A ‘war concern’ surcharge

By | February 7th, 2003

Q: A week before our Caribbean cruise on the Royal Olympia’s Voyager, my travel agent faxed me a notice saying that there would be a new $6 per person, per day fuel surcharge relating to “war concerns” and a $3 per person per day security surcharge. I read the fine print on our ticket and it doesn’t refer to any fuel or security surcharges. It also says that if there is going to be any additional charge, we’ll be given 20 days notice. We were only given seven days notice. What’s going on?

— Connie Sarver

A: After reviewing the notifications your travel agent sent you and corresponding with your cruise line, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on either.

The surcharges aren’t without a precedent. Fuel prices are on the rise, and security doesn’t come cheap. It is the suddenness with which the charges were imposed – and the lack of explanation – that I find troubling. According to the memo you received, the cruise line planned to collect the fees onboard. For an eight-day cruise, that would have set you back by a total of $72.

I asked cruise line representative Irene Rocafort to help me understand why these charges were being imposed on such short notice, and to explain what they were for. Rocafort didn’t return phone calls, but sent back a terse, one-sentence e-mail saying the “fule/security (sic) charges will not apply.”

I asked Rocafort to clarify – would the charges not apply to you, or to all the passengers on the Voyager’s sailing? Would the surcharges apply to future cruises? Her answer: “The below cahrges (sic) will not apply to ANY passanger (sic).”

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I’m starting to wonder if Royal Olympic Cruises really is, as its slogan claims, the “Intelligent way to see the world.”

What’s going on? Maybe the cruise line took a look at last year’s earnings and decided it needed to pad its profits with these surcharges. No, the add-ons aren’t out of line, but the way in which they were implemented suggests they may not be legitimate.

The fees appeal more to our emotions than to our sense of reason. Linking the fuel surcharge to war concerns, for example, tugs at our patriotic heartstrings. Don’t we all just want to do our part in fighting terrorism? Similarly, the new security fee dredges up our worst memories of the Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985. And we don’t want any more American tourists going overboard in wheelchairs, do we?

Royal Olympic also quickly rescinded its surcharges once I contacted it, a tacit agreement that the fees were not on the up-and-up.

Let me be clear about this: I’m not opposed to either of the levies, as long as they’re explained well in advance of the cruise. Royal Olympic tacked the fuel and security charges on to the price of your vacation at the last minute without bothering to tell you why. It’s perfectly justified in imposing these fees on future sailings, but I think it owes its passengers a better explanation and far, far more advance notice.

If you are on a cruise and encounter a surcharge you hadn’t expected, the best solution isn’t to pay up and complain later. Fight it now. Ask to speak with a supervisor. Request to see the disclosure on the fee, and if it’s flimsy, or if you get a vague answer like “your travel agent should have told you,” then you should politely ask to have the charge removed.

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If the cruise line refuses, make sure you put the charge on your credit card. Collect all the relevant documents and file a dispute with your credit card once you get back home.

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