Help! My cruise is gone and so is my upgrade

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By Christopher Elliott

Here’s an interesting question raised by what is probably an unsolvable case: When your cruise is nonrefundable, what happens to the upgrade you purchased?

That’s the problem faced by Stan Krehbiel, who booked a cruise tour through luxury tour operator Tauck earlier this year. He didn’t purchase the optional cruise protection, a decision he now regrets.

A few days before his vacation, he began feeling sick. He visited his cardiologist, who delivered some bad news.

“After doing an echocardiogram, he discovered my ejection fraction had inexplicably dropped to 30 percent,” he says. “That, along with my arrhythmia, caused him to suggest I cancel the trip and install a defibrillator as soon as possible.”

I’m not an MD, but that sounds serious.

He contacted Tauck to find out about his options.

I asked if under the circumstances they would give any consideration to at least a partial refund, even though I had not purchased the trip insurance. I was told that it was too late on such short notice to get anybody else on the trip and that they had expenses with the ship even if no one occupied the cabin.

Untransferrable upgrades

That’s a tough loss. But Krehbiel saw a silver lining. He’d booked the cruise with two other couples and had been talked into spending an extra $4,900 to upgrade his cabin. He decided to give his upgraded cabin to one of the couples.

“Having been told by two people prior to my cancelling my reservation that the cabin would be empty, I called back and told them that since I had paid for the cabin, I would like for them to transfer it [to my friends],” he says. “I was told that would be impossible since they had a waiting list for people to take that cruise. Of course, that came as a shock to me since I had been told by two previous people that it was too late to make any changes.”

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So not only was the cabin nontransferable, but it turns out his “empty” cabin would be sailing with someone else in it. In other words, Tauck would pocket his cruise fare, even though someone else would be paying for his cabin, too. At least, that’s how Krehbiel saw it.

“My friends will be on board in their original cabins while Tauck will collect additional revenue at my misfortune,” he says.

This is interesting to me. In this day and age of unbundling, a cruise cabin and an upgrade are technically two separate products. I searched the Tauck site and couldn’t find any disclaimers that upgrades weren’t transferrable. So if a member of Krehbiel’s party couldn’t use it, then should he get his $4,900 back?

Tauck says “no.” Here’s the form letter it sent him:

Tauck’s cancellation policy does stand, and we cannot refund you for your river cruise. We have a policy and procedure in place for all upgrades and as much as we would have loved to put your friends in your upgraded cabin, that is not our reservations process and we must follow our standard procedure. Tauck’s cancellation policy for our river cruises is clearly stated in our brochures below:

Guests without Cruise Protection cancelling 29-1 days before departure incur loss of 100% of cost of cruise.

Please try and understand our position, in that we cannot make an exception for you when we have others who also did not purchase the Cruise Protection Plan and incur this same penalty when they cancel with the time period listed above.

Thank you for your understanding and do not hesitate to contact us with anything we can do for you in the future.

Cruise protection plans

I agree with Krehbiel that there is a difference between the cruise fare and the additional cost of an upgrade. I’m troubled by the inconsistencies in Tauck’s response to him when he tried to salvage what he could of the cost of his cruise. (Related: What is specialty cruise insurance and do you need it?)

Also, I’m bothered by the way they hammer away at their cruise protection plan which, by the way, wouldn’t have covered this passenger’s pre-existing condition unless he bought it within 10 days of making his reservation. (Here’s what you need to know before planning your next trip.)

That said, I’m virtually certain Tauck will tell me the same thing. It can keep his money. It can also resell the cabin and the upgrade to someone else, and it’s completely legal. But should that stop me from trying to help this customer?

Should I mediate Stan Krehbiel's case?

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Update (5 p.m.): Tauck has responded to this case on my Facebook page.

We were certainly sorry that Mr. Krehbiel became ill and wasn’t able to take his Tauck river cruise, and we hope his medical issues have been successfully resolved. We also share Mr. Krehbiel’s regret that he didn’t purchase travel insurance at the time he booked his cruise; it’s something we always advise our guests to strongly consider, for exactly the sort of situation Mr. Krehbiel experienced. Thankfully, and even though Mr. Krehbiel declined to purchase travel insurance, we still refunded him $8,600 of the $9,600 in airfare that he purchased through Tauck.

By way of review, when a guest cancels a river cruise booking (particularly just before departure as Mr. Krehbiel did), we have no way of knowing whether or not we’ll be able to successfully sell that cabin to another guest, or whether it will remain unoccupied. (Even with a waiting list, those people on the list might not be free to travel, they may have made other vacation plans, etc.)

It was therefore inappropriate (and rather surprising) for two different representatives to allegedly say that Mr. Krehbiel’s cabin would remain empty, and for a third to say the cabin would be filled simply because there was a waiting list.

In truth, we simply wouldn’t have known if his cabin would remain empty or be re-sold. Much of Mr. Krehbiel’s frustration seems to have resulted from these alleged contradictory statements, and for that we sincerely apologize. We’re reviewing the conversations that occurred with the appropriate staff members, to ensure that future communications are more consistent and better reflect the realities of such situations.

At no point are cabins and upgrades ever considered to be separate products (nor are they marketed as such), and when a guest cancels and a cabin becomes available, that cabin simply goes back into our inventory – we have no means of separating out an upgrade and applying it to another guest’s booking. Sound business practices dictate that we do our best to sell that cabin to another customer, to protect Tauck against the losses incurred when a cabin goes unoccupied. Such was the case with Mr. Krehbiel’s cabin, just as it is in all other such situations.

Once again, we apologize for any inconsistencies in our communication with Mr. Krehbiel, and we’re truly sorry that his medical issues forced him to forgo his vacation.

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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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