When Geri Harris learned that it would again be possible for American civilians to travel to Cuba as tourists, she purchased a package from Vantage Travel called Cuba 360 Degrees, an 11-night journey around Cuba, beginning and ending in Miami, with stops at many ports.
Harris got a cruise from Vantage — but not what she paid for. And Vantage is giving her complaint the silent treatment, dredging up questions about cruise line contracts and passengers’ rights when the line makes substitutions.
Ten days before Harris was scheduled to leave home, Vantage notified Harris that the ship intended for the Cuba 360 Degrees package, the MS St. Laurent, would not be available for the cruise.
The reason for the St. Laurent’s unavailability for the Cuba 360 Degrees cruise is an interesting story in itself. The ship was leased by Haimark, a “white-label” company that provided and ran a fleet of river ships for cruises run by a number of tour operators, including Vantage Travel. Haimark decided to branch out into coastal travel and acquired the rights to sell and operate the St. Laurent, then owned by Clipper Cruises and operated on the Great Lakes, from a management company called Fleetpro. Haimark then refurbished the ship for coastal cruises. But on one of the St. Laurent’s first voyages under Haimark’s aegis, it ran into the wall of a lock in upstate New York, necessitating the evacuation of the passengers, some of whom were injured, and dry-docking the ship for repairs. Because of disagreements between Haimark and Clipper Cruises over financial responsibility for the accident and repairs to the ship, Haimark declared Chapter 11 and ultimately ceased operations.
Vantage said that it would be substituting a smaller ship, the MS Panorama. The Panorama would not be sailing around Cuba, but the passengers “should not notice much difference.” Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be the case.
The Panorama has fewer amenities available to its passengers than the St. Laurent. And the cruise was shortened by two days. Harris and the other passengers were then expected to embark in Havana, rather than Miami, forcing Harris to cancel and rebook her flights and hotel reservations. Vantage told Harris that it would provide an after-cruise day to the passengers as compensation and provided one free night at a hotel. But Vantage left the passengers to pay for their own expenses for the second day it eliminated from the rescheduled cruise.
According to Harris, Vantage claimed that it was not at fault for substituting the ship at the last minute and doing so “cost them more than the original tour.” But as Harris puts it, “This should not be a problem that can be passed on to the customer. They needed to provide us with a trip that was close to the one that we paid for.” Since she didn’t get it, Harris contacted our advocates to ask for reimbursement from Vantage for the cost of the second night at the hotel, meals for the two days she had to stay in Miami before embarking in Havana and cab fares and airport transportation.
Vantage’s terms and conditions provide that
Vantage may, for any reason, without prior notice, cancel a cruise; deviate from the scheduled ports of call, route and timetable; call or omit to call at any port or place or cancel or modify any activity on or off the vessel; comply with all governmental laws and orders given by governmental authorities; … change the date or time of sailing or arrival, change the port of embarkation or disembarkation, shorten the cruise or substitute a vessel or other transportation or lodging. Vantage is not responsible for any losses you may incur as a result of such cancellations or deviations.
Vantage, at its option, may substitute accommodations of an equal or superior class or provide a full refund of the fare actually paid by you for such cruise, or substitute accommodations of a lower class and provide a refund of the difference, if any, between the booked class and the substitute class for such cruise … Any partial refunds shall be calculated in accordance with Vantage’s typical business practices …
Vantage reserves the right to change the itinerary of the tour without prior notice.
These disclaimers of liability and responsibility notwithstanding, our advocates reached out to Vantage, because they believe that Harris is correct: as Vantage controls the ships, itineraries and routes of all of its cruises, and is the only party in a position to foresee when it might substitute a ship or alter its itinerary or route, it should not pass on the costs of substituting a smaller ship on to its passengers, who have no control over which ship is assigned to the cruise or where it goes. Had the ship missed a port of call because of unexpected weather, Harris and her fellow passengers wouldn’t be justified in seeking a refund or compensation, but the port of embarkation and the itinerary were significantly changed by Vantage.
Our advocates didn’t receive any response from Vantage Travel. Harris believes that other passengers are considering legal action against Vantage. That might be her only option in getting compensation from Vantage for the costs she incurred as a result of Vantage’s last-minute cruise ship and itinerary changes.
After several months of trying to advocate for Harris without hearing back from Vantage, we are forced to classify her case as a “Case Dismissed!”