A Sea Miles swindle? Carnival confuses “per cabin” with “per person”

Stuart Harstrom applied for a Carnival Sea Miles MasterCard in 2004 and used it for most of his purchases, hoping to redeem his points for a “free” vacation. Then the cruise line pulled the plug on his plans, he says.

His story is a cautionary tale about vague promises made by loyalty programs, imprecise wording on Web sites, and the fleeting nature of points.

Here’s what happened to him:

We used our card for every purchase we could and earned over 135,000 miles, which we thought was more than enough for a “free” cruise. The Sea Miles site said the Alaska cruise we wanted would cost 87,000 per stateroom.

But when we called to redeem our points, we were told it was 87,000 was per person, not per stateroom. We were so shocked because we when first got the card, the points were per stateroom, not per person!

We used all of our points, plus we had to pay an additional $800. We contacted Sea Miles after this and told them that the Web site did not indicate that the points were per person, so we would like to have the difference in points restored to our account and the difference in money, less any taxes or fees not covered by the points. There was no asterisk, number, or alphabet to refer us anywhere on the site that indicated the points were per person.

Since we called this matter to Sea Miles attention, they have changed their site to indicate that the points are per person, not per stateroom. We contacted our attorney and she wrote a letter to SeaMiles in December of 2008. She gave Sea Miles 60 days to respond. She, or we, have had no response from Sea Miles.

No kidding. Here’s a screen shot Harstrom took from the Sea Miles site.

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I asked Carnival about the “per miles”/”per cabin” confusion.

Please be advised that the terms and conditions of the Sea Miles program clearly state that points are per guest, based on double occupancy.

As a gesture of goodwill, however, Mr. Harstrom will be provided with 10,000 Sea Miles to apply towards a future cruise, airline or resort stay.

In other words, Harstrom should have read the terms and conditions of his Sea Miles program. Curiously, the terms I read make no mention of the per-guest rule.

An extra 10,000 miles is a nice gesture, but Harstrom is not entirely happy.

Is this a good offer? Should we still pursue Carnival for any more? I am just shocked they responded at all. The 10k points aren’t really enough to do anything with since the points are per person now. We would have to charge over $200,000 to really get a “free” cruise. We could use 5,000 points to get $25 back on flights, so the 10,000 points would get us back $50.

Ah, now he’s getting to the heart of the issue: Are miles worth it?

Let’s start with Carnival’s offer. Is it enough? Probably not, in the sense that it won’t make up for the extra $800 he had to spend.

Should you bother collecting miles? In a case like Harstrom’s, the answer is: absolutely not.

Harstrom’s Sea Miles MasterCard benefited Carnival and MasterCard, mostly. Not him.

Update (7 p.m.): It appears the Sea Miles site lists some of the terms that Carnival mentioned. In addition, the screen shot furnished by Harstrom from the Sea Miles site showed cabins from another cruise line, not Carnival. Presumably, these have also been updated in the meantime.

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