In the last week, we’ve endured hacks, assaults on our reputations and false “F” grades from the Better Business Bureau. So it shouldn’t have surprised me when Lori Wolfe’s email landed in my inbox, accusing my advocacy team and me of dismissing her valid refund claim against Crystal Cruises.
It was a big claim, too. She wanted Crystal to return $12,802 after it canceled her cruise during the pandemic.
“I asked for your help getting a refund on a canceled cruise,” she wrote. “My credit card company refused to help get the money. You also refused to help me. You totally blew me off.”
Wolfe’s timing wasn’t the best, since we are starting our spring fundraiser today. And for most of the morning, I felt a little depressed about her emails.
Had we really let her down?
But after thinking about it, and discussing her case with my advocacy team, I realized that Wolfe’s email is the perfect way to start our fundraiser. Because it illustrates everything that’s wrong with customer service today, and why an advocacy site like ours is so vital.
We did not blow Lori off
But first, let’s get to the specifics of Wolfe’s case. Back in 2018, she booked a river cruise to see the Oberammergau Passion Play and then a one-week tour ending July 3.
“This was canceled on March 30, 2020,” she told my advocacy team. “We were told we would be fully refunded in 90 days. This did not happen.”
Wolfe asked her credit card issuer, Citibank to help her with a refund.
“Citibank refused, citing the length of time from deposit to cancellation,” she says. “I then contacted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which contacted Citibank. Citibank continues to deny assistance.”
Wolfe also contacted her travel agency, which reached out to Crystal weekly.
“Crystal continues to say they will refund, but are delayed. All the travel agent’s other cruise clients have been refunded according to her, and Crystal is booking cruises with the first one to start in May 2021. I would appreciate any assistance obtaining this refund,” she said.
We can’t force Crystal Cruises to send your refund faster, but ….
You don’t have to be a regular reader of this site to know that our advocacy powers are limited. For example, we can’t force a company to refund a customer’s money. And when a company agrees to a refund, we can’t make the process move faster.
So our response to Wolfe was understandably disappointing.
Here’s what Michelle wrote:
Unfortunately, the cruise industry has been devastated by the pandemic. Many of the cruise lines are unable to provide all of the refunds they owe at this time since they aren’t generating any revenue.
We don’t have any ability to make these refunds happen more quickly. As your travel agent is required to be your advocate, I would recommend that you continue to work closely with that person. She should continue to pursue Crystal for your refund.
Was this a “blow-off”? Absolutely not.
It was an acknowledgment of our limits and a good-faith effort to address Wolfe’s expectations. Her travel advisor had accepted a generous commission to book her Crystal cruise and tour. She needed to do her job.
What Wolfe didn’t know was that Michelle and her team had quietly been collecting Crystal refund cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Hers was one of hundreds of similar problems.
The truth about Crystal Cruises refunds
It turns out Crystal Cruises didn’t just delay Wolfe’s refund. Last summer, its parent company, Genting Hong Kong, reportedly defaulted on more than $3 billion in debt payments. Since then, rumors have been bubbling up about a possible bankruptcy — rumors the company denies. Still, travel agents have been frustrated about the slow pace of refunds.
Michelle’s advice was correct. Wolfe’s travel advisor was her best shot at a refund. And based on what my team was seeing, it looked as if the refunds were getting processed — but slowly.
Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, the consumer protection law for credit card users, Wolfe had 60 days after her purchase to dispute the charges on her credit card. But since she made her reservation in 2018, she was way, way past the two-month limit.
By the way, credit card companies aren’t legally required to accept a dispute past the 60 days, but some still do. We’ve also seen some credit card companies flat-out refuse to accept travel-related disputes. Citibank could have chosen to help her. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under the Trump administration wasn’t much of a consumer protection agency, so that was a dead end. (I’m curious to see what Biden does with it.)
At any rate, we knew that Crystal Cruises was a problem in an already problematic industry. We also knew that we had almost no leverage. I say “almost” because we could do one thing: We could warn others about the cruise line, which is why I’m writing this story.
“I’m glad you help others”
But Wolfe wasn’t writing to berate me — at least not entirely. She had good news. She’d taken Michelle’s advice and leaned on her travel agent to keep working with Crystal Cruises to process her refund. And it worked.
“The refund was posted yesterday,” she reports.
“I’m glad you help others,” she says.
But, she added, she wished we’d also helped her.
To which I say: But we did help you.
The mission of Elliott Advocacy is
- to help empower consumers to solve their problems –and–
- to help those who can’t.
In that order.
We helped Wolfe fix her problem with her missing Crystal Cruises refund. No, we didn’t wave a magic wand and make $12,802 appear in her bank account. That may be the preferred solution for many of the people who read this site. But for us, the best solution is the one where you advocate for yourself.
Why? Because the next time you have a problem, you’ll know how to fix it. And you can also help friends and family address their consumer issues. That’s how we fulfill our mission here at Elliott Advocacy.
By the way, we also publish the names, numbers and email addresses of the Crystal Cruises executives on this site. So if your agent can’t help, you can escalate to a manager.
No fireworks — just honest consumer advocacy
If you’re all about self-help and empowerment, I hope you’ll consider supporting this site today. As you can imagine, corporate America doesn’t want an army of self-sufficient consumers who know their rights. This site is an existential threat to many businesses.
No surprise, then, that they’ve launched an all-out assault on this organization. We’re talking denial-of-service attacks and a never-ending series of brute-force login attempts, malware and malvertising injections. They want to erase us from the internet.
Last week, after an initial technical audit, an outside IT consultant estimated that it would cost at least $22,000 to shore up our website against further attacks. So today we’re starting our spring fundraiser.
A lot of people read my syndicated columns and expect one of our team members to come swooping in to save the day when they run into trouble. When we do help, and it doesn’t have the level of high drama that they expect, it can seem disappointing.
But hey, Lori — you have your $12,802 back!
How to get a refund from a cruise line that’s sinking
Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Crystal Cruises is taking on water. And as you’re watching a company flail around, you’re thinking, “There goes my refund!” But you can take steps to keep that from happening.
- Know your rights. The Fair Credit Billing Act is definitely your friend. But states like California and Massachusetts also have strict seller of travel laws that protect consumers. Know those — and don’t be afraid to invoke them.
- Pressure your bank and regulators to help you. Wolfe’s credit card should have helped her. Lesson learned? Make sure you buy your travel with a card that will side with you during a dispute, not just roll over and inappropriately cite the Fair Credit Billing Act’s statute of limitations. A real credit card fights for you until the end. And you can cause even more trouble by filing a complaint against the cruise line with the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC). It won’t mediate your complaint, but it sure sends a message to the cruise line that you’re serious about getting your refund.
- Hire a travel agent that has a proven record. All travel advisors are not created equally. Wolfe had one that didn’t give up. You can find a great agent online at the American Society of Travel Advisors’ site. Check a reputable consortium like Signature, Virtuoso or Travel Leaders as well.
By the way, if you’ve found this advice helpful and you want to keep this site up and running, please consider making a tax-deductible donation of $50, $75 or $150. Here’s how to participate in our spring fundraiser.