What if a cruise consultant makes a mistake and you miss your cruise because of it? That’s what Linda Combs wants to know.
Her recent unpleasant experience included not just one, but three errors by her travel planner. And it ended with Combs and her husband standing on the dock as they watched their ship sail away.
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So why was Combs’ refund request to Norwegian Cruise Line rejected?
This tale is one that underscores the importance of concise and polite communication when attempting to resolve a problem. If you forget this basic foundation of problem-solving, even the most resolution-worthy request can get rejected. Combs’ case was almost one of those.
Planning a cruise aboard the Norwegian Gem
Several months before this missed-cruise fiasco, the couple had been busy planning an adventure to commemorate their 52nd wedding anniversary. They decided that a cruise to New England and Canada would be the perfect way to celebrate this happy event.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s 10-day cruise from New York City to Quebec City on the Norwegian Gem fit the bill. Once they made their decision, the couple finalized the plans with an NCL-approved agent called a Personal Cruise Consultant. This consultant put all the finishing touches on their itinerary, including arranging airport transfers, trip insurance and shore excursions.
The couple booked their own flights into New York, and everything was in order.
Or so they thought.
Discovering the Personal Cruise Consultant’s mistake #1
On the day of the cruise, the couple excitedly boarded their flight bound for New York City’s JFK airport. They were particularly pleased that no delays were on the horizon. And they landed right on time.
They had three hours to make it to the cruise terminal on the west side of Manhattan. In typical traffic, this 17-mile journey can take 1 to 1 ½ hours. But anyone who has lived in New York City knows that this is a tricky traffic corridor. And the couple was cutting it a little too close for comfort.
However, Combs and her husband had never been to New York City before, and they weren’t familiar with the risky nature of their flight schedule. And besides, they had booked the NCL transfers to the cruise terminal. So as they gathered their luggage and started searching for the NCL transfer station, no alarm bells were going off.
NCL does not pick up passengers at JFK
It soon became quite apparent that something was very wrong. The couple couldn’t find the NCL transfer area at JFK. Combs called her Personal Cruise Consultant and asked for further information.
When the agent returned her call, he expressed surprise that the couple was at JFK. And that’s when he broke the news to Combs that NCL does not provide transfers from that airport. Shocked, she asked him why he had charged her and given her a transfer voucher if no NCL transfer possibility existed from JFK.
Now he told me that NCL does not pick up at JFK. He said he had told me NCL does not pick up at JFK. NOT TRUE! I state again when making the reservation, he said it was further out than the other airport and there would be an additional charge. Think about it! Why would I choose to fly into the incorrect airport into a city that I do not know???
Now the couple had two hours to make it to the cruise terminal or they would miss the cruise. So they asked their agent what to do next. And that’s when their Personal Cruise Consultant’s mistake was compounded by a new error.
Their Personal Cruise Consultant’s mistake #2
The couple still had a chance of making it to the cruise terminal in time to avoid missing the cruise. But they needed to act fast.
Their consultant should have recommended that they take an NYC taxi straight to the cruise terminal. From JFK there is a flat rate of $52 into Manhattan (plus tolls and tips) — they could sort out the refund later.
If all went well, in about an hour, they could have made it to the Norwegian Gem.
But that isn’t what their Personal Cruise Consultant recommended. He advised the couple to take a NYC taxi to LaGuardia Airport, on the other side of Queens. There he said the couple could find the official NCL transfer to the cruise terminal. As the couple was completely unfamiliar with Queens traffic or the logistics of what the agent was suggesting, they took his advice.
While a taxi into Manhattan from JFK is a flat rate, the 10-mile ride from JFK to LGA is not. So that fare can end up costing more than the trip directly to the cruise terminal. This route also covers congested areas, and it’s not unusual for this trip to take upwards of an hour.
A race against the clock to avoid missing the cruise
Now the elderly couple felt the full impact of their situation. The clock was ticking. It was almost 2 p.m. as Combs and her husband pulled up to the LaGuardia Airport with all their suitcases in tow.
The two made their way to the official transfer area for NCL as quickly as possible. And a wave of relief hit the couple when they saw the familiar NCL logo. They presented themselves to the representative who was making the final boarding call for the transfer bus.
And that’s when their Personal Cruise Consultant’s mistake #3 revealed itself. And this one ultimately sealed the fate of this couple’s chances of cruising on the Norwegian Gem that day.
The NCL representative at LGA told Combs that no one had put their name on the list for transfers to the cruise terminal. The transportation was full.
“We were in so much distress!”
Combs says that she showed the NCL employee proof of their paid airport transfers. But the representative said she would have to call a supervisor. Combs called their Personal Cruise Consultant again, who now refused to pick up the phone or return her call.
The exhausted couple watched in desperation as the NCL bus left and headed to the cruise terminal without them.
“We were in so much distress,” Combs recalled. “We couldn’t believe what was happening. Now, this agent told us she would call us a new taxi to go straight to the cruise terminal.”
By now, it was already 3:15 p.m.
NCL requires all cruise ship passengers to be checked in and onboard the ship one hour before departure. At this point, the missed cruise was a foregone conclusion. But when the NCL representative recommended they take a cab to the cruise terminal, Combs says she thought someone had instructed the ship to wait for them.
So they braved the NYC traffic one more time, hoping to be soon relaxing onboard the Norwegian Gem.
It wasn’t to be.
Too late! This ship has sailed
In about 45 minutes the duo arrived at the cruise ship terminal. Their hopes soared.
There was the Norwegian Gem!
But it was too late. Combs describes that moment:
We arrived at the cruise terminal at 4 p.m. We ran inside. They told us it was too late. The captain had already pulled the gangplank. We could not board the ship. We were just sick!!!!!!!!! The ship sat there for about 15-20 minutes before it ever left!
Airlines will hold planes for a late passenger! Why can’t a captain wait 10-15 minutes?
After they watched the Norwegian Gem sail away without them, they called NCL to find out what to do about the missed cruise.
At that time they were told that they could fly at their own expense to Halifax and catch up with their missed cruise there. Not wanting to spend any more money on this fiasco, the couple finally threw in the towel.
“We were just so disappointed that we decided to fly back home,” Combs recalled. “Then once we got back to the airport, we had to spend the night in the terminal because our flight was at 6:45 a.m. We didn’t know what else to do.”
Asking for a refund for the missed cruise
As soon as the couple returned from their ill-fated anniversary trip, Combs composed a novel-length complaint letter. And then she sent it as a blast email to multiple executives at Norwegian Cruise Line — including the CEO. She requested a replacement cruise plus airfare.
The office of the CEO of any company is not the most efficient place to send your initial complaint letter. In general, a CEO does not handle customer service. And once your complaint has hit the top of the executive chain — there’s nowhere else to go with it. If your letter is unsuccessful, you can’t escalate your problem anywhere.
A well-executed self-advocacy mission can benefit from the helpful guide our publisher Christopher Elliott has written about fixing your own consumer problem. Combs definitely had not checked it out before creating her appeal for a refund to NCL.
NCL quickly answered her blast email and rejected her refund request. In its response to Combs, NCL made it clear that her missed cruise was not the responsibility of the cruise line. She would not be receiving a refund nor a replacement cruise.
NCL: It’s the passenger’s responsibility to get to the terminal on time
The letter from NCL reminded her that it is the passengers’ responsibility to get to the terminal on time.
To comply with new Government regulations governing guest departure
manifests, our Port Operations and Port Clearance Administration, along with
U.S. Customs and Border Protection requires that all guests complete check-in at
the cruise terminal at least two hours prior and be onboard the ship no later
then one hour prior to the departure time as noted on their cruise documents or
they will not be permitted to sail.
Given this information and the information contained on NCL’s website about check-in cutoff times, it seems that the couple should never have been sent from LGA to the cruise terminal. By the time they left LGA, they had already missed the cruise check-in cutoff time. That journey was an exercise in futility.
The response from NCL infuriated Combs. So she sent more emails to NCL. These similarly did not endear her to any of the executives on her list.
“I just cannot believe that your company would not compensate us with another trip of equal value!” Combs complained. “What in heaven’s name does it cost NCL? Nothing but good PR for you to comply.”
This email did not lead to the favorable response that Combs hoped for. In fact, there was no further response. Her complaint had reached the top of NCL, and now there was nowhere else to go.
Or was there?
Asking the Elliott Advocacy team to mediate a refund
Not sure where else to turn, Combs sent a plea for help to the Elliott Advocacy team.
Combs’ complaint landed in my inbox on the same day I had just finished writing about the somewhat similar mishap of Earl Wentz and his missed cruise.
That case was the West Coast version of the race to the cruise terminal — fighting against the clock and heavy traffic. Unfortunately, Wentz and his family didn’t make it in time either. And they also watched as their cruise ship sailed off into the sunset without them.
Wentz had contributed to his problem by scheduling his flights with virtually no room for error. So when his plane experienced a 50-minute delay, his family’s cruise prospects were doomed.
But Combs had allowed a slightly wider margin with her flight, and it had landed on time. The NCL-branded Personal Cruise Consultant’s mistakes — the initial one and then the cascade of additional ones after the couple landed — caused their missed cruise.
So I was surprised to see Combs’ paper trail included NCL’s swift rejection of her refund request for the missed cruise.
Keep your complaints short and sweet
Unfortunately, cruise lines (and consumer advocates) receive hundreds of complaint letters per week. To give yourself the very best chance of getting your complaint received favorably, it’s critical to keep it short and sweet. Get the facts out immediately — and don’t add extraneous details.
Combs’ email to the executives told a long, drawn-out story that I suspected no one had read in its entirety. It also focused on the wrong part of her story. She was angry that the NCL representatives wouldn’t let her board the bus at LaGuardia.
But the most critical part of this case was that Combs had paid NCL for a transfer. The transfer voucher sent to the couple from her Personal Cruise Consultant confirmed their transportation. This consultant’s mistake was that he never made any arrangements for the couple. And then he sent them on wild goose chase from airport to airport and again didn’t confirm their transfer.
After all that, he refused to answer their calls and explain himself.
Asking NCL to refund this missed cruise
Since this missed cruise was caused by NCL’s Personal Cruise Consultant’s mistakes, I was sure that Combs and her husband were owed a refund.
I know the NCL resolution team to be helpful and reasonable. So I sent their team a very condensed version of this cruise catastrophe and included the transfer voucher.
Good news from NCL: Here’s your refund
And the next day came excellent news for Combs and her husband.
Combs had asked to be provided a new cruise with airfare so that she and her husband could celebrate their anniversary properly. The NCL resolution team went above and beyond what Combs had initially requested.
Combs was thrilled to receive an apology and a refund of all fees associated with the missed cruise.
We sincerely apologize for the confusion regarding the airport ground transfer which caused you to miss your cruise aboard Norwegian Gem, and assure you that this situation is a rare occurrence. As a company, we are committed to continuously improving customer satisfaction. Recognizing the inconvenience and disappointment you experienced, we have requested a refund in the amount of $3,348.00 to your Visa. This represents your voyage fare and ground transfers. On September 30, a refund in the amount of $1,890, representing your shore excursions, service charges and government taxes was also processed.
And finally, to show that NCL was genuinely committed to making this right, the cruise line gave the couple $3,200 in cruise credits to be used in the next two years.
Combs and her husband say that this resolution more than makes up for their inconvenience and they are busy planning their replacement anniversary cruise. And despite this fiasco, the end resolution from NCL has secured lifelong fans in Combs and her husband.
How to avoid missing your cruise
Here are a few tips that could help you avoid missing your cruise.
- DO NOT BOOK A FLIGHT THAT ARRIVES ON THE SAME DAY AS YOUR CRUISE SAILS! I repeat — don’t do that. You can dramatically cut back on the chances of missing your cruise by giving yourself at least a one day buffer. Fly into your cruise departure city the night before.
- When flying into an unfamiliar city that has multiple airports, check Google Maps. Familiarize yourself with the route from the airport to the cruise terminal. Make sure you have a backup plan in case you miss the cruise line’s transportation (or a travel consultant’s mistake leaves you with no transportation at all).
- If you’re booking your own flights, make sure your travel agent or cruise consultant has your information. Your voucher should mention the specific airport where you’ll be picked up. Many major cities have multiple airports so to avoid confusion — confirm, confirm, confirm.
- Be aware of check-in cut off times: Remember, the embarkation time of your cruise is not the same as the check-in cutoff time. So when arranging for your transportation to the port, keep the cut-off time in mind. Your cruise contract will have that information. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)
*This article originally appeared in Dec. 2019