Her cruise to Cuba was scuttled, but what about the refund?

A cruise to Cuba is a dream for many people, but there are specific rules that a company must follow and a special certification it needs to run a cruise. When Pamela Gillet booked her dream cruise to Cuba with Pearl Seas Cruises, she assumed the company had secured permission to run the trip it sold her.

We consistently advise our readers to do their research, but in this case Gillet needed to go beyond the terms and conditions for the cruise line. She needed to know whether the company had complied with U.S. law. The fact that she didn’t cost her $528. Can we help her get it back?

Three weeks prior to her scheduled embarkation date, Gillet had not received final documents, so she called Pearl Seas Cruises. She was told that one cruise had already been canceled, and a second one would also be canceled. The company admitted that it had not received the required certification to sail, but couldn’t tell Gillet for certain if her cruise would sail.

One week prior to the embarkation date, Gillet was finally given the bad news: The cruise had been canceled. The company refunded the full amount that Gillet paid for the cruise, but then she requested a refund on the amount she paid for a nonrefundable hotel stay one night before the cruise embarked and nonrefundable flights to Ft. Lauderdale.

Approximately 90 days after she requested a refund of these costs, Pearl Seas Cruises told her that her request was “still under consideration.” While we don’t specifically list contact information for Pearl Seas Cruises (our research team is on it, though), Gillet says she knew that Pearl Seas is owned by American Cruise Lines, and we do list its contact information on our website. I’m not sure ACL would have helped her either, but it might have been worth a try.

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What might have helped Gillet was researching the company with which she planned to travel, to determine if it had the authority to operate the trips. Travel to Cuba has been problematic for decades. It’s the only country to which U.S. citizens are banned from traveling — even travel to North Korea isn’t currently banned.

Travel to Cuba and the prohibition of financial and commercial transactions by U.S. citizens was enacted in 1963 under President Kennedy. The travel ban was lifted in 2009 when President Obama lifted restrictions for Cuban-Americans, allowing them to visit relatives and provide financial support to their families in Cuba. Americans of non-Cuban descent were still generally prohibited from traveling to the island neighbor.

In January 2011, what is now known as the “people-to-people” travel rules were enacted, expanding the categories of people who were allowed to travel to Cuba to include U.S. citizens pursuing “purposeful travel,” including academics, religious groups, students and charities. At this time, most travel to Cuba was through affinity organizations like alumni associations, as well as through churches or cultural groups.

After the “diplomatic thaw” near the end of 2014, travel rules became even more relaxed, allowing Americans to travel to Cuba. In March 2015, MasterCard became the first company to unblock credit card use in Cuba, and later that month the first direct U.S.-Cuba charter flight was operated by Sun Country Airlines. Airbnb began listing rentals around Cuba the following month.

Although travel restrictions have clearly relaxed, operating tours to Cuba still requires a People-to-People license. Unlike the other 11 categories of authorized travel to Cuba, the People-to-People license allows any American to legally travel to Cuba, as long as they have a full schedule of activities that enhance contact with Cuban citizens and result in “meaningful interaction” between American and Cuban citizens.

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The Pearl Seas Cruises website is clear that its voyages are subject to obtaining the required permissions on its General Information page:

Operation of the planned voyages is subject to obtaining all necessary approvals, permits and licenses from the governments of the U.S. and Cuba. All passengers must comply with U.S. and Cuban laws and regulations related to travel to Cuba.

Cruise companies plan their cruise far in advance because travelers book their travel far in advance. It is common that not all licenses have been granted at the time a cruise is planned and sold, and that’s likely one of many reasons that cruise lines include this clause in their terms and conditions:

PSC reserves the right to change, cancel or substitute any itinerary, vessel, port of call, schedule, tour, excursion or duration of voyage at any time and for any reason whatsoever without prior notice (including reducing or extending days of voyage or continuing or finishing a voyage via other means of transportation) and shall not be liable for any claim whatsoever by Passenger for such change, including, but not limited to, loss, compensation, or refund; except Passenger shall be entitled to (i) a pro rata refund, calculated on a per day basis, of fare actually paid less applicable fees and charges, if a Cruise is cancelled or terminates early, and (ii) a refund of deposit actually paid to PSC for a tour or excursion, if that tour or excursion is cancelled.

Gillet claims that the Pearl Seas Cruises representative recommended arriving one day before the cruise embarkation date, which is good advice — if your flight is delayed and you miss embarkation you may have to either spend more money to get yourself to the next port or cancel your cruise with no refund.

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Pearl Seas Cruises offers to book hotel nights and air for their guests, and had Gillet booked her overnight and air through the cruise line, the company likely would have immediately refunded her in full — or at least offered a credit on a future cruise, when it finally received authorization to operate travel to Cuba. The other option would have been to book refundable air tickets, but most canceled air tickets retain their value for one year after the booking date.

Gillet contacted us in an effort to recover the $528 she lost on her nonrefundable hotel room and air tickets. We contacted Pearl Seas Cruises multiple times on her behalf, but it ignored us. It did eventually offer Gillet a $528 credit on another Cuba cruise in 2017, but it took so long for the company to make that offer that Gillet had already booked other travel plans and cannot do another trip this year, so she refused the offer.

It’s certainly understandable that travelers prefer to book pre-cruise travel on their own — often at a cheaper rate — but as long as cruise lines continue to get away with the “we can do whatever we want with our itinerary and we don’t owe you anything” clause, if you choose to cruise, it may be best to book your air and additional nights through the cruise line or buy travel insurance from another source (not the cruise line) that will cover itinerary changes, cancellations, and company defaults.

We’re sorry we couldn’t help Gillet, but we still hope Pearl Seas Cruises comes to its senses and refunds her money.

Editors note: This is one of our most visited columns of 2017. We’re republishing some of our best stories this week.

Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans. Read more of Michelle Bell's articles here.

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