miles”/”per cabin” confusion.
Please be advised that the terms and conditions of the Sea Miles program clearly state that points are per guest, based on double occupancy.
As a gesture of goodwill, however, Mr. Harstrom will be provided with 10,000 Sea Miles to apply towards a future cruise, airline or resort stay.
In other words, Harstrom should have read the terms and conditions of his Sea Miles program. Curiously, the terms I read make no mention of the per-guest rule.
An extra 10,000 miles is a nice gesture, but Harstrom is not entirely happy.
Is this a good offer? Should we still pursue Carnival for any more? I am just shocked they responded at all. The 10k points aren’t really enough to do anything with since the points are per person now. We would have to charge over $200,000 to really get a “free” cruise. We could use 5,000 points to get $25 back on flights, so the 10,000 points would get us back $50.
Ah, now he’s getting to the heart of the issue: Are miles worth it?
Let’s start with Carnival’s offer. Is it enough? Probably not, in the sense that it won’t make up for the extra $800 he had to spend.
Should you bother collecting miles? In a case like Harstrom’s, the answer is: absolutely not.
Harstrom’s Sea Miles MasterCard benefited Carnival and MasterCard, mostly. Not him.
Update (7 p.m.): It appears the Sea Miles site lists some of the terms that Carnival mentioned. In addition, the screen shot furnished by Harstrom from the Sea Miles site showed cabins from another cruise line, not Carnival. Presumably, these have also been updated in the meantime.
Anne and Jack King couldn’t wait for their December cruise to Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize on the Carnival Miracle. But the tour of Panama City and the Panama Canal would have to wait for them. At the last minute, and with no warning to the Kings, Carnival abbreviated its itinerary to include ports of call in Costa Maya, Cozumel and Roatan.
What’s worse, Carnival offered them a $25 onboard credit for the change in schedule, which didn’t come close to compensating them for a cruise they never wanted. How could it do that?
When we arrived in Fort Lauderdale to check in, we were told by rude agents that the itinerary had been changed and that we could not get our money back. They said we should have received an email a couple of days before. We didn’t.
We drove from upstate New York to Fort Lauderdale for this cruise, and checked our email every day. The only email we got from Carnival was a lame Christmas card.
The Kings asked a Carnival representative why its itinerary changed, and were told the ship’s propulsion system was “failing” and they couldn’t get to Panama and back in the time allotted.
We are sick that we spent more than $2,000 on a cruise we didn’t want to take and never would have chosen at any price.
We heard other passengers say they didn’t believe there was anything wrong with the propulsion, that Carnival had shortened the route because the ship wasn’t full and they wanted to save money.
In fact, on the last night of the cruise the captain announced that we were arriving in Fort Lauderdale at midnight instead of 8 a.m. because there was a sick passenger who needed emergency care. Then he floored it, and gave us a jolting ride back at top speed. What happened to the broken propulsion?
To add insult to injury, Carnival is not even returning our $160 fuel surcharge! They changed to an itinerary with half the mileage and still charged us for the trip to Panama, PLUS the surcharge.
The couple hadn’t contacted Carnival yet, so I suggested they do so.
Here’s the cruise line’s response:
Dear Mrs. King:
When any guest of ours takes the time to share their cruise experiences they obviously care enough to bring these matters to our attention.
We realize many vacations are chosen because of a specific itinerary and regret any disappointment caused as a result of the changes made to itinerary. Please understand that the decision to change an itinerary is difficult and generally undertaken as a last resort to ensure the safety and comfort of our guests. While we certainly sympathize and extend our sincere apologies, our passenger ticket contract and Welcome Aboard brochure state that Carnival reserves the right to alter itineraries as needed, as was the case with this sailing.
We hope to regain your confidence in us so that we may have the opportunity to welcome you aboard again soon.
Obviously a canned response, but it’s technically correct. Carnival’s cruise contract says it can make any change it wants to an itinerary.
If a change in the itinerary is needed due to factors or conditions beyond Carnival’s control, no refund or credit will be made, however, Carnival will make an effort to provide accommodations and services of a comparable quality and standard as set forth in the brochure. Any such change shall not modify the cancellation provisions in the brochure. No credit will be allowed nor refund given for any services provided in the brochure should any such services not be utilized by Participants.
I think Carnival’s response to King’s letter left something to be desired. There’s a precedent for a better answer than just “it’s in our contract.” But as I mentioned in an article several years ago, it’s up to the cruise line.
Carnival should have communicated its schedule change more clearly to passengers like King. It should have offered a refund if they wanted one, and at the very least, it could have offered a partial refund for the fuel surcharge.
It shouldn’t take a miracle for Carnival to do the right thing.
Sometimes, only an apology and a full refund can make up for a disastrous vacation. Iesha Walker believes her experience on Carnival’s Destiny is one of those times.
But first, let’s watch the video.
Among the issues Walker documented in her cabin were wires hanging from the lamps above the beds, a soiled toilet seat and toilet bowl, a grimy shower stall, broken tiles and a broken wall panel above the bed.
But the the bugs are what make her exclaim, “That’s it! I’m outtta here!” in the first few seconds of the tape.
I’ve contacted Carnival for a comment. It hasn’t responded.
Walker handled this grievance by the book, as far as I can tell. She immediately informed the cruise line of her disappointment. But all she could do was leave phone messages with the purser’s office. Finally, she showed up to the office in person with a videotape of the bugs. But a manager refused to watch it, deferring to the cabin steward.
I informed him again that the cabin steward was well aware of all of the issues. I asked if there was any way that we could be moved into a different cabin, and he stated that the ship was at capacity.
I asked him what the procedures were for emergency circumstances when the ship was at capacity. He informed us that there was nothing he could do for us. He said we had to wait in the lobby while he sent someone to further inspect the cabin to see if it were livable.
The inspection revealed that there was, indeed, an “infestation” and Walker was given two options. Either disembark the ship at the first port of call and return home at her own expense, or remain in the bug-infested cabin after it was sprayed.
We had no place to sleep and it was extremely late at night. We sat in the lobby until 3 a.m., waiting for a solution.
Carnival eventually agreed to put Walker, her daughter and a traveling companion into a smaller cabin. But it wasn’t an ideal solution, since she was claustrophobic — not to mention the fact that it contradicted the cruise line’s insistence that it was fully booked.
The next night, they were offered a different cabin in the same class they were booked, but it also had problems, including water dripping along the walls and a strong smell of marijuana smoke.
Carnival offered them a partial refund of $420. Not enough, says Walker. She voided the check and returned it to the company.
My vacation was ruined and impacted on the vacations of my entire group.
I did not sleep the entire cruise due to panic attacks from the claustrophobia and the fact that I was constantly looking out for bugs in the cabin ensuring my daughter’s safety.
The Carnival Destiny should be harbored until it can be fixed or destroyed. There were more buckets laid out to catch flooding waters from the ceiling than I have ever seen before. The ship is a hazard to its guests and the crew.
It is obviously infested, poorly managed and poorly maintained.
Walker continued to press for more compensation. She sent Carnival a letter outlining her grievance, but was met with a form response.
I think Walker makes a strong case for a full refund.
The first of what could be several fuel charge-related lawsuits against the cruise lines was filed earlier this week in Miami. Coral Gables, Fla., attorney Harley Tropin submitted the complaint, which seeks class action status, on behalf of New York resident Jason Ablelove. It charges several large cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Carnival Corp. and Norwegian Cruise Line, with colluding to fix unreasonably high fuel surcharges.
I contacted Tropin yesterday to request a copy of the complaint and to speak with his client. Ablelove was out of the country and couldn’t be reached, but Tropin was kind enough to send me the lawsuit. It’s devastating, and the cruise lines would be smart to settle this one quickly and make nice with Florida’s Attorney General, which is investigating whether Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corp. properly disclosed fuel surcharges.
According to the suit, anyone who purchased tickets after Jan. 1 from the cruise companies paid an unreasonably high fuel surcharge illegally set by the companies. Here are a few highlights:
The Fuel Surcharges were unprecedented in the North American market. In large part, this is because of a 1997 settlement between certain Defendants, including Carnival and Royal Caribbean, and the Florida Attorney General.
Pursuant to that settlement, these Defendants paid a fine and agreed to revise their advertising policies to settle allegation that they misled consumers about cruise costs. Under the settlement agreement, the cruise lines could no longer charge customers any fees in addition to the advertised initial ticket price, except those fees actually passed on by the company to a government agency.
Defendants, despite their prior settlement with the Florida Attorney General, concertedly and deceptively implemented a fuel surcharge herein described.
The suit also notes the suspicious timing of the fee implementation and suggest the cruise lines were working together:
On November 5, 2007, Carnival Corporation announced a fuel surcharge of $5 per person per day … shortly before [then] the smaller luxury operator Regent Seven Seas Cruises announced that it would implement a fuel surcharge of $7.50 per person, per day, for its 2008 sailings. On November 12, Oceana Cruises announced it too would implement a $7 per person, per day surcharge … on November 14, Silversea Cruises announced a $10, per person, per day surcharge … etc.
That’s a violation of anti-trust laws, the lawsuit says.
Defendants engaged in a continuing agreement, understanding, and conspiracy in restraint of trade to artificially raise, fix, maintain and/or stabilize the price of Fuel Surcharges in the United States and throughout North America in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 14 U.S.C. 1.
They’re also a violation of Florida state law:
Defendants’ misled, and continue to mislead consumers into believing the Fuel Surcharges are proportionately related to their fuel costs. Rather, these Fuel Surcharges are the result of unlawful concerted action among the Defendants.
Finally, it suggests that cruise lines were not acting alone. It names several “unnamed co-conspirators.” Whether or not those are travel agents, who helped collect these fees, is open to debate:
On information and belief, certain cruise line operators, trade groups and/or other entities, unnamed herein and referred to as John Does I-X, willingly conspired with Defendants in their unlawful conduct at all relevant times. The allegations contained herein against named Defendants are hereby averred against these unnamed co-conspirators.
I’ve noted the troublesome nature of cruise line fuel surcharges in the past. Personally, I think it’s only a matter of time before the cruise lines cave in and send everyone a rebate check.
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Carnival Corporation is the parent company of several cruise lines, including Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line, Windstar Cruises, AIDA Cruises, Costa Cruises, Cunard Line, P&O Cruises, Ocean Village, Swan Hellenic and P&O Cruises Australia. Some have excellent reputations for customer service. Others, not-so-excellent. The relationships between these lines and their corporate parent — at least when it comes to customer service issues — isn’t always entirely clear. Certainly, it is a good idea to start any query at the cruise line level. All appeals should go to Carnival.
If you have a customer complaint, please read this before contacting the company.
Customer service resources
(The following references apply only to Carnival. If you are cruising on one of the other Carnival Corp. brands, please see your cruise line’s Web site for customer service contacts.)
Carnival Cruise Lines
Chief executive (*)
Chief executive officer
What others have to say about Carnival
This information has been collected from publicly-available resources and is believed to be accurate at the time of the last update. If any of this information is inaccurate, please e-mail me.
* Executives should only be contacted when your letter or email has not been acknowledged within six to eight weeks.