Shoddy accounting leaves customer on hook after sunk cruise

Stuart Gantman and his wife had hoped to take their grandchildren on a Windstar Cruise to Central America. They booked two connecting cabins through American Express for an eight-day cruise to Panama and Costa Rica for themselves and their grandchildren, and upgraded so that they could receive two “free” days on the ship, at the beginning and end of their cruise.

But they ran into unexpected barriers – both physical and financial.

The cruise was canceled on the third day after the ship ran into an undersea barrier of an as-yet-undetermined nature, thought to be either a sand bar or a coral reef.

Instead of continuing their vacation, the Gantmans endured a six-hour bus ride to San Jose, Costa Rica, and three nights at an InterContinental hotel. Then they flew home. Windstar promised to refund their cruise fees in full.

I suspect you already know where this is going.

Gantman was under the impression that he would receive all of what he had paid Amex for the cruise. But Amex told Gantman that $1,420 of their payment, which covered the hotel costs, were not “free” or even part of his cruise fare. In fact, the Gantmans owed Windstar for the “free” nights for which they had upgraded their cruise package, because those nights were “not part of the cruise package.” According to Amex, the charge was “associated for internal accounting purposes.”

Gantman calls this shoddy accounting, reminiscent of Enron. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Windstar Cruises (owned by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a subsidiary of Anschutz Company), is operated by online agency Vacations To Go (VTG) out of Houston, Enron’s hometown — and my own. (Disclosure: I’m an accountant and I agree that the charge is shoddy accounting.)

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Since Gantman couldn’t get anyone at Amex to issue him a refund for the hotel costs, he asked our advocates for assistance.

VTG’s website, which advertises Windstar Cruises, states the following about the terms of any cruise:

Much of the information on this site is supplied by third party providers, and VTG accepts no responsibility for errors, omissions, inaccuracies or misleading statements which may appear anywhere on this site, whether or not they were supplied by third party providers.

The cruise lines, airlines, hotels, tour operators, car rental companies, and travel gear and accessory manufacturers on this site are third party providers, and VTG has no control whatsoever over their actions or inactions. VTG is not responsible for third party failure to perform, breach of contract, or any action, intentional or negligent, which results in any loss, injury, delay or damage to you or your property or to anyone traveling with you, or to the property of that party. VTG cannot and does not guarantee third party provider reservations, timeliness, employee conduct, or the performance of scheduled flights, cruises or tours, or the availability of hotel rooms or rental cars.

It’s a classic adhesion contract: The passenger has to make all the guarantees and assume all the responsibilities to a company that doesn’t have to do a thing in return.

But Gantman makes a really good point: A promise of a “full” refund should mean that the company issuing that refund should not be subtracting any other charges from it. And a company that promises “free” travel days, whether part of a base charge or an upgrade, for any reason should not be charging its customers for those days.

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Regardless of the escape clauses in its contract, Windstar should have given Gantman the refund and free days it promised, instead of claiming an “accounting” reason for not doing so. The only reason they didn’t was to keep the fares on their own books instead of having to reduce their bottom lines. And that’s wrong.

Houston, do we have a problem?

Update: Windstar Cruises has issued a full refund to Gantman. He and his wife are planning to sail again on another Windstar cruise. According to Gantman, “As it turned out, their customer service department did a remarkable job.”

Should we advocate for Stuart Gantman?

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Editor’s Note: I understand that the art work accompanying this story may be offensive to some. I’ve had words with the artist who, ahem, happens to be related to me. Thanks for your emails.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • sjcruiser36

    Seriously guys, the Costa Concordia!!! Not funny, and doesn’t have anything to do with the current problem. One was in Central America/Caribbean and the other in Italy. Can we use photos from the actual vendor involved, and not another cruise line that doesn’t have anything to do with this incident. This is twice today this has happened!!!

  • Joe Blasi

    Titanic II will have fine print saying that that you will pay a recuse fee if needed

  • Amex was once a company fabled for its customer service, and if there was ever a time when a travel agency should go to bat for its client, its when something like this happens. Is Anex another once-great that we have to cross off our list?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Darn. I had the drums ready to go for the punchline right up until the typo. LOL.

  • Ben

    > reminiscent of Enron

    Corollary to Godwin’s law: Any discussion of poor accounting will eventually lead to a comparison to Enron.

    But: This isn’t shoddy accounting, it’s bull excrement. We don’t expect any better from a cruise operator, but I’m disappointed in American Express for not having their customer’s back.

  • flutiefan

    so sick of this site becoming all about whining over “adhesion contracts”. enough already.

  • Travelnut

    I had such shockingly awful treatment from AmEx Travel several years ago that I would never use it again, and they’re lucky I still kept their card. They booked me into a “hotel” in NYC which was more like a hostel or homeless shelter that incidentally had some bare bones rooms for rent. I stayed one night and the next day called AmEx to get them to move me. They said they didn’t have any place to move me to (in New York City? right) and basically told me I got what I paid for. I didn’t pay for mice, or tenant revolt (yes there were quite a few tenants, who were hanging on as the owner tried to find ways to get them to move out, and they didn’t much care for the “hotel” guests, as evidenced by notes taped up in the common bathrooms).

  • So far as I’m concerned, there can’t be enough wining about adhesion contacts. I would love to whine them right out of existence. Say, by legislating that any power a travel company reserves to itself, such as to cancel arbitrarily, can automatically be used by the Customet also.

  • Mel65

    So, just to clarify for myself: they paid for a cruise, paid additional for an upgrade, and then the cruise was cancelled and the cruiseline put them in a hotel until they could get home. Then the cruiseline, whose staff ran the ship over a reef (or whatever) told the customer they had to take the cost of the hotels AND the cost of the upgrades out of the refund they were supposed to give the customer? I am beyond confused by this. And AmEx is perpetrating this?? AmEx??

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Concur with Mr. Gore!

  • AAGK

    Amex travel is a seperate company from Amex. One can dispute an Amex travel charge like they can dispute any other. In fact, I am currently doing so myself. I’m not really clear as to what happened here. I have never heard of the associated charge thing. If they were promised a refund, they should get one though.

  • Alan Gore

    Back in town now on my regular system, and now I have a metaconsumer comment. Why was there need to delete the parent comment above? It expressed a sharp opinion of the kind that needs to on display because it represents an attitude that travelers can encounter on the road. It was not an attack on any specific person.

  • Stuart Falk

    Jennifer, Whether the artwork is offensive or not is up to the beholder, but what is not disputable is that it is totally unrelated to the story and therefore journalistically (even by blog standards) inappropriate.

    That said, please enlighten me on some of the facts in your story:

    When you write that Windstar Cruises is “operated” by Vacations to Go, what does that mean? I thought VTG was primarily a travel agency, not a cruise ship management company. Are you saying that VTG hires the officers and crew, maintains the vessels, sets the itineraries and does the marketing? Please clarify VTG role as well as its relationship to American Express’ having been the clients agency of record? (Did Amex package the cruise with the hotel or was that done by VTG or Xterra)?

    Thanks for helping me better understand this…particulsarly the precise role of VTG in managing Windstar.

  • Jayne Bailey Holland

    I did not know that Windstar was not owned by Carnival. My husband and I planned a bucket list trip on Wind Spirit this summer, as we cruised with them in the 90’s. I always want a Cruise line that has knowledge about the industry. This VTG, I have only read BAD things about. I wish these people well, but I doubt they will get any compensation.

  • Naoma Foreman

    Dear Joe: I am a “stickler” for typos. Liked your comment above. I used to proofread legal documents at a law firm. I was asked to read a summary of a case. The “writer” — a secretary — had the summary run longer than the original.

  • Jayne Bailey Holland

    We are cancelling our trip today.

  • Lee

    It is offensive as heck that such a ridiculous, self-serving situation exists but I’ll ask my usual drumbeat of a question: did the OP have travel insurance and, if so, would it not cover his losses? If no travel insurance, why not? How can anyone travel anymore in this expensive world of travel we now live in without it?

    That said – I say, Yes – do advocate on his behalf. There is too much that is even more convoluted than in normal self-protecting contracts for companies.

  • William Leeper

    From all indications, the original commenter deleted the comment themself, and not the moderation team.

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