When Marilyn Sweeney bit into a serving of sweet potato casserole during her seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Valor she tasted something unusual. It was rubbery, with a faint mint flavor.
“I did not recognize it at first,” she says. “I thought it was food.”
It wasn’t. It was chewing gum. Used chewing gum.
Sweeney thought she was going to throw up. She bolted out of her seat and made a beeline to the ship’s store and bought antiseptic. She hardly ate for the rest of the journey.
“Months later it is still distressing to remember,” she says. “I have had many sleepless nights worrying if I might contract AIDS or some other disease due to this contamination. It is very distressing. I will never be able to take a cruise again after this incident, and it used to be a favorite way for me to vacation.”
Sweeney contacted Carnival in writing after her vacation, asking for compensation. It offered her a form apology and a 10 percent discount off a future cruise.
Not enough, she says. Here’s an excerpt from her appeal:
The thought of this still disgusts me and has reactivated my PTSD. I have had treatments for my stress since I arrived home. Instead of a relaxing vacation I needed treatment to relax from the stress that this incident caused me.
Everyone I have spoken with is disgusted by the thought of someone else’s chewing gum in my mouth. I am sure you reading this would be disgusted to discover you had somebody else’s used chewing gum in your mouth. Then there’s the thought of who did this gum belong to? Do they have any diseases?
Carnival has been terrible and did not even pay for the antiseptic rinse that I had to buy! Carnival has done nothing except offer me a 10 percent discount on a future cruise. I am never going to cruise again after this incident. I have not even been able to eat sweet potatoes anymore and they were one of my favorite dishes (the gum was in a sweet potato dish).
Instead of consideration on a future cruise I want to be refunded for the cost of the cruise that I took. I want to be reasonable and I want you to be reasonable, too. I had lots of expenses associated with this “vacation” including airfare and time taken off for a time that was supposed to be relaxing. Instead I needed to recover from it.
OK, that was a pretty emotional rebuttal. Here’s Carnival’s reply:
We regret that this matter was not reported onboard as this would have allowed for timely investigation and further follow up.
Despite our best efforts to address your concern, I’m sorry you remain dissatisfied. Please know that the issue you’ve raised has been carefully addressed by the executive team and reviewed thoroughly. At this point, I must advise you that we are unable to give this matter any further consideration.
I take the opportunity to reiterate our sincere apologies previously expressed and leave you with my best wishes.
Sweeney says she reported the incident on board and even visited the ship’s doctor after eating the gum. She’s unhappy with Carnival’s response. The cruise line didn’t even cover the cost of the antiseptic when she informed the staff about the gum in her casserole. (Here’s our ultimate guide to travel food.)
At a minimum, she wants her money back for the cruise, but Carnival won’t even consider that. She thinks it can do better and wants to know if my advocacy team and I agree. Is a form apology and a 10 percent discount enough?
I agree with Carnival that this case hinges on whether she reported the alleged gum-in-the-food incident or not. Even if tried to sweep the incident under the dining room carpet, there would still be a record of her doctor’s visit. If Carnival could verify that, it might put her in a better position. (Related: Did Carnival do enough for these Destiny passengers?)
Evidence and evaluation
The other issue is evidence. Did Sweeney take photos of the gum-laced sweet potato casserole? If she did, then she’d probably have a stronger case. (Related: “This was the worst vacation any of us have ever taken“.
By the way, I’m sure Sweeney isn’t the first Carnival passenger to ask for a full refund because of an incident like this. Other cruise lines and land-based business have to deal with these types of customer grievances all the time. Some are legit, but many are sent by opportunistic customers looking for a freebie. Carnival’s skepticism is understandable.
Based on the correspondence Sweeney showed me, I think Carnival may have been too quick to dismiss her complaint. Did it under-compensate her? Maybe. But until it conducts a more formal investigation, we may never know.