A dirty balcony caused this couple to leave their cruise

Can you get a refund for your cruise over a dirty balcony?

If you find heavy soot on the balcony of your cabin, should you be able to leave the cruise and get a refund? Rafael Rottiers and his wife believe so. They insist the filth on the railings and floor of their cabin’s balcony aboard Costa’s neoRiviera endangered their health. So they abandoned the ship days before it ended.

Now that the couple is back home, they want a refund. But what exactly was that document the two signed before leaving the cruise?

Rottiers’ plight is a reminder to all travelers whose plans include a cruise this summer. Not all cabins and their locations are created equally. So it’s essential to acquaint yourself with the floor plans and available room information of your intended ship before booking. Otherwise, you too might find yourself faced with intolerable conditions that end with an expensive, premature jump from your ship.

Celebrating an anniversary with a 15-day Indian Ocean cruise

This misadventure began after the couple decided to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary by taking a cruise. Having enjoyed other Costa cruises in the past, the duo settled on an Indian Ocean sailing. The 15-day journey would begin and end in Bombay, India.

The soot on the balcony forced them to leave the cruise before it was over. This was their intended itinerary
The intended itinerary of the couple’s anniversary cruise

With much anticipation, the Rottiers flew to Bombay in January of this year. Their disappointment with the ship and cruise began soon after boarding Costa’s neoRiviera.

Problems with the Panorama Suite aboard the neoRiviera

“We paid for an expensive suite on this dream cruise to the Maldives,” Rottiers recalled. “Unfortunately, the whole thing turned into a disaster.”

As soon as Rottiers opened the door to his cabin, he was disappointed. The spacious suite with the panoramic views looked very different from what he was expecting.

“This was a much smaller Panorama Suite as we had already experienced on two other ships with Costa,” Rottiers explained. “We expected that a cabin labeled as Panorama suite would be the same as on the other Costa cruises.”

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Rottiers complained to guest relations about the discrepancy. A Costa representative assured him that the cruise line had assigned the couple to the correct cabin on the neoRiviera. On this particular ship, the Panorama Suite does not have the same dimensions as on the cruise lines’ other vessels.

This anniversary cruise wasn’t getting off to a good start. But things were about to get much worse.

“There was unbearable loud hammering and construction works just below our suite the next morning,” Rottiers told me. “We are not complainers; in fact, we are tolerant people. But after several hours I reported it. The next morning the same noise happened again. After I reported it this time, the workers finally stopped it on the second day.”

But the worst, and what ultimately led to the couple leaving the cruise permanently, was yet to come.

A dirty balcony: black soot on the railings and floor

Around the third day of this increasingly disappointing cruise, Rottiers’ wife discovered black soot on the balcony. This debris was accumulating on the railings, floor, chairs and windows as well. When she wiped down the balcony railing, the tissue turned black.

The heavy soot that the couple found on the railing of their balcony.
The heavy soot Rottiers found when she wiped down the balcony.

Now Rottiers went back to the guest relations area to make yet another complaint. He wanted the soot removed from his balcony. He says that someone was sent to clean their outdoor area, but the next day the filth reappeared. To document the problem, Rottiers filmed his wife wiping down the railings, floor and furniture of their cabin’s balcony to reveal the heavy soot.

When Rottiers wiped down the floor, she found more soot.
Rottiers’ wife wiped down the floor of the dirty balcony, too.

A few days later, Rottiers says, his wife began experiencing breathing problems.

That’s when the couple determined that the soot problem on his cabin’s balcony was not just an aesthetic one. His wife’s coughing was becoming worse, he says. They both assumed that the debris was settling into their lungs as well. The Rottiers began to contemplate leaving the cruise at the next port and flying home.

But when Rottiers tried to connect to the internet to figure out how to quickly fly home, he hit another roadblock.

“I paid for the internet package,” Rottiers said. “But it wasn’t accessible from my suite. I had to go into the hall.”

The lack of internet was one more complaint that sent Rottiers to guest relations.

We want to leave the cruise — and we want a refund

After a disappointing day excursion in the Maldives, Rottiers says that they made the final decision to leave the cruise.

A scenic cruise to the Maldives turned out to be docking at a construction and industry sites (Military, Coal, extremely dirty, etc…). We decided to leave the cruise permanently in Colombo, Sri Lanka, [on day 10]. We wanted to leave before then when we were anchored at the Maldives. But I couldn’t find a suitable flight back to Brussels at that moment.

Rottiers made his final trip to the customer relations desk on the neoRiviera and announced their intentions to leave the cruise. He also told the representative that he expected a full refund for this cruise fiasco. The Costa crew member told Rottiers that she could not refund his cruise. The couple could leave right after Rottiers signed a “Break of Voyage” declaration.

Rottiers says he was fine signing the form, although it was in Italian and he wasn’t sure what it said. Only later, he says, did Costa inform him of the contents of the document. The Break of Voyage document states that if a passenger leaves the cruise early, Costa will not provide a refund.

I was asked to sign this document to be given back our passports, which were held at reception. This is what I believed I was signing. It sounded normal to me. So I assume that this is a deception from Costa, and at least not informing a passenger about what they are signing.

After signing the Break of Voyage declaration, the couple disembarked the neoRiviera one last time and headed to the airport. Once home, they began an ill-advised campaign with Costa that ended up in the legal department almost immediately.

“Black poisoning exhaust soot” polluting the whole ship?

By the time, Rottiers’ request for help hit the Elliott Advocacy helpline, Costa had already sent his case to its legal team.

How did it get there so quickly? Well, unfortunately, Rottiers had never read our publisher Christopher Elliott’s guidance on fixing your own consumer problem. That article lays out the foundation of successful advocacy and reveals the tactics our team uses every day to reach favorable resolutions.

But since Rottiers had not read Christopher’s consumer problem-solving tips, his self-advocacy attempts veered wildly off course. His initial correspondence to Costa contained a laundry list of complaints — big and small. And he made unsubstantiated accusations that guaranteed the case’s spot in the legal department: He claimed the soot on his balcony was poisoning the entire ship.

Understand that my wife meanwhile was in the room, coughing her lungs out, and urging me to get us off of this horrible ship asap.


Inexplicably, after this dire statement, Rottiers turned the topic to the internet that didn’t work.

Note: If you are trying to convince a company that they’ve done something egregious like poisoning you, bringing up nonfunctional internet only serves to devalue your complaint. It is critical to stick to the most significant issue in any problem-solving mission.

And there was one other significant error in Rottiers’ problem-solving approach.

Within days of the couple arriving home, Rottiers had uploaded his self-made video that illustrated the soot on the balcony to Youtube. It’s never a good idea to begin a public shaming campaign while you are attempting to get a company to respond positively to your complaint. This type of tactic will almost always fail.

The Elliott Advocacy team responds

When I went through Rottiers’ complaint and read his desired resolution (a full cruise refund), I suspected that would not be possible. The couple left the cruise early, but not until the 10th day of the journey. They completed the majority of their anniversary cruise.

And then there was also the problem of the “Break the Voyage” document that Rottiers signed. According to Costa, it says he understood he would not be receiving a refund for the balance of his cruise.

The fact that Costa had sent his case to its legal department was yet another roadblock. We know from experience that once a case hits the legal department of a company, it’s likely that only an attorney can intervene on behalf of the consumer.

But I continued to read through all Rottiers’ documents.

Regular readers of this site know that I’ve never taken a cruise. So I always use my fellow advocate Dwayne Coward as my encyclopedia of cruise information when I mediate a cruise case. To my noncruiser eyes, Rottiers’ soot-on-the-balcony video didn’t look so shocking since it is in an outdoor area. So I asked Dwayne, as an experienced cruiser, what he thought.

And that’s when Dwayne was able to shine a new light on this case.

“Google rear-facing balcony cruise soot”

“It is a common issue with the rear-facing balconies on cruises,” Dwayne explained. “That is the path the soot blows to from the smokestacks. We noticed it on one cruise when we had a rear balcony, but the view was worth it. Google rear-facing balcony cruise soot.”

When I “Googled” that phrase I was inundated with a plethora of similar stories — passengers who loved their fabulous panoramic views at the back-end of the ship but… the soot appears to be an unavoidable problem because of the location of the cabins in relation to the smokestacks.

But Dwayne had more insight.

“The soot accumulation mostly occurs when the ship is in port while getting ready for departure, where it has time to settle,” Dwayne told me. “When the ship is moving, it blows out to sea. It isn’t something that would happen throughout the cruise.”

What if your cruise cabin has a dirty balcony and you leave early

I spoke to Rottiers and explained why this is not a case that we could successfully mediate. Now he had a different idea and asked if I thought he should develop a webpage to force Costa to respond.

I can easily just go ahead, create a new website, write the story, list all the things, put all the videos online and make sure it goes viral, so it gets seen by millions of people warning them about the health dangers and the malpractices and below 0 customer service and deceitfulness they use. That I can do in one day, and send it to them.

Unfortunately, many consumers have become convinced that they can quickly build a viral social media campaign against a company to resolve their problem.

I know a few things about the way search engines work and I can tell you that hitting one million page views on any piece of media is not something that would happen “in one day” — unless you’re Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian. So please don’t rely on that tactic to solve your consumer problem.

As I pointed out to Rottiers, this article about the couple that was kicked off their cruise in Helsinki received tons of traffic (not a million pageviews — not even close). However, it was picked up by many major media sites, but still, HAL refused to address the situation. So It is highly unlikely that Rottiers’ video will compel Costa to refund his cruise.

Your rights if you leave the cruise before it’s over

Unfortunately, for Rottiers, the facts were not on his side even if he had not signed the Break the Voyage document. The terms and conditions of every major cruise line state that if you leave the cruise before it’s over you should not expect any refund. And Costa’s early disembarkation policy is the same:

Leave your cruise early -- you aren't getting a refund
If a guest “interrupts a voyage that has already started, the Guest shall not be entitled to any refund

We’ve seen that policy in action many times here at Elliott Advocacy — stories of passengers leaving their cruises early (many times against their will) and walking away empty-handed:

Before you board your next cruise, make sure to familiarize yourself with your cruise line’s terms and conditions. Another enlightening document to consult before taking a maritime adventure is Cruise Line International Association’s Passenger Bill of Rights. You may be surprised by the limited rights passengers have when they board an international cruise.

The bottom line: If you choose to leave your cruise before it’s over — even over a dirt balcony — don’t expect a refund.

Would you leave your cruise over heavy soot on the balcony of your cabin?

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