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Recourse for a ‘cruise from hell’

Finding a satisfactory solution to a totally unsatisfactory travel experience is always a challenge. All too often, a supplier fobs you off with a “Sorry you didn’t like your trip; we hope to see you back soon” form response. In the worst case, the supplier simply ignores or stonewalls your complaint. A reader recently submitted a case in point:

“My husband and I just experienced a cruise from hell. On our cruise, from Sydney to Auckland, the ports were wonderful but the ship was terrible. Initially, the dining room staff seated us at different tables, especially annoying for a trip on our 27th anniversary. We had no hot water in our “verandah” stateroom for the entire 10-day trip. Most of the public bathrooms did not work and were overflowing and completely unusable on New Year’s Eve. The ship’s escalators never worked. The food was questionable: Ask for veal, you got steak; ask for lamb, you got steak. On the final day, the only “apology” we got was a dish of candy. We wrote letters to the cruise line’s vice presidents of both marketing and guest services, but received no response from either. This trip was expensive, at around $30,000 including airfare. What would you do?”

I’ve written previously about complaining, in general, most recently in Make Your Travel Complaint Count and Posting Your Travel Gripes Online. Those are certainly valid suggestions for you. But tough as it is to get compensation for a bad air trip or hotel stay, prying something out of a cruise line is often even more difficult. Here’s what I’d do:

Tot up the damage

Any travel complaint has to start with adding up the score. Unless you start by working from an actual dollar figure, you aren’t likely to get anywhere. Determine what you actually lost, if anything; determine how much you paid for but didn’t receive—either at all or up to what was promised. Add something for hassle and personal inconvenience. Be realistic—don’t overstate, but don’t low-ball, either. If you can’t come up with a dollar figure that’s worth fighting over, you might as well forget about going any further.

In the case of our reader’s cruise, I’d put the figure at less than the total $30,000 cost of the trip but still a big number, probably around $10,000. And I’d pad it a bit if I know I’d be going to court.

Decide what you’d accept

In settling most travel disputes, suppliers are generally more willing to offer a “free” or discounted future trip than to cut a check. Decide whether you’d go for that sort of offer. If so, make sure any discount is real, not just a reduction from an inflated list price for a service that is widely discounted, and not so restricted or time-limited that you might be unable to use it.

Get a lawyer

If you’re just starting with your complaint, you should give the supplier a chance to settle voluntarily before going to court. In our reader’s case, however, the cruise line already refused to deal with the complaint, so it’s time to escalate.

The first step up the ladder is to have your lawyer write to the cruise line’s general counsel. Have the lawyer briefly summarize the basis for your complaint, note the company’s earlier refusal to deal with you, and state your requested settlement. Give the cruise line some time—up to 30 days—to respond, but make it clear that you are in the fight for the long haul. Just the lawyer’s letter may be enough to get the cruise line’s attention.

If the cruise line responds with any sort of reasonable offer, either accept it or at least use it as a basis for further negotiation. Just make sure the offer is real, not cosmetic. Accepting something at this stage will save you much future pain and grief. But if the cruise line still stonewalls you or offers only a trivial amount of compensation, the next step up the ladder is an actual lawsuit.

Going to court

Suing a cruise line is especially difficult because virtually all cruise contracts—the fine print you accepted, whether or not you realized it—include a “forum” clause that says any legal claim must be filed in a specified jurisdiction, not your local court. In most cases, that means the area where the cruise line’s head office is located, and it may also specify federal court. As I read the literature—and I’m certainly no lawyer—some courts have enforced those clauses; others have held that they’re unnecessarily onerous for consumers and therefore unenforceable.

Clearly, your lawyer’s first job is to research the forum situation. Depending on circumstances, he or she might advise you to refer the case to an attorney in the cruise line’s headquarters city.

As I noted, going to court would be a hassle. And the process could extend over many months. But when a line stonewalls a worthy complaint, court may be your only option.

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