Lillian Kohler never imagined she’d get stiffed for $36,000 by a supposedly reputable cruise company like Vantage Travel.
But then, Vantage Travel’s reputation had been on the rocks for a while. My advocacy team and I had issued warning after warning last year about the company’s practices, which included delayed refunds and nonexistent customer service.
So we weren’t surprised when we heard the cruise line had gone under and taken Kohler’s hard-earned money with it.
What surprised us — and might also surprise you — is that, unlike the other Vantage Travel customers who lost everything, there was a path to a refund for her. And if you’re in the same boat as she is, there might be a way for you to get your money back, too.
Let’s find out:
- What happens when a cruise line goes bankrupt or stops operating?
- How do you avoid losing your money when a cruise line goes bankrupt?
- Does a credit card protect you when a company is bankrupt?
But first, let’s see what happened to Kohler and whether her path to a refund was successful.
“We understand that this situation may cause some inconvenience”
Kohler contacted me in May, when she was in England on a 50th-anniversary trip. She was about to start Vantage Travel’s “Castles and Cliffs: Circumnavigating Ireland and Beyond“ tour in Edinburgh on May 27.
But just before the trip, Kohler started to hear about trouble at Vantage. The company wasn’t answering its phones or responding to emails from customers.
Then she received an email from the company:
We want to provide you with an update regarding the network issues that commenced on April 21, 2023. We understand that this situation may cause some inconvenience in preparing for your upcoming trip.
Please be assured that we are taking this matter seriously and have engaged a renowned national forensic firm to investigate the incident thoroughly. The investigation is ongoing, and our phone lines, email, operational software, and website are still affected.
Despite the impact on our systems, we are pleased to inform you that our previously scheduled cruises are proceeding as planned, and we remain committed to ensuring the safety and comfort of our passengers.
But almost none of that was true. Vantage was, in fact, having some solvency issues and was quietly canceling tours and cruises.
On May 25, Vantage canceled Kohler’s trip and offered her either a credit or a refund. She chose a refund.
On June 29, the company filed for bankruptcy protection.
Kohler never received her money.
“Someone has to do something to stop this company from continuing to hurt people,” she told me.
That someone should be our advocacy organization, she suggested.
A note about our Vantage Travel coverage
Before I continue, I wanted to say a few words about how we approached the Vantage Travel bankruptcy. I work with the best advocacy team in the business, and over the last three decades, we’ve seen many bankruptcies and unexpected business closures.
In the past, we’ve inserted ourselves into the story and crossed a line from being consumer advocates to becoming activists. (And in the process, we’ve gotten ourselves sued and subpoenaed by the federal government.)
When we assessed the Vantage Travel bankruptcy, our team saw that this one was fairly small and affected only a handful of our readers. We concluded we would best serve travelers by giving them proven advice on how to retrieve their money, either from their credit card, bank or travel insurance company.
So we decided to help where we could — but not go overboard.
Kohler’s case was one of several dozen where our team quietly worked in the background to do what we could, and without any need for publicity.
What happens when a cruise line goes bankrupt or stops operating?
When your cruise line goes under, things get very messy. My team and I have handled cases from dozens of bankruptcies.
The worst ones are when the passengers are already on the ship or are about to board. Passengers sometimes are stranded in a foreign port with no way of getting home. Crewmembers are crying as they serve passengers their final meals on board.
Don’t let this happen to you. Our first tip for avoiding the worst effects of a bankruptcy is to see it coming. Work with a qualified travel advisor who can steer you away from a troubled cruise line. (In Kohler’s case, a travel pro would have told her to avoid Vantage at all costs. Sound advice, that.)
Note: Some cruise lines continue operating during a bankruptcy. Typically, they would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and continue to run normally while they restructure. In that case, your cruise will continue as planned. No need to panic.
How to get home
If your cruise line has flat-out shut down, you’re on your own. Call your travel advisor and see if they can help you get home. If you didn’t book with a travel agent, you may need to throw yourself on the mercy of your airline and ask for the equivalent of a bereavement fare, or a break on a last-minute airline ticket.
How to get your money back
When a cruise line declares bankruptcy, passengers with tickets become claimants in bankruptcy court. A bankruptcy judge will decide how much money you will get after all the company’s debts are paid off. Usually, passengers are last in line for repayment, and even then they usually get only pennies on the dollar.
What if another company acquires your bankrupt cruise line?
Most cruise bankruptcies end with the bankrupt business being acquired by another company. In that case, the new business may offer a credit to the former customers (but there are no guarantees). For example, Aurora Expeditions acquired the remnants of Vantage Travel and began offering cruises under the “Vantage Explorations” brand. (Related: Here are the names and numbers of Vantage Explorations executives.)
Vantage passengers were none too pleased with the Vantage Explorations offer. It offered Vantage Travel customers a future cruise credit valid for five years. But there were limits. Customers could only use their credits to cover half of the cost of an ocean cruise. And for river or land travel, they could only cover 20 percent of the cruise with their credits — the rest has to be real money.
How do you avoid losing your money when a cruise line goes bankrupt?
You don’t have to get stuck with a worthless cruise ticket. Here are some ways you can protect yourself:
Consider travel insurance
Look for a policy that covers bankruptcy or insolvency. Note, though, that some of the policies offered by cruise lines are self-insurance, so they will not cover a bankruptcy. If you’re booking with a cruise line that is already troubled, make sure you don’t buy its optional insurance. You will almost certainly not be covered — something too many Vantage Travel customers found out in the end.
Pay with a credit card
You have some protections under the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), which covers credit card purchases. (More on that in just a minute.) Unfortunately, many weaker cruise lines offer discounts for customers who pay by cash or check. But paying by cash, check or debit card is highly risky, since those purchases are not covered by the FCBA. Just before Vantage filed for bankruptcy, it was pushing customers to pay cash, knowing full well that those customers would not be protected under the FCBA. Always pay by credit card. Always.
Know your rights
Cruise passengers have virtually no rights under federal law, but the Federal Maritime Commission requires cruise lines to have a bond or other financial surety available to refund passenger deposits. And even if you didn’t pay by credit card, you may be able to contact your bank and get the transaction reversed under Regulation E. However, these are both long shots.
How does a credit card protect you when a company goes bankrupt?
The Fair Credit Billing Act allows you to dispute a charge on your credit card for goods and services not rendered. I explain the entire process in my complete guide to credit card disputes.
But you only have 60 days to dispute your charges. Most cruises are booked months, if not years in advance. There’s some good news: Your bank or credit card company may still help.
- American Express card members have up to 120 days from the transaction date to dispute the charge. There’s an exception for returned goods or goods and services not received.
- MasterCard’s service agreement has a provision for failed travel service providers, such as airlines and cruise lines. Under certain circumstances, you have a maximum of 150 calendar days from the latest expected service date or up to 150 days after the service cessation date to file a claim.
- Visa allows disputes for bankrupt providers up to 120 calendar days from the last date you expected to receive the merchandise or services, not to exceed 540 calendar days from the transaction processing date.
Put differently, if your cruise isn’t scheduled to happen for another year and then the cruise line declares bankruptcy before you can set sail, you could be covered under your credit card merchant agreement.
No hope for a refund from Vantage?
For most readers who asked for help with their Vantage Travel cruise, there was little hope of a refund. That’s because they had taken Vantage’s discount offer and paid cash. Their banks told them the transaction was final, and they were stuck as claimants in bankruptcy court.
They could set up Facebook groups and take Vantage’s former owners to court, as some ultimately did. But as I mentioned before, our team felt our efforts were better spent helping those we could.
And for Kohler, there was hope. We advised her in June to file a credit card dispute. To her delight, Chase agreed to accept her dispute even though she was outside the 60 days. (Related: He paid Vantage $18,536. Why is it taking so long to get a cruise refund?)
In September, Chase temporarily credited Kohler $36,000.
And at the end of the year, Chase sent her a holiday present.
“Chase just sent us a letter notifying us that the dispute is settled and we can keep the money they temporarily issued to us months ago,” she told me.
“There are no words that can express our gratitude. The canceled trip was to be a celebration of our 50th wedding anniversary. Now we will be able to plan another celebration. Thank you so much.”
My team and I are happy that we could help. We wish we could help everyone hurt by the Vantage Travel bankruptcy.