“After we left the ship, I had an uneasy feeling”

Cruise ships are notorious for adding unwanted fees and surcharges to their guest folios, but one stands above them all: The mysterious minibar charges in Peter Hoagland’s cabin.

It’s mysterious because Hoagland’s cabin didn’t have a minibar.

That’s right, Royal Caribbean charged a guest for an “amenity” that wasn’t even in his room. And wait until you read its explanation.

Hoagland’s New England and Canada itinerary on the Grandeur of the Seas was, by his account, otherwise positive.

“It was an older ship — a really nice cruise, right down to remarkable weather and calm seas,” he says.

Except for one thing.

“Beginning the first night of the cruise, I got a minibar charge,” he says. “It then happened twice again during the course of the nine days. OK, no big deal, it happens in hotels where they are trying to tempt you with goodies in their room. Only problem was, our cabin had no minibar and nothing for sale.”

The problem was easily fixed.

“On three separate occasions, I brought this to their attention on the ship and they removed the charges,” he says. “One agent, who didn’t seem to understand, kept asking me, ‘So you didn’t use anything from the minibar?’ On those three occasions, I offered to meet someone from the ship in my cabin to show them that there is no minibar. Each time they said that wouldn’t be necessary.”

After the third incident, Hoagland called the ship’s revenue manager, who quickly removed the charge.

“I asked her how I could be charged for items that were not even in my cabin and she speculated that the attendant must have keyed in the wrong cabin number,” he says.

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Wait, three times? That just doesn’t add up.

The revenue manager agreed to speak with the department that handles the minibar charges.

“After we left the ship, I had an uneasy feeling,” Hoagland says. So he checked his credit card. Sure enough, there was yet another mystery charge on his bill. He phoned Royal Caribbean, and it removed that minibar charge as well.

Maybe there’s a perfectly good explanation for this. I mean, it’s possible that there’s another Hoagland on that cruise. It’s such a common name.

I was curious to hear what Royal Caribbean had to say about the minibar charge. Why was it billing guests for amenities that weren’t even in the cabin?

So I asked. The cruise line didn’t respond. I asked again. Still, no response.

“It leads me to believe that this is an established business practice they use to generate additional revenue,” Hoagland told me. “If customers question the charges, they will remove them. But my sense is the majority of passengers simply don’t notice or don’t want to bother arguing them, and that is what Royal Caribbean is counting on. Absent a reasonable explanation from RC about how these charges continued to appear on my invoice, especially after bringing the ‘errors’ to their attention, I have to conclude that it was intentional rather than accidental.”

I think he’s right. If this had been an honest mistake, we would have heard from the cruise line after the first, if not the second, query. But it remained silent.

Hoagland’s story is yet another reminder that you have to review your final bill and question anything you don’t recognize. Junk fees, it seems, are going on a cruise.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Jeff W.

    Is it possible that it still an honest mistake? Things are so automated now, maybe there is a chip or bar-code on the mini-bar itself and that was assigned to the wrong room? So when housekeeping or the steward checks the mini bar, all he/she does is scan something? Heck, it could be so automated that the mini-bar knows what has been taken when you remove.

    So every time you complained about the charge, the line item was removed, but the ORIGINAL source of the problem was never fixed.

    It would not surprise me that someone else on the cruise had free use of a mini-bar for their vacation.

  • Annie M

    This would be a first for me, to find the refrigerator mini bar empty on a ship. We ask to have the mini bar removed from our refrigerator every time we get on a ship. (Which now simply means taking everything out, putting it somewhere else on a shelf, letting the room steward know who puts it all back and locks the refrigerator the last night of the cruise).

    I have also never had mini bar items mistakenly put on our invoice once in more than 20 cruises, let alone 4 times on one cruise.

    This seems like more is an issue with programming on this particular ship or cruise that needs to be fixed by the ship staff vs. system wide.

  • Rebecca

    I really don’t believe this is a conspiracy. Let alone a significant, ongoing conspiracy. This is akin to something ringing up for the wrong price at the cash register. It happens, the humans have to program the computers so there will be mistakes sometimes. I agree it’s irritating to have it happen several times, but seeing as they promptly removed it and apologized, I don’t see what could be done any further. I can only guess that the reason for the non-response was that the bill had already been corrected, they’d already apologized; anything else would be redundant. It simply isn’t a compensation worthy complaint.

  • Dutchess

    This is the most likely scenario. There’s a minibar that’s keyed to the wrong folio or room number.


    Have a number of people contacted you about this problem on cruise ships? Or is this the only one? Granted it is a bit odd and probably more the result of human and/or computer error than a widespread conspiracy to pad a bill. I was on a cruise this year that had bar codes on the in-room mini bars and that code was scanned if anything was used. So Jeff W’s explanation makes more sense that the cruise company simply adding things to a bill.

  • LDVinVA

    I often read a cruise travel forum and have seen a number of reports from travelers about this type of phantom charge. I cannot help but wonder if it may be deliberate. On our next cruise I will check our charges daily!

  • SierraRose 49

    This sounds like the cabin steward MAY have accidentally key coded the mini-bar charges from ANOTHER cabin on Mr. Hoagland’s cabin. Each steward attends to 8-12 cabins usually twice daily and if there is a mini-bar, he/she notes what beverages have been consumed and immediately submits charges electronically. Like Mr. Hoagland, we review our bill DAILY. I do think the revenue officer should have pursued this matter further – at least verify that Mr. Hoagland did NOT have a mini-bar in his cabin.

  • Lindabator

    been on over 40 cruises – usually with large groups I escort — NEVER had this issue once. Sounds like the minibar was keyed to the wrong room number – no biggie – they always take off charges erroneously billed

  • Chris_In_NC

    Bingo. The charge was removed, but NO ONE took the time to identify the SOURCE of the problem. So, it kept recurring.

  • Michael__K

    Anything is possible but the cruise line’s failure to respond and explain the problem implies either care-free negligence or some other explanation that is more embarrassing than their silence.

  • AAGK

    A minibar charge that occurred 4 times could be another item/amenity he used that the system improperly coded/miscategorized as “minibar” on the bill.

  • Michael__K

    I don’t assume there’s any conspiracy, but I’m more troubled by their failure to respond to Chris and by their apparent disinterest in getting to the bottom of the underlying issue than by the billing errors per se.

  • Michael__K

    Why are we searching for explanations and excuses for a business that declined every opportunity to explain what happened?

  • Rebecca

    My guess would be the only people authorized to fix the issue, which is likely related to some sort of electronic snafu, are not on hand while the cruise is sailing. They’re probably located in the main port. So it’s perfectly possible it was fixed before a new round of passengers got on the ship. Most companies won’t let more than a small handful of people access the software to fix this. As far as the non-response, I’m speculating that they didn’t respond because (just like is always suggested to those writing customer service complaining about an issue) there’s no request for compensation and they’ve already apologized. Could they have acknowledged it? Sure. But it would just be a boilerplate apology, what else could they do?

  • Michael__K

    If they gave a darn and they found and fixed the problem for the next sailing then I would have expected them to respond to Chris and say so.

  • Alan Gore

    In fact, Hoagland SPECIFICALLY ASKED for crew to come and look at the cabin, so no one could accuse him of hiding the minibar under the bed. They refused.

    My criterion for telling whether a mistake is ‘honest’ or not: if a company keeps making the same error time after time, it’s a lucrative mistake that is by hidden policy. An example is those rental car charges for fake damage that go away when you call the company on them. Profit rides on having a sufficiently large number of victims not to go to an advocacy site like this one.

  • Lindabator

    if was programmed incorrectly – NOT a “hidden policy” just an error

  • Lindabator

    they owe no explanation to a 3rd party – and since the problem was already resolved, they would probably not be too concerned with talking to said 3rd party

  • Michael__K

    Of course they don’t “owe” anyone an explanation. And as readers and potential customers we don’t “owe” them the benefit of the doubt either.

    Their customer *deserves* an explanation (if not also a gesture of goodwill for the hassle). And if they want to maintain a reputation as a company which cares about their customers then readers deserve to see them demonstrate this when journalists such as Chris ask for their comment on a case like this one.

  • AAGK

    Bc that’s the purpose of the site, to figure out why this stuff happens so that we can tell the companies to fix it and not spend vacation time arguing with them.

  • Michael__K

    My takeaway is that this company either doesn’t care or doesn’t want us to know why this happened.

    In fairness, it seems they were quick to reverse the charges each time. But we can apparently expect to experience the hassle of needing to go back and complain many times without getting the underlying issue addressed with this company.

  • greg watson

    I am a ‘Crown & Anchor’ (RCC) member, & I would have expected a reply of some kind. Maybe I’ll just vacation near home for awhile.

  • Rebecca

    Again, I don’t disagree. I do suspect this isn’t the first or last time it happened. Not a conspiracy, just simple human error. I remember when I used to manually change over sale prices in the system at a grocery store, it happened all the time. I was the backup to change prices, and you’d be amazed how many flavors/scents/varieties of some products there are. I wasn’t saying it was OK they didn’t respond, or excusing it, just providing an explaination. And the fact of the matter is, any response would be a boilerplate apology. Which would get pretty much the same criticism as no response. I wasn’t saying that’s OK (it’s not), I was just saying. They DID provide an actual apology to the OP. So I just don’t see it as a point to be hung up on. I was more addressing that I don’t think it points to a giant conspiracy, not saying a business should ignore an inquiry.

  • Michael__K

    Why would any response be a “boilerplate apology?”

    They could address the question head on and investigate, and then they could say they need more time to look into it or they could say they found the problem and fixed it or they could say it was human error and they’ve spoken to the relevant staff about it, etc.

    They don’t need so reveal any trade secrets and I wouldn’t call any of those types of responses “boilerplate.” (And even a boilerplate response would be better than no response IMO.)

  • Rebecca

    All I’m saying is that in my experience, they’re only going to send a form letter, or at least a mostly form letter. It isn’t ok to do that, just that’s how it is. The only reason I mentioned it was because Chris indicated he thought receiving no response was some kind of evidence there is a conspiracy. I think it’s just crappy customer service, which (I think) is what you’re also saying. Not a symptom of a bigger problem other than having crappy customer service.

  • PsyGuy

    My instinct is that at one time not to far in the past, there was a mini-bar in that cabin. The problem is that the revenue and accounting system is so complex, that fixing it on the cruise is something that can’t really be done, and honestly is one of such a large pool of action items, that it’s just not a priority.

  • PsyGuy

    This could easily explain it, my philosophy is not to attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.

  • PsyGuy

    It’s such a minor issue, that assigning someone to actually chase down the problem isn’t worth it during the scope of the actual cruise, and likely even if they did, it’s not likely they can do much about it aside from removing the unit from wherever it is and replacing it with a unit with a different bar code or other inventory control device.

  • PsyGuy

    Well the first time it’s an error, after that it’s planned/accepted negligence.

  • PsyGuy

    They didn’t respond likely because of all the issues, and action items, the PR contact had no clue what the problem was or its cause, and such didn’t have a response that would have been acceptable “I don’t know” is seldom seen as positive.

  • PsyGuy

    The fix was likely a new sticker, much less a recodeing of software.

  • PsyGuy

    It’s just not cost effective for them.

  • michael anthony

    I have to agree. If one was to do research, you’d find many states Attorney Generals taking retailers to court for repeated errors in how they charge. For example, not changing an item on sale to sale price, thus most customers miss the error. Sure, it’s only small change, but small change across a chain is significant. One time, maybe two, I’d look at it as an error. After that, especially after telling them to look at his cabin, points to sloppy practices or indifference to the matter. It happened to this man 4 times,I find it unlikely he’s the only one.

  • Pickwix

    MINOR problem??? Theft from a passenger is not a minor issue. It is theft if you continue to bill a passenger(s) for non-existent service. Same thing as someone using your credit card illegally.

  • AAGK

    I agree. Having to report even small items repeatedly is annoying bc it also wrongly makes the guest seem, and feel, like a pest like, “here’s the minibar guy again….”

  • AAGK

    I recently had SPG send me my “master bill” bc it kept shorting my points and I couldn’t point to any particular line item that was missing just that the cost and the points were so far apart (I know tax and tip don’t count but still…” I was owed twice the points I received for my past 6 stays and since I’m gold, they owed me another 50% of those. They were awarded eventually but it was annoying.

  • DChamp56

    30+ Cruises on Royal Caribbean, and only once was there a charge on my bill that wasn’t mine, and they quickly fixed it, no questions asked.
    I do NOT see this as a way to get extra revenue, it’s simply a mistake that was made, and I’m sure not on purpose.
    Also, I’ve had problems that I’ve asked them to contact me about, and some times it’s taken over 3 months but they DID call back.

  • gpx21dlr

    I agree with you. They are betting on the fact that most people don’t peruse their invoices/bills line-by-line and just look at the bottom and pay the total. “If the passenger balks, we simply remove the charge. If they don’t, we make money.”

  • Michael__K

    Ok, but Chris asked them a more general and generic question about billing for amenities that aren’t in a cabin. They could respond without disclosing anything specific about the customer’s account.

  • jim6555

    My spouse and I are planning to go on a Baltic Sea cruise. I put down a deposit with MSC, an Italian owned cruise line that attracts mostly European passengers. I subsequently discovered that Royal Caribbean has a competing cruise leaving and returning on the same dates. The RC cruise offers slightly more time in each port and supposedly has a much higher percentage of American and Canadian passengers on board (it’s much harder to relate to other passengers when their native tongue is different than yours), but the RC cruise is more expensive. Since I can still get my deposit back from MSC, I was seriously considering switching cruise lines until I read about Mr. Hoagland’s mini-bar problem. I’m going on the trip to get away from daily problems and concerns and the last thing that I want is having to haggle with the cruise line each day over improper charges. I’m now leaning toward staying with our original plans but will make my final decision within the next two weeks.

  • The Original Joe S

    always assume malice.

  • The Original Joe S

    who said anything about compensation? Guy wants not to be charged for something he didn’t buy. Lazy scumbags on the boat did nothing to fix the problem, likely hoping he’d just pay up.

  • The Original Joe S

    My guess is that you are wrong, that someone on the boat could re-program the computer, and they simply don’t care.

  • The Original Joe S

    bug letter….

  • The Original Joe S

    but they don’t want to, because they are dirtbags trying to continue the scam.

  • The Original Joe S

    after the first or 2nd time complaining, just wait until the end of the boat ride, and then tell ’em to remove ALL the erroneous charges for all the days. “why didn’t you come on the day it happened?” “Because you are useless, lazy, slothful wankers who didn’t fix the problem after 2 times. I’m on vacation, not working for YOU! Now fix it all.”

    Why waste time going to them every day when they don’t care to fix the problem?

  • The Original Joe S

    Yeah, but how did it decrement stuff which wasn’t there to be decremented?

  • The Original Joe S

    see my post above. haggle one or two times; then save it up for the end of the boat ride.
    Now, if you are really nice to them, they’ll take you below to the glass bottom of the boat so that you can see the old Italian fleet.

  • LonnieC

    Except that by not responding they’re simply being stupid. They spend time and money trying to create a good reputation, and then muddy it up by ignoring an inquiry. if it was a simple error (i.e., minibar in the wrong room), then an explanation would not only have satisfied Chris, but would have put the company in a good light (“Oops, we made a mistake, found the problem, and fixed it.”). By ignoring his inquiry, the company appears to be trying to hide something. Bad P.R. As I said: Stupid.

  • Rebecca

    There’s a really significant risk involved with that. That and usually the POS system has its own support, not an internal person.

  • JewelEyed

    I’m not sure I agree. I’m sure it’s a digital system, and I can’t imagine it’s so impossible to mark a mini-bar “out of service”.

  • PsyGuy

    It got placed in someone else’s cabin possibly.

  • PsyGuy

    It wasn’t theft, the PAX was invoiced, no funds were actually misappropriated.

  • DChamp56

    Absolutely. There’s many ships that don’t have the little fridges that they use as a mini bar. When there are, I ask the stateroom attendant to remove everything from it on the first day.

  • DChamp56

    The story you read here is a VERY rare occurrence. I wouldn’t let it change my mind on the cruise.
    You can always have the stateroom attendant remove everything from it on the first day.

  • The Original Joe S

    They’re betting the guy gives up and simply pays. They bet that others don’t notice the scam until long after they leave the boat.
    I personally believe it’s a purposeful attempt at extracting more money from the people paying to take a boat ride.

  • Michael__K

    There was no one specific minibar charge. He asked in general “Why was it billing guests for amenities that weren’t even in the cabin?”

    The answer wouldn’t need to be canned or about the customer’s account. And they obviously didn’t even respond to the customer either to explain what happened.

  • AMA

    It wasn’t empty; the cabin did not have a refrigerator of any kind.

  • Michael__K

    He also asked the general question. Royal Caribbean answered neither question, neither to Chris nor to the account holder.

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