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The unrefunded airfare affair

A traveler's Princess Cruises trip is canceled, and she receives a refund for the cruise but not her nearly $1,400 airfare. Can she get her money back?

June 24, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times
(Reuben Munoz / Los Angeles…)

Question: We were scheduled to embark March 18 on a southern Caribbean cruise with Princess Cruises. Princess canceled the cruise March 15 because of a mechanical failure. Although we were given a refund for the cost of the cruise, Princess would not refund the cost of the airfare, booked separately, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Per a telephone conversation two weeks ago, I was told that they would refund only the airline change fee. I find this unacceptable. Can anything be done?

Lynne Brightman

Fountain Valley

Answer: Airlines and cruise lines? There's a headache waiting to happen.

The maxims you must remember when dealing with a cruise ship or airline company are these: Your problems are not their problems, and their problems are your problems.

Or, said another way, Brightman probably is not going to get a full refund of her nearly $1,400 worth of airfare, which she did not book through Princess. (Booking independently often seems the wisest course because you have control of that cost — unless something like this happens.) If she wants to use those tickets within the airline's prescribed time limit, Princess will pay the change fee.

Here's what happened with this cruise, a Princess rep told me in an email:

"Caribbean Princess experienced a problem with the port propulsion motor, which necessitated the March 11 cruise to return early to San Juan on March 14. Subsequently, in order to make the full repairs to the ship, we canceled the next two voyages, scheduled to depart March 18 and March 25. The ship returned to service for the scheduled April 1 cruise. Passengers booked on these sailings received a full refund as well as a 25% credit toward a future cruise."

If you didn't book your airfare through Princess? "Princess then offered to cover any air change fees assessed by the airline."

Brightman's window of opportunity to take this cruise was exactly the window for which she booked the ticket. She won't be attempting this trip again, she said. In a letter to Princess, Brightman wrote, "Although we were told that we would be given a 25% discount on a future cruise, we were quoted $100 more per person (after the 25% discount was deducted) for the identical cruise and cabin category for the April 1 sailing. This amounts to a $312 per person increase in the original price."

Besides the increase in price, a quick scan of Princess' future sailings for the southern Caribbean shows that most depart from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., or New York, which means that Brightman will pay, in essence, $1,400 for tickets to either of those places. If she were to reconsider and take a Nov. 10 sailing, the airfare early last week to Fort Lauderdale from Orange County totaled about $800 for two. (That cruise would be cheaper than the one she was quoted for April 1, but keep in mind that Nov. 10 is still hurricane season, when prices tend to be lower.) She might have airfare credit left over, but again, the clock is ticking, and her schedule may not allow use of that.

Bottom line: Brightman is probably not going to come out ahead on this one. To its credit, Princess has done the right thing by offering refunds, discounts, change fees and so on. From a business perspective, I can understand why it won't assume responsibility for airfare it didn't book. From a customer relations standpoint, I can't wrap my head around it, especially when Brightman noted that her hotel in San Juan, a Sheraton that was booked with a nonrefundable rate, refunded her money and was nice about it.

There's always Small Claims Court, of course. Al Anolik, a Bay Area travel attorney who also presides over Small Claims Court hearings, often suggests this and does so in this case, citing negligence in maintaining the ship and in offering an acceptable replacement cruise.

Whether it's worth the effort — and the outcome is not guaranteed — is something only Brightman can assess. We can guarantee that initiating such an action, although easier than it's ever been (www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp-smallclaims.htm), won't be a vacation. But then, troubles rarely take time off. Anyone have some aspirin?

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

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