Dear Tripped Up,
I’m booked on a Cunard Line trans-Atlantic cruise in May 2021. The reservation was made using credit from an April sailing that was canceled due to Covid-19. Because I canceled my reservation a week before Cunard itself canceled the sailing, I was not given the opportunity to get a refund.
But I am almost 80 and I feel it is unfair for me to be locked into traveling next spring when I am so fearful of the coronavirus. I feel as though I’ve been penalized for canceling a voyage that was canceled anyway. Based on what you know about the cruise industry and its response to the pandemic, what should I do? Susan
I’ve gotten emails from several Times readers who share your trepidation about cruising. Given the rates of coronavirus infections on ships and all of the challenges with health and safety measures, some travelers feel not-so-great about the idea of boarding a ship anytime soon.
New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paint an especially bleak picture: From March 1 to July 10, 80 percent of ships in the agency’s jurisdiction were affected by the coronavirus. Since March 14, the C.D.C. has devoted more than 38,000 hours to managing outbreaks on cruise ships.
Although certain small ships have resumed operations this summer, most ocean vessels that sail to or from United States ports are suspended through Sept. 30, according to the C.D.C.’s extended No Sail Order. Still, many cruise lines are delaying their relaunch date even further. Cunard is paused until November. Carnival Cruise Line has already canceled some sailings into 2021.
So, yes, because cruising is a mess right now, it’s not totally unreasonable to be anxious about what next spring will look like.
To win back consumer confidence, maintain cash flow and assure the safety of future passengers and crew members, the cruising industry needs to take massive action. Companies say they are hammering out health protocols and testing upgrades like ultraviolet technologies and H.V.A.C. systems. Meanwhile, docked ships and blank passenger manifests have created a revenue crunch, and certain lines are downsizing their fleets accordingly. Schedules continue to change; as a result, customer-service channels are churning in overdrive.
“We’ve seen lines cancel their sailings in small batches — usually a couple of months at a time — in an effort to process fewer cancellations at once, but they’re still dealing with far more booking adjustments than they’re used to en masse,” said Colleen McDaniel, the editor in chief of Cruise Critic, a major cruise-planning website.
Perhaps fitting for an industry that’s so in flux, reader complaints about cruise refunds and credits have felt especially bizarre. One woman was told by a cruise line customer-service representative that in order to get a refund, she would need to stop posting complaints about the company on Twitter. (She didn’t; that’s how I found her.) Another was asked to prepay for a cruise a full 33 months in advance — highly unusual for a system that runs on deposits and final payments. (One cruise-editor friend, upon hearing these anecdotes, deemed them a good “alarm for the industry” about how customer-service reps are trained.)
One of the biggest — and consumer-friendliest — changes in cruising can be seen in cancellation policies. While specifics vary by cruise line, in general, the possibility of a refund shrinks (or disappears) the closer one gets to the departure date. Pre-pandemic, most lines allowed changes and cancellations up until 90 days in advance; now, many allow them as close as a day or two before departure.
The hitch, though, is exactly the question your scenario raised: If you do cancel a cruise reservation before the cruise line itself cancels the sailing, can you get your money back? Or are you forced, as you were, to accept a credit for a future cruise?
Another Times reader, Minhgiao, encountered this issue when her septuagenarian parents canceled their Viking Cruises reservation right before the cruise line canceled the sailing in early March. That close to the departure date, they were not offered a refund (though eventually customer service agreed to give them a voucher).
“This was not only unsympathetic to the situation of a world pandemic, but also unethical,” wrote Minhgiao. “Our parents are old and a lot could happen in a year so the chance of them actually using the travel vouchers was unknown.”
I reached out to Viking and was able to help get Minhgiao’s parents their cash back ($11,594 total). But in the last couple of months, as the pandemic swelled, Viking eased its cancellation policy anyway. Now, guests who book by the end of July can cancel up to 24 hours before departure for either a cash refund or a voucher (less the standard $100 cancellation fee). With August nigh, it’s likely the window for risk-free booking will further expand.
Far more typical, said Ms. McDaniel, is what you encountered with Cunard.
“For most cruises that are canceled by the line, cruisers are able to receive refunds,” she said. “But for travelers canceling on their own, most lines are only offering compensation in terms of future cruise credit.”
Flexible booking terms and the likelihood of more canceled sailings in the future are two of the reasons most cruise experts I know now recommend waiting as long as possible to bow out of a reservation. There is no magic number, so what that means depends on the line you’re sailing with, when you book, the length of the itinerary, final-payment deadlines and other factors. Individual booking and cancellation policies will continue to change as we head into fall.
That said, May feels like an especially long time to have to wait and see — even more so when you aren’t looking forward to the trip. The last thing anyone needs more of right now is dread. Luckily, you’re off the hook: That ship may end up sailing after all, but, when reached by email, Cunard agreed to convert your cruise credit into a refund.
Sarah Firshein is a Brooklyn-based writer. If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].
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