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Carnival cruise customers sailed into a swine flu fiasco

While most cruise lines sought to appease disgruntled passengers when stops in Mexico were detoured to other ports, the passengers of the Splendor were basically told to take their lumps.

May 10, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

The swine flu outbreak in Mexico caused dozens of cruise ships to forgo trips to sunny resorts like Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, and to instead weigh anchor at considerably less exotic destinations such as Santa Catalina Island and San Diego.

In most cases, fast-thinking cruise ship operators came up with ways to keep passengers from mutinying, including coupons for onboard amenities and credits for future trips.

But the flu bug sent about 3,000 passengers of one cruise ship, the Carnival Splendor, on a one-way voyage to the land of lousy customer service.

"They just didn't care about us," said Encino resident Devorah Torres, 58, a passenger on the vessel. "As far as Carnival was concerned, we were nothing but cattle to them."

For any service company interested in a lesson in how not to treat customers, look no further than the ill-fated voyage of the Splendor.

The ship departed from Long Beach on Sunday, April 26, one day before the Centers for Disease Control issued a travel advisory recommending that people "avoid all nonessential travel to Mexico."

Torres and her husband, Marty Hoffman, 58, spent more than $2,000 for almost a week of sun and fun along the Mexican Riviera.

"We've done this trip before," Torres said. "It's great. It's the kind of trip where you just throw on your shorts and go."

The cruise went well at first. It was chilly as the ship headed south, but the weather gradually warmed. Passengers were excited about reaching Puerto Vallarta.

They never got there. On Tuesday, April 28, the Splendor anchored unexpectedly off Cabo San Lucas. Passengers were informed that because of the flu outbreak, all Mexican stops were being canceled. The ship would instead turn around and head to San Francisco, where the weather was cold and rainy.

The Splendor's captain, Claudio Cupisti, issued a statement saying the ship would make a "courtesy call" back at Long Beach en route to San Francisco for those who wanted to disembark early.

"It is important you know that there will be no refund for unused portions of your cruise," he said.

The captain also said that Carnival's "Vacation Guarantee" wouldn't apply.

That's a big deal. Carnival boasts on its website of being the only cruise line to essentially offer a money-back guarantee if you're unhappy with your holiday.

"If you are not completely satisfied with your cruise vacation experience," it says, "all you need to do is notify us before arrival at the first port of call and you must debark at your ship's first non-U.S. port of call. Carnival will refund the unused portion of your cruise fare and pay your flight back."

Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines, confirmed in an e-mail that no refunds would be offered to passengers on the flu-fleeing trip.

"In this highly unusual situation, the parameters of the Vacation Guarantee would not have applied," she said. She declined to elaborate.

"We apologize that we were not able to provide the itinerary that people anticipated," De la Cruz said.

Los Angeles resident Margaret Zito, 62, another passenger on the ship, said the grumbling among passengers began almost as soon as the Splendor turned around. People were phoning their lawyers. Members of a wedding party aboard the ship were reduced to tears.

"The whole thing was an absolute nightmare," Zito said. "I've never seen so much negativity on a cruise ship before."

It's not that Carnival wasn't within its rights. The company's contract with passengers stipulates that it reserves the right to change itineraries due to unforeseen circumstances.

And the Vacation Guarantee is specific about requiring passengers to disembark at a non-U.S. port to get their refunds. The Splendor never docked in Mexico.

But why be so rough with people who'd turned to you for a little rest and relaxation, and who you hope will do so again?

While most cruise lines sought to appease disgruntled passengers by offering food and drink and other freebies, the passengers of the Splendor were basically told to take their lumps.

I asked De la Cruz if this was any way to treat steady customers. She said only that Carnival was following "standard protocol for missed ports when an itinerary is impacted by events beyond our control."

Standard protocol for Carnival apparently does include being nice to anyone who isn't already stuck on your boat.

The Splendor was scheduled to set sail again today from Long Beach. Its original itinerary of Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas has been changed to Victoria and Vancouver in Canada.

Passengers were told in advance that they'd be given a $100 onboard credit for making the trip. Those who didn't want to visit Canada were told they could instead book a different cruise at any time before December 2010.

Hoffman said he wasn't pleased that the company was offering perks to travelers that were denied to passengers on his trip.

"I can tell you this," he said. "We'll never sail with Carnival again."


David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays.

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