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Cruising for trouble? Reader responses

The April 25 On the Spot column featured a letter from Stan Pebsworth of La Cañada Flintridge, who was unable to get to his cruise departure port in Valparaíso, Chile, because of the earthquake. Although he and his wife tried for days to get to the destination, the number of people trying to get home, the State Department warnings and the number of aftershocks discouraged them from continuing to try. They gave up and returned to Los Angeles. Princess Cruises would not refund their money. He did not buy travel insurance. We asked readers to share their thoughts on what the right outcome would be. Here is how more than two dozen of you responded:

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Princess Cruises really showed its colors as being interested only in the bottom line. A good cruise line would make exceptions for a situation such as a natural disaster. Airlines honor your ticket on another flight when they can’t take off as scheduled. I also agree that travelers should buy trip insurance, but if they don’t Princess should show some understanding and provide another trip for the Pebsworths.

-- David Burrell, Long Beach

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If this happened to me the first thing I would have done was to call Princess and find out what my options were. My first question would be: What happens if I cannot get to Valparaíso? Then I would have asked what would happen if I didn’t take the cruise. Then I would have called the airlines to find out how much it would cost to fly to the next port. Then I would have figured out what it would cost to fly to the next port compared with what it would cost me if I missed the cruise. Then I would have made my decision. I probably would have read the contract as well. My guess is when I called Princess, they would have told me that I would not receive a credit.

Valparaíso is not a port that people go out of on their first cruise. That is, this man is probably a veteran cruiser and should have known better.

-- Jim Brown, West Hills

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Airlines should do all they can to fly affected passengers to airports near the next port of call so that they can join the ship there.

I always arrive a day or more in advance so I don’t miss the ship. This story does point out the problems caused by natural disasters, so if your next expensive vacation involves air travel, it might be a good idea to fly in a day in advance and buy trip insurance.

-- Clarissa Raaen, Simi Valley

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The letter hit a nerve with me. I was in Chile during the recent quake. Rather than trying to get in and catch a cruise, I was trying to get out.

The quake hit early Saturday morning, and I was scheduled to return to Los Angeles on Monday from Santiago. The airport was closed till at least the start of the week. I tried to call American Airlines to see what my options were. The offices of American were closed in Chile, and I could not call the 800 numbers from out of the country, so I had my wife call from the U.S.

Because there was no clear indication when the airport would open, I said I would get myself to Buenos Aires (an eight-hour drive through the Andes to neighboring Mendoza, Argentina) and be on time for a Sunday flight. I thought that would be a sure way to home and give American one less problem to solve. But we were told I could not use my return flight from Santiago in Buenos Aires. Under normal circumstances, I would understand that, but considering the situation, it seemed narrow-minded on their part. I also would like to add that I am a long-term platinum flier and have flown almost 4 million miles just on American.

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I ended up having to use 100,000 of my miles to get on a flight that Sunday night. I have since booked other flights for myself and for dozens of others (I work in the music industry and have control as to what airlines our clients fly on), and more often than not, it’s no longer American. The carrier was shortsighted and not understanding. I sent a complaint message and got this further kick in the gut:

“I am sorry to hear you were not able to travel as planned due to the earthquake which occurred in Chile and were disappointed that you weren’t allowed to use your original ticket to return.

“Unfortunately, when we implement exceptions after incidents such as these, it simply isn’t possible to offer exceptions which will meet every passenger’s travel needs. I’m sorry this was the case with your travel and as such you chose to depart from another city in South America.

“Our records show that a refund for the unused portion of your ticket has been issued. Please allow up to two billing cycles for the adjustment to appear on your credit card statement.

“Mr. Cookman, we do sympathize with your situation — and wish we were in a position to do more. We look forward to another opportunity to welcome you aboard — under better circumstances. It is a privilege to serve you.”

-- Tomas Cookman, North Hollywood

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The Pebsworths need to accept responsibility for their decision. They decided to bet on no delays or disruptions and not buy trip insurance. They lost that bet, because a disruption did happen, yet they still want the cruise line to credit them?

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No. Accept responsibility for your decision and buy trip insurance the next time.

-- Michael Jensen, Lakewood

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This is the very reason my husband and I always buy trip insurance. It is cheaper than paying for an entire cruise or airfare.

We have traveled quite a bit, and fortunately, we’ve never had a problem. Whenever we take a cruise, we also like to arrive in the departure city a day or two early in case of flight delays and to acclimate to the time zone and see that city.

The cruise line was correct in declining a refund as it had no liability for this disaster.

-- Andy Gilmore, June Lake

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I agree that it’s entirely legal and within the rights of the cruise line not to provide a refund or credit to the couple. But now that the cruise line has hewed to its rights, the traveling couple is not only disappointed they missed their cruise but also probably angry at the unsympathetic response. I imagine they’ll think twice before ever booking with that line again.

The line could have given them a voucher for a discount on a future cruise (available all the time) or offered them free drinks on their next cruise (limited cost to the line) or some little something that would have said, “Sorry for your bad luck; join us again another time.”

-- Jim Leach, Rancho Santa Margarita

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This past December my wife and I took a cruise on Princess that started in Valparaíso. Having cruised, flown, trained and traveled all over the world, I’ve learned to always buy trip cancellation insurance. I feel bad that the Pebsworths’ travel plans crumbled, and I hope that Princess and American will accommodate them, but for the big trips, the traveler must buy trip cancellation insurance.

-- Greg Sirbu, Manhattan Beach

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I have purchased travel insurance for any major trip I’ve taken. It paid off when Athens was hit with a rare snowstorm. Had the airlines reimbursed uninsured passengers for new, last-minute tickets and additional expenses, I would have wondered why I bothered to purchase insurance. It is unfair to insured travelers to be treated the same as those who took a chance and didn’t buy insurance.

I don’t agree that these unfortunate people are owed anything. It is a hard situation, but life is uncertain.

-- Kay Clark, Whittier

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I have to defend Princess. I was on that same cruise, Santiago to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 2. We could not get to Santiago because of the earthquake and joined the cruise in Buenos Aires. Princess’ initial response (after a major lack of communication) was what Pebsworth found: You missed the start; it is your dollar.

In the end Princess came through for us. They refunded our cruise fare based on the number of days we missed (11 of 32). They also gave us a future cruise credit equal to the amount of the remaining cruise fare. It is hard to complain about the ultimate resolution.

-- Harry Stone, Whittier

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My wife and I were also due to go to Chile when the earthquake struck, and the airlines, LAN and American canceled our flights. We had travel insurance from Travel Insured purchased through the Squaremouth site for the land part of the trip. Travel Insured and Arch Insurance denied our claim, stating that the airport closure was not due to “weather” as the policy was worded and that our ultimate destination in Patagonia was still “inhabitable.” Travel Insured did give us each $500 for trip delay but denied the cancellation for the total cost of $10,180. Never mind that the airport we had to go through was closed except for flights in the air and flights bringing emergency aid.

Squaremouth is looking into this and responded immediately to our request for assistance. A complaint was also filed with the Department of Insurance. The airlines refunded our frequent-flier miles and money without complaint or fee, even though these were “nonrefundable” tickets.

Our recommendations are to read your policy carefully before purchasing. There is concise wording that might result in denial of your claim.

-- Al Schuh, Valencia

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The very purpose of purchasing travel insurance is to insure against unpredictable events, be they related to health, accidents, weather, war, earthquakes, whatever.

The Pebsworths chose not to purchase travel insurance. By doing so, they saved money, but the gamble did not pay off.

Those who booked on that same cruise and did purchase nonrefundable travel insurance chose not to gamble. In this case, their added cost was worth it.

Nothing’s broken; nobody’s wrong; nobody’s being unfair. This is precisely how travel insurance works.

Imagine this: If those who chose not to purchase travel insurance were to expect to receive a credit or compensation for their decision, how would it impact on those who did buy the nonrefundable coverage? Would they feel they were played for suckers?

-- Bruce Scottow, Los Angeles

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As someone who has booked a Princess Cruise and has purchased insurance, I’d be unhappy to find out that Princess gave refunds to folks who did not incur the cost of insurance.

-- George Schulman, Los Angeles

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As you say, “If you can’t afford to pay twice for the trip you’re going to take only once, you need insurance.”

People don’t prepare and then want others to bail them out.

-- William Besse, Indio

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I was surprised to read that this cruise traveler believes that Princess Cruise Line should “provide some credit” for his having missed a Star Princess sailing. In his letter, he states he did not buy travel insurance.

I sailed the Star Princess on her maiden voyage from Singapore to Los Angeles a few years ago. It carries thousands of passengers. I find it hard to understand how anyone could expect a cruise line or any travel industry carrier to automatically provide a refund when things go awry due to circumstances beyond its control, then expect it to remain in business.

Travel insurance exists precisely for those times when the unexpected occurs, and in the case of cruise travel insurance, I believe premiums are based on the cost of one’s cabin. I consider travel insurance to be reasonably priced. It would never occur to me not to purchase insurance. I consider the premium part of my cruise cost.

I have cruised more than 90 times since 1969, on many different cruise lines. I’m not an official spokesperson for Princess, but I can say that few passenger programs compare with the expressions of appreciation extended to members of Princess’ Captain’s Circle, and one becomes a member after sailing Princess just once. My last dozen or more cruises have been on Princess, because Princess Cruises continues to make me offers I find hard to resist. They do value their customers, and they enjoy a high level of our loyalty as a result.

I believe Julie Benson, Princess’ vice president of public relations, responded in reasonable language when she stated, “It’s not our custom to provide refunds to passengers in circumstances that are out of our control....We rely on the fact that the large majority of our passengers (about two-thirds) purchase some sort of travel coverage to protect their vacations.”

The uninsured one-third are playing Russian roulette with a substantial amount of money. As the column said, paying twice for a trip I’m going to take only once is not an option for me.

There are those of us who need the security of being insured when we travel, and, as with home and auto coverage, we always hope all will go well, and we won’t need to file a claim.

-- Esther Spencer, Palm Desert

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Don’t leave home without it.

We travel throughout the world, always purchasing insurance, and have filed several claims. Once, because of tornadoes near Dallas-Fort Worth, we missed a connecting flight to Zurich, Switzerland and were stuck overnight in New York, forfeiting our paid hotel room in Switzerland. Another trip to Peru our grandson became very ill in the remote Sacred Valley. A village doctor came to the lodge, examined him and the local pharmacy delivered the prescriptions. Full reimbursement was received on every occasion.

-- Ron and Sherril White, Glendora

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Princess should have let the couple rebook, based on availability, a future cruise paying any difference in cost. If for some reason they needed to cancel the new cruise, then charge them the original penalties. Princess’ inflexibility not only lost this customer but maybe others who read this article.

In this economy and with the behemoth cruise ships going out not quite full, a little compassion goes a long way.

-- Rita Brown, San Pedro

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I, too, have had trouble with Princess. Though I agree that travel businesses cannot be responsible for “acts of God” from a legal standpoint, as a publicist and marketer, I believe Princess has shown a lack of service to its customers — the Pebsworths and others.

The column alludes to a gesture that looks like “Get off my back already.” I would say that Princess and other travel entities are more likely to create that attitude if they have already shown a lack of service or caring before the offer is made. That is simple public relations 101.

If a business is immediately forthcoming with an explanation of its position, accompanied by even a nominal gift of goodwill, it’s less likely it will alienate a customer.

Princess needs someone to handle difficult passenger relations and needs to put her front and center.

At the very least, it should be obvious to Princess that the offer of a credit toward another trip would be inexpensive compared with the bad press the line gets when it leaves customers to founder.

Having said that, I must add that the ambiance of Princess’s ships and its lecture series keep us coming back, despite its lack of good will in emergency situations. We are elite Princess cruisers. That my husband and I appreciate so much about the line makes it all the more difficult to understand why Princess continues to make such horrendous marketing booboos.

-- Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Glendale

We have traveled extensively for decades (more than 170 countries, and last year, for instance, gone 219 days) and have always purchased travel insurance. Each time I buy the policy, I moan and whine about the cost and whether it is a necessary expense. In decades we have made just one claim.

Travel insurance is like ALL insurance (except death): It’s a crapshoot.

As much as we dislike this expensive addition to our travel plans, we will continue to buy it. Stuff happens, and we don’t want to be caught somewhere we don’t want to be without the assurance that most of our losses/expenses will be paid.

Also, of course, it would be unfair to those of us who buy the insurance, for the airline, cruise line, hotel, resort, etc., to casually compensate those who choose not to purchase the protection.

-- Pat and Alicia Moorehead, Long Beach

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What would not be fair would be giving a passenger a free benefit that those who purchased insurance paid for!

What would not be fair is Princess passing on the cost of that passenger’s free benefit to those who buy insurance.

-- Jeff LeBoff, Huntington Beach

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My bride and I have traveled around the world on various cruise lines, and most of the time I do purchase travel insurance. The couple stranded after the quake is a sad situation. But the attitude of Princess, of which we are platinum members, and the disregard for the plight of the Pebsworths are uncalled for. For Princess to blow these folks off is telling. I don’t believe I will be traveling with them for a long while. Like most seasoned travelers, I will speak with my wallet, Are you listening, Princess?

-- Ronald Moya Sr., La Verne

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I was supposed to leave for Santiago, Chile, on Feb. 27, the day the earthquake hit, for a Celebrity cruise.

All week my travel agent tried to get us to a different port to meet the ship but to no avail. No flights were leaving or coming out of Chile.

I did obtain insurance, but not from Celebrity. Celebrity said it would not give any money back or credit because we did not get insurance through Celebrity, which did refund shore excursions and gratuities.

Travelex, which is what I bought, is still reviewing my case, and I hope to get my money back.

The least Princess can do is give credit for another trip. But next time buy travel insurance.

-- Marcia S. Glinsky, Los Angeles

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Seems like a happy middle ground is the best route, maybe a credit for half the cruise fare on another cruise. Everyone splits the damage because no one is at fault really.

The cruise line spends millions a year begging people to try them, so it doesn’t make sense to have hundreds of folks bad-mouthing you. The real test of any business is when the you-know-what hits the fan. The cruise line has a huge opportunity to show its real colors and profit from it in the future.

-- David Bonner, West Hollywood

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The Pebsworths’ expectation that Princess should compensate them typifies situations where someone fails to adequately protect himself against a possible loss (by buying insurance in this case) and then expects someone else to bail them out. Princess didn’t do anything to cause the Pebsworths to miss their cruise, so why should they incur a financial penalty as the result of something totally out of their control?

-- Craig Armstrong, Nipomo

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In 2001, I finally convinced my wife to fly to San Francisco for a convention in early September. I had made a reservation with an airline, booked a nice hotel and made reservations at a nice place in Napa Valley. Our plan was to fly up on Friday, spend the weekend at the convention and then on Monday drive to Napa for a week of sightseeing. Sept. 11 happened on a Tuesday, and we were scheduled to fly that following Friday. On Wednesday, I called the airline, and they would charge our credit card. I also called the hotel, which said it would not charge our credit card. The same thing happened at Napa Valley.

I have not been able to take my wife to a convention since.

The Star Princess should give the Pebsworths credit for a future cruise within 12 months or so.

-- Gus Marsh, Huntington Beach

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We bought insurance for the same trip. It cost us $380 per person, and it is giving us 75% (cost of trip) credit on a future Princess cruise within a year. We bought our airline tickets from Delta, which refunded 100%. I’m glad we did not purchase through Princess. Sorry they didn’t have insurance. We did and are still out about $3,000.

-- Carol Lew, La Habra

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First, keep writing this column. It, along with Condé Nast Traveler’s ombudsman column, have been extremely helpful to me in avoiding travel snafus.

Next, why did you simply accept American Airlines’ response that it is not liable for force majeure? Why should all the risk be placed on the passenger? The European Union has much better passenger protection laws in place. Twice our returns from Europe have been delayed, once by a strike and once by weather. Each time we were flying a European airline. Both times the airlines put us up at comfortable hotels, gave us ample meal vouchers and provided transportation between the airport and hotel. Granted, each delay was for only one night, but that’s still a far cry from American Airlines’ response.

Princess Cruise Line’s response was just as bad. It also expects passengers to bear all the risk. Travel insurance is not a panacea. Depending on your age and the cost of your trip and how many risks you choose to insure against, it can add 10% to 15% to the cost of your trip.

I hope you will do a follow-up article on how well the various travel insurers handle claims from this incident. Do they actually provide the benefits they advertised in a timely and hassle-free manner? Or are their customers still being asked for duplicate receipts a year later with no payouts?

I’d like to know more about the Star Princess cruise the Pebsworths missed. Did it proceed as scheduled with far fewer passengers? As a result, were Princess’ food, fuel and labor costs substantially less? If so, shouldn’t those savings be used for passenger refunds? (Notice I said refunds, not credits. That’s another problem with the travel industry in general but beyond the scope of your question.) Did Princess change its schedule in any way because of the earthquake? How many passengers would have made the cruise if the ship had stayed in port a few hours longer? Was there another port where the ship could have picked up some passengers? We were on a small ship cruise in the Caribbean several years ago when weather delayed the passengers arriving from New York. The ship waited several hours for those passengers, but it in no way detracted from the cruise experience for the rest of us.

So please be more proactive and more of an advocate in this column. It’s clearly necessary.

-- Mary-Lynne Fisher, La Crescenta

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I was on that ill-fated seven-day cruise to Mexico in April 2009 when the government didn’t let us get off the ship at any Mexican port. At the end of the week at sea, Carnival offered us another week on board for $250, with stops in Seattle, Catalina, and San Francisco. I was so “shipped out,” I declined. Later Carnival did give us coupons for 50% off our next cruise, which seemed fair.

-- Pat Lay Wilson, Seal Beach

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Like the Pebsworths, my wife and I were excited about our cruise aboard the Star Princess, departing March 2. We were on an American Airlines flight four hours out of Santiago when the quake occurred. The captain turned the plane around, and we returned to Miami.

We purchased the travel insurance offered by Princess but are not happy with the resolution of our claim. Here are some of the issues that we raised in presenting our claim with their insurance carrier, BerkelyCare.

We did everything possible to meet the cruise ship in time for departure. However, with the airport closed, there were no options available to us. Princess Cruise Lines was zero help. We tried several times on the first day to speak with someone but gave up after 40-minute waits. Eventually they posted messages on their website that said the ship would arrive at Valparaíso on schedule and depart on schedule and that we should attempt to meet the ship. We finally spoke with a Princess representative when we returned to Los Angeles. We presented two options to her that seemed reasonable to us:

1.Return our money in full, or

2.Book us on the same cruise a year from now.

She indicated that neither option could be considered and that we should file a cancellation if we couldn’t meet the ship.

The Star Princess departed Valparaíso two days after its scheduled departure date and abandoned a couple of the ports that had been on the itinerary. The passenger load included passengers from the previous cruise who could not depart from Santiago Airport because of the earthquake.

What do we get with our “Princess Vacation Protection”? We get 75% of our fare in Princess travel credit. In our case, we booked the cruise months ago to take advantage of a highly discounted fare. Based on the current fare for the same cruise, the credit will reimburse us for about 43% of the cost of the new fare.

Also, because the credit can be used only by us, we can’t pass it along to other family members to help defer the cost of a future trip for them.

At this point, I think we’ll use the credit to book a cheap Mexican cruise and then never travel with Princess again.

For the record, most of the other companies that we dealt with couldn’t have been more agreeable. American Airlines went out of its way to accommodate us in Miami and help us secure a flight back to L.A. The hotels we booked in Santiago and Valparaíso understood our dilemma and waived all cancellation fees.

-- Terry Supple, Woodland Hills

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I booked a seven-day Mediterranean cruise last year with Costa Cruise lines for my daughter, Nina, and me. We were to sail in September. Because I’m 80 and have had a roller coaster of a life and also because there was the $6,000-plus cost of the trip, I did not hesitate to add the $359 insurance for the two of us.

On Aug. 25, another daughter called to tell me her son had died of a massive heart attack. David was 27.

I knew I could not make that trip with Nina, as much as we had wanted to do so. I called the Costa people right away, explained the need to cancel the trip and was assured the insurance would kick in once necessary documentation was provided.

It took awhile to get the death certificate and other paperwork, but subsequently every penny was returned, a total of $6,000-plus, by check from Costa.

We were able to concentrate on the grief work, not on the loss of money.

So I would say this is a painful life lesson for the Pebsworths. For me, looking back, that $359 insurance was a pretty darned good investment.

-- Christine Akin, Seal Beach


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