Is this a cruise club bait-and-switch?

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By Christopher Elliott

Even though having the words “cruise” and “club” in a single sentence are probably enough to make some of you scream “scam!” this one is may be different.

It comes to me by way of Paul Scinto, who feels ripped off by Azamara Club Cruises. Needless to say, this club isn’t one of those scammy attend-our-presentation-and-get-a-free-cruise schemes.

At least, I don’t think so.

Cruise line changes discount offer

Azamara’s ships are smaller and it takes its time with its itineraries. It also caters to a more upscale vacationer who expects more from a cruise than to return with a really bad hangover.

A few months ago, Scinot made a deposit for a September 2013 European cruise. He made the decision based on two criteria: first, he’d taken a previous Azamara cruise and was happy with it; and second, the cruise line had made him an offer that was too good to pass up — a 50 percent discount off land tours.

Then he received a strange notice from Azamara. It had changed his benefits as of spring 2013. Now, instead of a 50 percent discount, it would offer a “free” evening tour.

He explains,

If we didn’t wish to participate, there would be no refund since it was ‘free’, but if we could not participate for any reason and failed to notify Azamara the night before, they would assess a cancellation fee of $150 or $200 for this ‘free’ tour.

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Azamara would not honor the 50 percent discount for his Europe cruise. He didn’t think that was fair; after all, he’d booked his vacation based on a promise of a 50 percent discount off tours.

Is it ethical to change offers?

As you can imagine, this sparked a bourgeois riot. (And I use the term “bourgeois” with affection — I mean, who wouldn’t want to take an Azamara cruise?)

Following this announcement, there was a huge outcry on a web forum devoted to cruising and coincidentally, Mr. Larry Pimentel, President of Azamara, was scheduled to address concerns and questions on this and other issues concerning Azamara the following week.

Mr. Pimentel was confronted with allegations on the forum that his decision to eliminate the discount for those of us who were already booked, ranged from ‘unethical’, ‘bait and switch’, and a ‘public relations nightmare’.

His response was that he didn’t think his decision was unethical and that “things change.” In addition, he pointed out that in the Cruise Contract (in the brochure, on page 109), Azamara reserved the right to make changes. He did announce, however, that he decided to reinstate a discount of either 15 percent or 25 percent to eligible passengers for reserving tours at least 4 months prior to embarkation.

In researching this case, my advocacy team and I found that Azamara managed to spin this change in a far different way and has kept the focus on some of the “free” thing it’s offering, as opposed to what it is taking away from its guests.

Scinto wants to know what I think, and I told him, “not much.” If a company offers a 50 percent discount, it should honor its word. Azamara is not honoring its word, even if its cruise contract says it is allowed to change the terms of the deal. (I have talked about the term ‘bait-and-switch’ before.)

At the same time, I’m not sure if it’s realistic to think I can change anything. This group of passengers has already appealed to the highest level, directly to the CEO. (Here’s our guide to contacting the CEO directly.) They’ve tried to generate as much publicity as possible. I’m not sure if I could do any better.

Scinto thinks I should write about this, if for no other reason than to warn others.

“I think that making the issue public might discourage travel providers not to be dismissive of of the expectations they create via marketing materials to customers,” he says. “I think it remind them that they have an ethical obligation, if not legal, to provide the services promised when they accept a customer’s money unless they are prevented from doing so for reasons beyond their control, which was not the case in this instant.”

I can do that. But I’m not afraid to try to do more. Should I?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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