The story of a slow boat, a missed plane and a $200 change fee

The case came in on a Saturday afternoon, just as a brutal winter storm descended on the East Coast. Richard Pryzeki reported that his son and family were stuck on the Carnival Paradise, which was trying to dock in Tampa. Could I help them?

The problem: The passengers had non-refundable tickets to fly back to Chicago on Spirit Airlines that afternoon (OK, get the groaning and eye rolling out of the way), and it looked as if they would miss the plane. Spirit wanted to charge a $200 change fee to rebook them on a future flight.

Anyway, I’ll just play the transcript:

Pryzeki: I’m writing on behalf of my son, his wife and their three kids, who are currently stuck on the Carnival Paradise ship in a cargo port in Florida. The ship is unable to dock at their regular port due to high winds. They have tickets on a 2 p.m. Spirit Airlines flight back to Chicago.

The cruise line cannot tell them when they will be able to dock and leave the ship. Spirit Airlines wants to charge them a $200 per person change fee. The other option the airline is giving them is to rebook their tickets at a cost of $260 per person. Please help — the kids do not have that kind of money.

Me: I’m really sorry to hear about this. Do they have travel insurance?

Pryzeki: No, they don’t. They are on a pretty strict budget and didn’t have the extra money.

Me: Unfortunately, I can’t think of an elegant solution to this problem. Carnival will not dock unless it’s safe. Unless the cruise was air-inclusive, in which case you would be protected, Spirit will charge the change fee. Do you know if the cruise was air-inclusive?

Pryzeki: No, unfortunately, they booked their own cruise and flights online. Do you have any suggestions for really cheap airfare?

Me: Only that you would need to keep an open mind about your return ticket. Spirit may not be the least expensive option. You might be able to find a less expensive one-way ticket through another carrier.

Pryzeki: What about the “flat tire” rule?

Me: I’ve never seen it applied to a situation like this, but it’s worth a try. Where are they now?

A few hours passed. Then I received an update from Pryzeki. “The kids are docking now,” he said. “They can’t make the flight. After all kinds of research and checking options, we found that we had to pay the rebooking fee.”

I was saddened, but not surprised, by the outcome. How could this have been avoided?

Before we go any further, I know what some of you are thinking: Why didn’t Pryzeki’s son use a travel agent? Why not book an air-inclusive cruise? Or, at the very least, get travel insurance?

The answer is pretty simple: He’s taking a Carnival cruise. He’s flying on Spirit. That tells me he’s probably watching every penny of his hard-earned vacation budget.

I don’t blame him — nor should you — for thinking he could DIY his way through this cruise. It’s companies like Carnival and Spirit, and relentless coverage from DIY blogs and talking heads in the media, that leave people like Pryzeki’s son with the impression he’ll be fine.

I’ve sat across from airline executives and asked them directly about the “flat tire” rule. They’ve strongly suggested it only applies to something that happens on the way to the airport — a car accident, a flat tire, a closed road. It’s true I’ve never seen it applied to a late-arriving cruise, but then, it’s also true that I’ve never seen the rule successfully invoked with Spirit.

Could I have offered more or better advice? Perhaps. Remember, this was happening in real time, even as I juggled three kids and house guests. In retrospect, anything can be done better if you have the time and resources.

Mostly, I’m upset that Pryzeki’s son had two bad choices: To spend hundreds, maybe even thousands, more for a fully-insured, air-inclusive cruise he probably couldn’t afford, or to take his chances on an iffy cruise vacation.

Am I the only one who thinks that’s wrong?

Who is to blame for this vacation disaster?

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