Seasoned travelers know that if they have a problem with an airline, they can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation. Have an issue with deceptive hotel pricing, resort fees or timeshares? The Federal Trade Commission is the place to explain your problem.
But if you have a problem with a cruise, you have a problem. "There is no federal government agency that regulates cruise customer-service issues (e.g. itinerary changes, passenger cancellations, cabin concerns, etc.)."
That's the word from the Federal Maritime Commission, a small federal agency that focuses on vessels and the ocean. But don't get too excited. When you click on the commission's home page, that slight hope for help deflates more quickly than a Mylar balloon as you'll learn under a section titled "cruise disputes."
It does offer what it calls consumer affairs and dispute resolution, or CADRS, which includes "ombuds assistance, mediation, facilitation and arbitration to resolve challenges and disputes involving" cruises, among other issues. The service, referred to as "alternative dispute resolution," is free.
The cruise in question must have more than 50 beds and must have originated from a U.S. port. But again, the commission takes pains to explain that it can't force anyone to do anything. "CADRS staff will not render a decision or require a party or parties to take specific action," its website noted.
Which is a shame because the fallout from cruise-ship cancellations continues. One couple was notified six months after requesting a refund for a voyage they could not take that they would receive a refund of their nearly $10,000, minus $3,000 for an administrative fee.
Other cruise passengers have been dismayed by the ponderous pace of refunds, the inability to contact a live human being or the complete silence in the tsunami that ensued when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued no-sail orders, recently extended until Oct. 31.
Some cruise lines were (and are) overwhelmed with refund requests.
Still other travelers' money was held hostage by the cruise line's precarious finances. That includes Crystal Cruises, part of the Genting Group. The Miami Herald reported Aug. 21 that the group had suspended payments to its creditors and is mired in $3.4 billion in debt.
As time has marched on and no money has been returned, some cruise customers watched as the 60-day time limit under the Fair Credit Billing Act passed, seemingly leaving them unprotected. (Credit card customers must dispute the charge within that time limit.)
Depressed now? Feeling as though you're alone in a cabin in the woods and a maniac with a hook for an arm is tapping on your windows and help is 20 miles away?
There are glimmers of hope, both near and longer term.
— Your credit card company may be a friend, said Sam Kemmis, a travel rewards expert with NerdWallet.com, a personal finance website. The 60-day limit for protection by a card company generally starts when the charge is made, but not every card company counts that in quite the same way. Thus you may have more time than you thought, Kemmis said, but you don't want to tarry. Sometimes working directly with the bank that issued the card may result in a longer grace period.
— Would you settle for a credit instead of a full refund? Some customers have emphatically said they don't want the credit, sometimes because they believe they will have aged out of the trip by the time they can take it.
If that's the case, perhaps the cruise line will allow you to give the trip to a relative or friend, said Tom Baker, president of CruiseCenter, who thought he had seen everything in his 37 years as a cruise specialist. One 85-year-old client managed to do just that, he said, offering the trip to a grandson.
— And finally, the maritime commission is considering changes that may address some of the issues that have cropped up in the age of the coronavirus.
Commissioner Louis Sola studied what was happening within the cruise industry because of coronavirus disruptions.
"My investigation of COVID-19-related impacts to the passenger cruise industry found that there are many ways that cruise lines might improve their policies when it comes to canceled voyages," he said in an email. "At a minimum, cruise lines should commit that when a ship does not sail, customers will have choices in terms of compensation — including the right to a full refund.
"The report I issued earlier this summer has a number of recommendations that strike the right balance between providing consumers more protections but not proposing new requirements that are so difficult or expensive to implement."
Among those in the report:
— Refunds should be provided within 60 days if boarding is delayed by a day or more. (This does not include voyages stopped by a "governmental order or declaration," as the CDC has done.)
— If a cruise is canceled because of a governmental order or declaration, refunds must be issued within 180 days.
— Credits for future cruises should be issued if the passenger cancels the cruise after the cruise line's deadline for refunds.
— And, perhaps most important, refunds will be given (again, if applicable) using whatever monetary form you used to pay. In other words, if you paid cash, you get cash. If you paid with a card, the money goes back to the card.
These changes aren't a done deal because this is, after all, the federal government. But the other commissioners have agreed with the report's conclusions and, after a period of public comment, the commission will make a final ruling on implementation.
This may offer a solution to one of the two problems you have if you're frustrated about getting a refund. Sorry, but it's not a big fat check. It's the chance to be heard at a time when many companies aren't listening.
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