“A cruise from hell”: Raw sewage in my cabin on Holland America!

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By Christopher Elliott

Angus Urquhart has a problem with his Holland America cruise — a big problem. He says he had to endure a “cruise from hell,” which included raw sewage in his cabin and an air conditioner that didn’t work, and he wants a refund.

Cruise problems are a regular feature of our advocacy. But when Urquhart’s case crossed my desk, it floated to the top of my to-do list. What happened to him is beyond disgusting — and he has the pictures to prove it. (I’ll get to that in a moment.)

But his cruise problem is also a remarkable story about how connecting with the right person can make a difference and that self-advocacy is a powerful tool for resolving an issue with Holland America or any other cruise line. (Here are some more cruise mistakes you’ll want to avoid.)

“We are very sorry for the stateroom issues encountered on his cruise and the disappointment and frustration he encountered,” a Holland America said when asked about his case.

“We have just experienced a cruise from hell”

Urquhart’s problems with Holland America started almost the moment he boarded the Oosterdam for an Italy cruise this summer.

“We had raw sewage filling the toilet in our suite multiple times every day of our cruise,” he says. “The staff tried to fix the problem but could not.”

Then it got worse. Halfway through the cruise, with temperatures near an infernal 110 degrees, the air conditioning stopped working.

Urquhart and his wife, Susan, requested a different cabin. No can do, a Holland America representative told them — there were no vacant rooms on the ship.

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“We spent countless hours on the ship dealing with this issue and watched them carry buckets of sewage through our suite and had to endure disgusting odors and sights. Our balcony was also a filthy mess,” he says. “We have just experienced a cruise from hell.”

An overflowing toilet in Angus Urquhart’s suite on the Holland America Oosterdam. 

Oh no, not another poop cruise!

You’ve probably read about plumbing problems on cruises before, maybe in the comments on this site. But the worst incident to date happened on February 10, 2013.

The Carnival Triumph, which was cruising through the Gulf of Mexico, suffered an engine fire. Although crewmembers quickly extinguished the blaze, the ship lost power. Raw sewage started to back up. Passengers reported seeing bags of human waste on the deck.

Making matters worse, the ship drifted back toward the coast of the United States as it waited for a seagoing tugboat. The Triumph had planned to get towed to a port in Mexico. The currents delayed their rescue. Passengers had to wait four days before leaving the infamous “poop cruise.”

Carnival reportedly knew that there were engine problems but failed to act.

After that disaster, the last thing any cruise line wants is a story about sewage backing up on one of its ships.

He tried to resolve the problem with his cruise, but …

Needless to say, overflowing toilets and nonworking air conditioning are not cool on any cruise. But Urquhart’s case was special. He’d paid extra for an upgrade to a suite and had sunk $9,600 into his 12-night Italy vacation. 

I can only imagine what it must have been like — sweating in a foul-smelling suite in the middle of the Mediterranean for almost two weeks. You don’t need any waves to make you nauseous. 

Urquhart followed our advice on resolving a cruise problem by immediately asking Holland America to adjust his bill. This isn’t the first complaint we’ve received about Holland America.

“A Holland America representative on the ship offered us a $600 per person future cruise credit,” he recalls. “I told him that was not acceptable. He said I should contact Holland America headquarters when I get home.” (Related: Smoked out of my suite on the Carnival Miracle.)

Urquhart reached out to Holland America through its site, the next step of the Elliott Method escalation process.

The cruise line upped its offer. But was that enough?

Holland America: “We sincerely regret the stateroom plumbing problems you encountered”

Here’s Holland America’s “final” offer after he complained:

Thank you for contacting us regarding your sailing on ms Oosterdam. We truly appreciate your feedback; knowing your personal experience is important to us and we deeply regret the disappointment and frustration you encountered. 

We sincerely regret the stateroom plumbing problems you encountered. It is our goal to provide the best possible experience for our guests and we acknowledge the difficulty that can arise when personal facilities are not in working order. 

Because our ships sail nearly continuously, repair of onboard systems is at times necessary. Shipboard personnel do their utmost to address such issues and endeavor to alleviate any problems as quickly and completely as possible. We are very sorry that in this situation the solution was not timely or satisfactory and apologize again for the inconvenience.

We’re sorry to hear you had difficulty with the climate control on your cruise. Every suite and stateroom aboard our ships should be a comfortable and welcoming space for our guests. Of course, maintenance needs do arise from time to time, and our shipboard Guest Relations staff and maintenance personnel do their utmost to address such matters as quickly as possible. We apologize that this issue occurred and regret if our onboard team was unable to offer a suitable and timely solution.

In an effort to show our concern and in appreciation for your patronage, we would like to offer you Future Cruise Credits for $1000.00 per person USD. These will be attached to your mariner account; these credits are good for one year from the date of this communication.

Thank you once more for contacting our office. Feedback from our Mariners is vital in our mission to create once-in-a-lifetime experiences, every time, and we hope to share many more voyages with you.

Can Holland America do better?

Urquhart’s response? Also unacceptable.

“I appreciate that someone finally got back to me,” he says. “Unfortunately, our cruise was ruined! We spent countless hours dealing with the guest relations staff and the maintenance staff. This cruise was to celebrate my wife’s birthday, and she spent that evening crying! We had raw sewage filling our Neptune Suite toilet, and every time we entered the bathroom, it brought on nausea, vomiting or dry heaves!”

Urquhart turned down Holland America’s offer in writing on August 1. 

And the cruise line’s response? Dead silence.

“Holland America hasn’t responded to any of my emails since then,” he says.

How to fix a problem with your cruise

Holland America has a decent reputation for customer service, scoring 3 out of 5 on our customer responsiveness scale. Here are our executive contacts and scoring methodology for Holland America.

We have a few cases going back more than two decades, but nothing scandalous. They include a couple with a problem involving a changed port on an Antarctic cruise and a case where one of our readers boarded a cruise that had a little norovirus issue.

So how do you fix a problem with a company like Holland America?

Don’t wait

The best way to resolve most cruise problems is in real time. In my experience of advocating cases for three decades, I’ve found that waiting until you get home will diminish your chances of a successful outcome. Urquhart followed that rule, asking Holland America to address his problem right away.

Overflowing sewage is a health hazard, and in my opinion, he shouldn’t have stayed in his cabin. I would have insisted that the cruise line move him or disembark him at the next port, pay for his return flight and refund his cruise.

Climb the appeals ladder

You have to give the system a chance to work. Let the staff know of the problem while you’re on the ship, then appeal to a manager, then take it to the top. Give each rung of the ladder — crew, supervisors, managers — plenty of time to respond. 

Holland America knew the Urquhart had a bad cruise, and with every step, the seriousness of their problem became clearer. The only thing I didn’t see in Urquhart’s paper trail of correspondence between him and Holland America was the final appeal to Holland America’s vice president for food, beverage and guest services, and ultimately to its president. But I shared that information with them, and I’ll have the outcome in a minute.

Go nuclear

The nuclear option, of course, is a credit card dispute. But it would have been complicated because Urquhart only wanted a partial refund. His bank might have allowed him to do a partial dispute, but it’s more likely he would have ended up disputing the entire $9,600. Even if he had won it, he would have lost because Holland America would have suspended his Mariner Society membership and might have added him to its Do Not Sail list.

Likewise, a trip to small claims court might have yielded a judgment in his favor, but it would have torpedoed his relationship with Holland America. Again, he might have lost his frequent-cruiser benefits or been banned from cruising again.

There is another option — he could have contacted my advocacy team. And that’s exactly what he did.

What would make this right?

I asked Urquhart what would make this problem with his Holland America cruise right.

He said he wanted a 50 percent refund of the $9,600 he spent on the cruise. And he doesn’t want it to expire, as the $1,000 future cruise credit would.

“I think that’s more than fair,” he said. “We have so far not posted anything on social media or started legal action, and we will not, if Holland America agrees to settle this for our very fair request.”

Urquhart finally used the executive contacts to appeal his case to a higher level at Holland America. And he told them what he wanted.

And that did it! The cruise line offered a refund of the $2,000 he had paid for an upgrade to a suite, as well as a no-charge upgrade to a suite on his next cruise. That worked for him.

“We are glad that we have reached a resolution with him and that he will be sailing with us again soon,” a Holland America spokesman added.

I love that resolution. We’re all about self-advocacy at this site, and Urquhart’s case is a terrific example of using the right information to achieve a fair outcome. 

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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