Eight months after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down cruising around the world, customers are still waiting for refunds of money they paid for canceled cruises.
After reaching a fever pitch over the summer, complaints about delayed refunds are still coming into the Florida Attorney General’s Office, according to data requested by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
The number of consumers angry enough to file complaints with the attorney general represents just a fraction of those frustrated by delayed refunds. Thousands of customers posted angry comments throughout the summer on Facebook, Yelp and Better Business Bureau pages of numerous cruise lines demanding the lines fulfill promises to return money spent for vacations canceled after the shutdown in mid-March, when COVID-19 infections rapidly increased aboard ships at sea.
Jim Walker, a Miami-based maritime law attorney, says frustrated customers have little to no recourse because terms and conditions of their cruise tickets don’t require cruise lines to provide any compensation for canceled cruises and they prohibit customers from suing over cancellations.
Those that are promising refunds are doing so to avoid looking bad to future customers, he said. Meanwhile, the cruise lines have continued to take payments for scheduled cruises that have later been canceled as the pandemic drags on, he said.
“It’s a giant Ponzi scheme,” he said. “The cruise lines are marketing and selling cruises knowing they will be canceled. Then they hold onto the money and offer future cruise credits.”
While data from the attorney general shows that complaints against many of the cruise lines have tapered off since August, they’ve increased significantly against others.
Complaints filed against MSC Cruises, a Switzerland-based company with offices in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, jumped from 21 between April 1 and Aug. 20 to 50 through Dec. 1 — a 138 percent spike. Complaints against Norwegian Cruise Line, headquartered in Miami, increased from 152 to 253 — a 66 percent increase.
Angela and Tony Violante of Longwood were given a choice of a refund or credit toward a future cruise when they canceled a seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise with MSC Cruises. They filled out an online form requesting a refund. That was back in March.
The couple is still waiting for the return of their $1,500.
“I’ve contacted them several times. I’ve sent emails. All we kept hearing (from company representatives) was, ‘They’re behind. Look for it in 60 days.’ We’ve got nothing.”
Pentti and Sherry Vartiainen of Punta Gorda told MSC Cruises they’d settle for a credit toward a future voyage. That still hasn’t come, Sherry Vartiainen said.
“I’ve called and emailed more than 50 times,” she said. “They claimed they didn’t have records of my phone calls. They said there was a computer glitch. Nothing ever happens.”
Asked in August about its customers’ complaints, an MSC spokeswoman urged patience, blaming delays on unspecified “extraordinary circumstances” related to the pandemic. This week, the spokeswoman blamed continued delays on “sustained extraordinary circumstances” and said the company appreciates its customers’ “continued patience.”
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Today, customers say they’re running out of patience.
What can you do?
Cruise customers still waiting for refunds have little choice but to continue contacting the companies and asking for their money, experts say.
Posting their stories on social media sites might provoke a quicker response, as might filing a complaint with the Florida Attorney General’s Office because most cruise lines’ United States operations are headquartered there.
A newly formed organization called Global Cruise Activist Network, which is pushing the industry to improve how it treats the environment, port communities and consumers, released a video this month urging consumers not to accept future cruise credits when their trips are canceled.
If eligible, they should request cash refunds instead, network co-founder Karla Hart says. That’s because many large cruise lines have revised their cancellation policies and are no longer offering refunds for rebooked cruises that get canceled. Plus, many cruise lines are letting future cruise credits expire if you don’t use them within 12 months, potentially leaving consumers with nothing, she said.
Cruise lines are urging refund-eligible consumers to rebook future cruises not just so they can keep the cash to fund current operations, Hart said. They also need to keep future bookings at high levels to keep prices high, she said.
Some customers who accepted seemingly generous future cruise credits worth 125 percent of what their canceled cruises cost are discovering price hikes when they try to rebook similar cruises.
Kyle and Jennifer Seiter of San Antonio thought they were getting a deal last spring when Norwegian Cruise Line offered them a future cruise credit worth $10,000 if they agreed not to pursue an $8,000 refund for their canceled Greek Islands cruise. But when their rebooked cruise was canceled, Norwegian said a refund was no longer an option. Making matters worse, the price of a comparable cruise is now $14,000, Kyle Seiter said.
“I’m being held hostage at this point,” he said. “I feel like my money is helping to keep the company afloat.”
Cancellation after cancellation
Many Norwegian customers responded harshly to an announcement posted on the company’s Facebook page on Wednesday extending its fleetwide suspension through Feb. 28.
“This is the third time canceled. I want a refund, not another Future Cruise Credit,” railed Carol Dean of Lindale, Texas. “You have had $7,000 for two years. I want it back!”
Jared Tuck, who lives in Seminole, asked, “Am I entitled to a refund now? I have had three cruises canceled due to COVID and at this point I’d rather have my money back versus future cruise credits.”
Norwegian officials did not respond to a request for comment about the complaints. Cruise Line International Association, a trade association representing all of the major cruise companies, also did not respond to questions about the delays’ effects on the industry’s reputation.
Online reviewers haven’t been kind to Norwegian and MSC.
MSC cruises generated 227 complaints to the Better Business Bureau over the past 12 months. The agency gave the company its F rating for failing to respond to 23 complaints and failing to resolve 38 complaints.
Of 1,035 complaints about Norwegian filed with the Better Business Bureau, two thirds — or 651 — were submitted over the past 12 months. All have been closed. The company gave Norwegian one of its lowest ratings — a D-minus for failing to resolve 37 complaints.
Cash-flow problems don’t appear to be the culprit for slow refunds at MSC and Norwegian. In May, Norwegian’s CEO announced the company had enough liquidity to last 18 months with no revenue. And MSC Cruises’ parent company is Mediterranean Shipping Co., a global conglomerate that analysts estimate generates more than $30 billion a year. The company does not make its financial results public.
The MSC Cruises spokeswoman said the company has resolved most of the complaints its customers filed with the Attorney General’s Office, while Kylie Mason, press secretary for Attorney General Ashley Moody, said the office has helped secure more than $800,000 in refunds for consumers of various cruise lines.
Some cruise lines are catching up
Meanwhile, the rate of complaints to the Attorney General’s Office about slow refunds from other companies has declined.
Carnival Cruise Line, subject of 54 complaints through Aug. 20, generated just 11 more through Dec. 1. “We have continued to process refunds as quickly as possible,” spokesman Vance Guiliksen said. “There are certain forms of payment that still require a manual process. Any guest who is experiencing a delay should contact our guest center for assistance.”
Royal Caribbean, target of 76 complaints through Aug. 20, generated 22 more through Dec. 1. “Many guests have already been assisted to their satisfaction and we will continue to focus on doing even better,” spokesman Jonathon Fishman said.
Only three complaints came in about Bahamas Paradise Cruise Lines since Aug. 20, bringing its total to 26.
Holland America, owned by Carnival Corp., is subject of just three complaints since April 1, and none since Aug. 20.
No complaints have been filed against Disney Cruise Line since April 1.
The BBB gives Royal Caribbean its highest rating, A-plus, while Carnival Corp. has an A rating and Bahamas Paradise has a B-plus.
Hoping the pandemic would end quickly, cruise lines continued to take reservations and payments for voyages scheduled throughout the latter part of 2020, only to cancel them as departure dates neared and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention repeatedly extended its nationwide No Sail Order.
The CDC lifted the suspension after Oct. 31, but announced a framework for resumption that requires the cruise lines to demonstrate that they can operate safely.
But cruise lines are still working out how to implement safety protocols and are now hoping to resume their from U.S. ports sometime in early 2021.
©2020 South Florida Sun Sentinel. Visit at sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.