Should you receive a refund if you hate your cruise so much that you get off the ship early? What if you leave the cruise before it even sets sail?
Lori Rutt and her husband maintain that if intolerable conditions push you to leave the cruise, a refund is owed. The couple recently boarded their first cruise ever. But only hours later they disembarked — never to return.
So what went wrong that caused them to jump ship?
This tale points to the importance of understanding the terms and conditions of your cruise contract. If you decide to leave your cruise early, you won’t just lose your vacation plans. Abandoning the cruise will likely mean you’re abandoning the money you invested in it too. And, as Rutt discovered, you can’t depend on a credit card chargeback to save the day.
Taking their first cruise — and hating it
Rutt and her husband spent almost a year researching and planning their first cruise. The couple set their sights on an adventure through the Croatian islands.
“We have traveled extensively, but we are not really the ‘organized tour’ type, so we had never done a cruise before,” Rutt explained. “But to see the islands, we felt that a small ship cruise would be our best bet. We selected the company Sail Croatia based on its great reviews.”
Rutt says that she and her husband chose Sail Croatia’s Elegance cruise from Dubrovnik to Split. This cruise is advertised as “luxury at sea” for mature adults.
Of particular interest to the couple was the assurance of air-conditioning in the luxurious suites:
Elegance Cruises offer the highest quality comfort onboard our brand new Elegance ships, featuring private ensuite rooms with air-conditioning.
With great anticipation, Rutt and her husband arrived at the harbor in Dubrovnik to begin their cruise. She says that when they boarded the ship, they were first offered lunch in a common area.
Everything was going well — until the crew took them to their cabin.
It was all downhill from there.
What’s wrong with this cabin?
“So we first entered our cabin at 2:30 p.m.,” Rutt remembered. “We immediately noticed that it was very warm and stuffy inside. We tried to adjust the air conditioning, to no avail.”
Rutt says she also noted that a lightbulb was burned out in one of the overhead fixtures. Then a clothes hook on the wall detached when she touched it. Soon, she looked in the shower and saw what seemed like ‘black mold” in the corner of the stall.
So far, Rutt wasn’t impressed with her first cruise.
The couple set about to find someone who could assist with fixing the air conditioning and cleaning up the room. But Rutt says most crew members had taken other guests on a walking tour of Dubrovnik. The only person left on the ship was the bartender. He told the couple things in their cabin could be fixed later when the crew returned. He could only help them with a drink.
Rutt and her husband had dinner reservations at 7 p.m. in town. They left the ship and returned around 9:30 p.m. At that time, the couple reported all their concerns to Boris, the onboard manager.
Boris told the duo that all his sailors were off-duty for the rest of the evening. But he walked with Rutt and her husband to their cabin to take note of their complaints. Rutt says he agreed the room was hot and stuffy and he suggested they open the windows. Boris told them the crew would address their problems in the morning.
And then, Rutt says, she and her husband spent a very uncomfortable night in the harbor.
Hate your cruise? You might want to give it a chance
When Boris left their cabin, Rutt and her husband opened all the windows and hoped that would cool things down. She says it didn’t. And opening the windows caused an additional problem.
Once we opened these windows, bright blue lights shone directly into the cabin through both of them. Sleep was not possible. So both my husband and I got up around 2 a.m. and began to discuss our options.
So far the couple hated everything about the cruise — and it hadn’t really even begun. By 3 a.m. they decided to leave the cruise. The ship was scheduled to set sail north toward Split at 7:30 a.m. Rutt and her husband agreed they would not be on board for that journey.
Rutt says over the next few hours, she and her husband packed their things and then roamed about the ship.
We knocked on doors. We were anxious to tell someone about our decision. No one at all was around and all doors were locked. This really concerned me, as mentioned in my initial email. What if we had had a serious emergency? We felt completely on our own, and without any help from Sail Croatia.
Finally, around 7 a.m., Boris reappeared. The couple explained that they would be getting off the ship. They would not be sailing on the cruise. Rutt says Boris was pleasant and helped them carry their bags off the boat. He didn’t try to persuade them not to leave the cruise.
The cruise set sail without the couple, and they set about making alternative plans. Rutt says she fully expected that Sail Croatia would be refunding the $3,500 they paid for the aborted cruise. She emailed her contact at Sail Croatia and waited for the refund confirmation.
If you get off the ship early, you aren’t likely to qualify for even a partial refund
**Rutt had sent a plea for help to a general email address at Sail Croatia at 3 a.m. from the ship during their one uncomfortable night.
At this point, we just want to get off the boat as soon as possible, and get a complete refund. We will not be continuing on the cruise tomorrow and will speak to the first staff member we can locate tonight or at first light.
By now, Rutt and her husband were not confident that Sail Croatia could correct any of the problems. In the morning, before they left the cruise, Rutt sent another email to Sail Croatia about their intentions to abandon the ship.
Several days after they left the cruise, Rutt received the bad news. Marijana Aghopian, from Sail Croatia, explained that as per the cruise lines terms, the couple would not qualify for a refund. Marijana pointed the couple to the information on the website that details how problem resolution is handled. Rutt and her husband didn’t follow the steps — they hadn’t given the crew a chance to correct the problems. Instead, the couple had hurriedly left the cruise before the crew could respond.
This response astounded Rutt. Her next step was to call her credit card company. She filed a chargeback dispute for the entire cost of the lost cruise.
Filing a chargeback after you leave the cruise probably won’t help
Unfortunately for Rutt, the facts of this case weren’t on her side for a credit card dispute.
The Fair Credit Billing Act allows consumers who have paid by credit card to initiate chargebacks to dispute billing errors.
If you hate your cruise, that isn’t a billing error. Inefficient air conditioning is also not a billing error. As a result, Rutt lost her chargeback case.
This loss blindsided Rutt.
I learned that the consumer protections that many cards tout aren’t of much help when the quality of services received is in dispute, as opposed to that of tangible products.
Rutt says that her credit card company explained that it would only find in her favor if Sail Croatia agreed to issue a refund.
Obviously, it didn’t.
“Visa would not proceed with our dispute,” Rutt explained. “Of course, we don’t have a refund voucher, because no refund was offered to us!”
As per the terms of the FCBA, this dispute did not qualify for a reversal.
Contacting the Elliott Advocacy Team for help
Rutt’s next step was to ask the Elliott Advocacy team for help.
I reviewed Rutt’s request for help, and I had bad news as well. She and her husband had not given Sail Croatia an opportunity to correct any problems. A maintenance person and a housekeeper could have fixed most of the complaints on her list.
Rutt agreed about the maintenance issues, but she said the air-conditioning problem was unbearable. She pointed out that days in the hot Croatian sun would require a cool haven where they could retreat. She and her husband could not bear the thought of days without an efficient air-conditioning unit.
When the Elliott Advocacy team takes a case, we must have a foundation on which to base our request. In this situation, I believed that Rutt and her husband left the cruise too soon. In just hours after boarding and with the crew distracted by other tasks, Rutt and her husband had made the drastic decision to leave the cruise.
I broke the news to Rutt that we couldn’t accept her case. But she, as a regular reader of our site, had a counteroffer.
Elliott Advocacy’s Three P’s of problem-solving
Rutt responded to me with one of Elliott Advocacy’s Three P’s of consumer problem solving — persistence.
“I have watched Christopher Elliott’s ‘Three Ps’ video,” Rutt explained. “In the interest of ‘persistence,’ I feel that I must take at least one more stab at making our case.”
Rutt asked me to please re-review the paper trail and all the terms of the cruise. She hoped that we could find some foundation to base a mediation attempt with Sail Croatia.
As I have pointed out in past cruise stories, I have never stepped aboard any cruise — ever. My propensity for seasickness has prevented me from attempting such an adventure. But my colleague Dwayne Coward has taken many cruises. So I often rely on his expertise in these cases.
I sent Rutt’s paper trail to Dwayne and asked for his opinion.
Unfortunately for Rutt, Dwayne concurred with me. Rutt and her husband had not given the cruise line sufficient time to correct any problems on the ship. The couple had left the vessel before the crew had begun their day.
But Dwayne had a further insight.
“Having lived and cruised in Europe, on European cruise lines,” Dwayne pointed out. “AC is not used or thought about in the same way as Americans, which may be part of the issue here.”
To support his stance, Dwayne offered a Washington Post article that highlights just how drastically American and European views diverge about air-conditioning.
Dwayne’s point is an important one. American travelers to Europe should not expect air-conditioning to mean the same thing there as it does here.
Contacting Sail Croatia
Because of Rutt’s persistence in following the problem-solving guidance from our publisher, Christopher Elliott, I decided to contact Sail Croatia for an explanation.
In its response to my inquiry, Marijana at Sail Croatia explained why Rutt wasn’t entitled to a refund.
Thank you for allowing us to explain, Michelle.
Our representative advised Lori and Alvaro that the matters that she brought to his (Boris) attention, would be resolved in the morning. Unfortunately, they left at 7.30 a.m. and we were never given the opportunity to resolve anything. They simply left. The normal process if the crew are not able to fix a problem, is to escalate it and we look for solutions, cabin or ship change, gestures of goodwill and in the very worst case a refund.
She went on to explain that Sail Croatia would have been committed to correcting the problems during the day if the couple had remained on board. Because they left the ship, they didn’t give any crew member the opportunity to fix the problems.
Sail Croatia maintains that they have a high approval rating on TripAdvisor and in their own customer satisfaction surveys.
“Although we are not perfect we do strive for high standards,” Marijana wrote to me. “If we can improve on our processes then we are always open to feedback and suggestions.”
The bottom line: Hate your cruise, you probably won’t get a refund
Rutt later found out that the captain had a key to the air conditioning control panel. The captain could have correct the stuffy cabin situation once the ship set sail. Rutt says it’s too bad that no one conveyed that simple fix to them that night. She says if it had they likely would not have left the cruise in Dubrovnik.
And even though we weren’t able to reach the resolution she wanted, Rutt still wants her story told.
“As I said from the very beginning, I really want our story to be heard, so that hopefully other travelers can learn from it,” Rutt says. “Between our experience, and reading some of the cruise stories on your website, I think this may have been our first and last cruise!”
Remember if you’re faced with unpleasant conditions on a cruise, in a vacation rental or hotel it’s critical to give the company a chance to correct the problem. And if a fix doesn’t seem possible, then make sure to clarify the fate of your investment before you press the eject button.
**Author’s note: I have updated this section to reflect that Rutt only sent her email to a “general sales” email address at Sail Croatia at 3 a.m. She never reached Marijana or any other representative in the middle of the night.