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On the Spot: Will Costa refund airfares for future cruises?

Los Angeles Times Travel editor

Question: If I’m holding airline tickets for an upcoming Costa trip — the Concordia, which collided with rocks and ran aground on Jan. 13, was scheduled to sail again from Rome (Civitavecchia) on Jan. 20 — will Costa give me back my money?

Answer: It should, but whether it will remains unclear.

The issue for passengers on upcoming cruises is this: If they bought an air-sea package — that is, their cruise fare and airfare together — from Costa, they might have some recourse. But if they booked their airfare separately and now must cancel those plane tickets, they may not get their money back (“may not” being key words because we don’t yet know what Costa will do) because most fares are nonrefundable. They won’t lose the value of the airfare, in all likelihood, but they probably will have to pay a change fee when they rebook their flights. For international flights, that could be as much as $250 a ticket. If four of you were going, add a grand onto airfare that was more than $800 for a nonrefundable coach ticket purchased about four weeks in advance. (That fare, for a March 1 departure, may no longer be available.)

Cruise lines have narrowly defined contracts of carriage and are loathe to assume responsibility for events outside their control. When the 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck Chile in February, cruise lines sailed anyway, albeit a couple of days later. Many passengers couldn’t get to their ships because of difficulties with airline connections. Those who did not have travel insurance did not get refunds from the cruise lines.

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But the Costa sinking is in a different category, said Al Anolik, a Bay Area travel attorney. This is not an issue of contract; it is an issue of negligence, and Costa should be liable, Anolik said, explaining it this way: “You [Costa] allowed this to happen through your negligence; therefore, you have to compensate me…. Your negligence is costing me money.”

If Costa doesn’t volunteer to refund the price of those airline tickets — and it’s unknown whether it will at this point because company representatives did not return phone calls asking for an explanation — Anolik, who also is a Small Claims Court judge in Marin and San Francisco, suggests suing in California Small Claims Court. Costa is, he says, responsible for all “consequential damages,” and Small Claims Court is the right vehicle for claiming those.

This may be one instance where travel insurance will not help you. As regular readers know, we often urge travel insurance if the amount you’ve invested is more than the amount you can afford to lose. But this time, even insurance might not help you, said Sarah Byrne, marketing manager for Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison site based inSt. Petersburg, Fla. Insurance might reimburse you for a mechanical breakdown, she said, but this sinking isn’t that, and although a couple of insurers have said they would cover this loss, most will not, she said.

As the story unfolds, the answers may become clearer, but for now, it appears the consumer will have to seek redress on his own through the courts or through Costa, which has many things to worry about in this seafaring and public relations disaster.

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Have a question? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.


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