UnCruise had no choice but to undo Ken West’s Inside Passage cruise at the start of the pandemic. Now West wants to unravel the company’s future cruise credit offer. But is a cruise credit refund even possible?
West’s tale of a scuttled cruise is all too common.
In 2020, he was about to set sail on a 12-day tour from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska, on the Wilderness Discoverer. Then COVID hit.
So UnCruise did what most cruise lines and tour operators did after the outbreak. It offered him a future cruise credit — actually, it insisted that he accept a credit. Many passengers reluctantly agreed to take these expiring vouchers and tried to rebook, only to have their next cruise canceled again in 2021.
But West just wanted his money back.
“We have requested a refund multiple times,” he says. “But they refuse, offering a credit instead. We can’t use future cruise credit because of our health.”
“Can you help me get back the $12,490 we spent?” he asked.
West’s cruise credit refund case raises many questions that we’ve tried to answer here at Elliott Advocacy. Can a cruise line really turn your cash into expiring credits? Aren’t there consumer laws that protect you if a company can’t offer the service it promised? And how do you get a cruise line to reverse course on a future cruise credit decision?
I’ll have the answers in a minute.
A once-in-a-lifetime cruise canceled
West and his wife, Liliana, were looking forward to their upcoming Alaska cruise. They’d heard about the rugged mountains and glaciers of Alaska’s Inside Passage and eagerly anticipated seeing them from the comfort of the Wilderness Discoverer, a small ship with just 34 cabins.
UnCruise’s Inside Passage cruise included a tour of Glacier Bay National Park, the scenic Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers and the famous LeConte Bay iceberg gardens. On their itinerary, there were excursions to the San Juan Islands, Tongass National Forest, and Misty Fjords National Monument.
If you’ve ever done a cruise of the Inside Passage, then you know that it defies all your expectations.
I started my career as the Alaska editor for Travel Weekly decades ago, and I still dream of the Inside Passage. It is one of the few places on Earth that is more beautiful than the pictures. You’ll see whales and glaciers and things you never knew existed.
It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
They canceled his vacation. Now what?
Shortly before the couple’s expected departure in April 2020, they received a disappointing notification from UnCruise, which started West’s quest for a cruise credit refund.
We are continuing to monitor the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation daily, and even hourly, to determine adjustments to scheduling, which is based on a number of factors, including long term community support, advice, and relationships within our areas of operation. Foremost in navigating these “course changes” are guest and crew safety.
Due to temporary government mandates or entry/departure requirements restricting travel which would affect the start of our Alaska season, we have decided to cancel the following scheduled departures:
Wilderness Discoverer: April 18; May 2
Wilderness Adventurer. April 11, 18, 25; May 2
Wilderness Explorer: April 18, 25; May 2
Since you are booked on one of the departures listed above, we are first sending you this email to give you a chance to review a few rebooking options prior to our reservation staff reaching out to you. If you do not have a new travel date in mind, you will be provided with a certificate within the next couple weeks to move your funds over to a 2020 Alaska itinerary or even 2021.
Here are your rebooking options
West was heartbroken. Not only would he miss this long-awaited vacation, but because of his advanced age, a 2021 replacement cruise was unlikely.
Here are the terms of UnCruise’s cruise credit:
- We will transfer the full balance paid to date into a certificate voucher that can be used for a future 2020 or 2021 departure date pending availability.
- Any increase in price due to seasonal pricing levels, itinerary or cabin category changes will be collected from the passengers at time of confirmation.
- Any decrease in prices due to lower categories, etc. will not be refunded to the passengers.
- Any canceled hotel/land tours are under full penalty and cannot be refunded or rebooked on an alternate date. Guests will have to pay full rate for new hotel/land tours.
- Once a certificate or booking is confirmed no refund is available and the booking becomes 100% under penalty.
- Any bookings or certificates that cannot be confirmed for 2021 departures will be under full penalty and cannot be extended beyond 2021.
To West, it was simple. He’d booked an UnCruise Inside Passage cruise. The company had failed to deliver it. He wanted his money back.
So he asked.
Please stand by
UnCruise refused, citing its Terms and Conditions. But it left the door open for an eventual cruise credit refund.
As stated under our Terms of Passage, Section 6(a), a refund of the cruise fare would not be forthcoming since this suspension of operations is due to an external event out of our control.
Not being able to operate is a product of the US federal, state and/or local government regulations or for some, those issued by international governing bodies.
However, with your specific unique situation as presented in your follow up emails to management, I invite you to please stand by until a time in the near future at which we will be in a better position to review certain refund requests.
Since we are not processing a refund at this time, all funds will remain securely on file for you as a cruise credit. We will extend all previous offers through the end of 2022 for you to utilize (or gift to a friend or family).
West appealed and a few months later received an update from a manager.
Thank you very much for your patience during this difficult time. The disruption of travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on a global scale and has lasted much longer than we anticipated.
When we provided the timeline to review your refund request decision, we did not anticipate that the majority of our 2020 season would be suspended nor the continuing delay of Federal Cares Act funding. Due to this, our resources have been stretched.
No decision will be made in your case until mid- to late September. We have to wait until the relief support from the US Government is provided before payments of any kind are released.
We understand you would like the decision on your refund to be reviewed. The review process will be expedited as soon as we are able. This is an unprecedented time and we greatly appreciate your patience.
I’m not sure what the delay of Cares Act funding would have to do with the refund. Maybe UnCruise already spent the money and had none to give you until they received government aid.
You’re taking the voucher whether you like it or not
West remained patient, hoping UnCruise would see the error of its ways. But six months later, UnCruise got back to West with a final decision.
Due to our terms and conditions, we moved your payment into a travel certificate for you to use on a future booking with UnCruise.
I believe the letter from our CEO Dan Blanchard explained this. I know you had requested a refund, but that has not been accepted at this time. Your travel certificate is good through December 2022.
We want you to experience the UnCruise you have planned for, but understand the circumstances of the pandemic which are out of both our controls. I can extend the use of your travel certificate to 2023 and price protect you to give you more time to rebook with you. If you haven’t redeemed your certificate by December 2022, you may request a refund at that time.
UnCruise will return to sail this season starting April 30. We do look forward to welcoming you on board, when the time is right.
West didn’t like any of those choices.
“Delaying our trip even to next year isn’t an option for us,” he says. “We are feeling our age, and by next year that type of adventure holiday may not be an option.”
Everyone wants a cruise credit refund
West isn’t alone.
Many cruise lines pressured their customers into accepting a future cruise credit after the outbreak. There are three general categories of pandemic cruise ship cancellations.
Too old or sick to cruise
You know how the Inside Passage is a bucket-list cruise for some passengers? It turns out it’s that way for many passengers. And it goes way beyond Alaska. Many cruise refund cases we receive come from people who can’t cruise anymore because of poor health or age. Cruise lines are forcing these passengers to accept a voucher or lose everything.
Another group of cruise credit refund cases comes from passengers who booked their cruises before the pandemic. Now they can’t take a cruise until they get a vaccine. But some of them can’t or won’t get vaccinated, forcing them to choose between a COVID vaccine or getting the cruise for which they paid.
Change of plans
The third and most common group of cruise credit refund cases are passengers who simply don’t want to take another cruise. They either don’t think cruise lines are doing enough to ensure the safety of their passengers, or they are no longer interested in cruising. And they want a refund.
It gets worse. Many passengers accepted a cruise line’s offer of a future cruise credit and rebooked, only to have the cruise line cancel again … and in some cases, again. So the company is giving itself a license to keep their money and reschedule over and over, while consumers don’t have a right to a refund.
Do I get a refund if a cruise line cancels my cruise?
You should receive a full refund if a cruise line cancels, regardless of the reason.
Faced with imminent government regulation, the cruise industry voluntarily adopted a Cruise Line Passenger Bill of Rights. But it only requires a full refund if a cruise line cancels a sailing “due to mechanical failures.”
But you do have other rights.
Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you can dispute the charges on your credit card for goods or services “not delivered.” West had booked a cruise in April, which UnCruise had not delivered. True, it wasn’t UnCruise’s fault — but that doesn’t matter.
Check your local consumer laws. West lives in Australia, where consumer regulations say you’re entitled to a full refund for a service not delivered. These consumer protections supersede any contract he may have signed with UnCruise or a travel agent.
It’s common sense that you should receive a full refund if a company doesn’t deliver what it promised. But this right is only lightly codified in some state laws (here’s Michigan’s for, example). You’re probably better off pursuing a credit card dispute.
Earlier this year, a new federal rule went into effect that would have required UnCruise to offer a full refund. However, the law would have only applied to future cruises.
What about travel insurance?
West had declined travel insurance. But what if he hadn’t? Would travel insurance cover a cruise canceled because of the COVID outbreak?
Yes — and no.
A “cancel for any reason” insurance policy would have allowed West to call off his vacation and receive anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of his trip back. Here’s our complete guide to travel insurance.
But a “named perils” policy wouldn’t have covered him. Those policies cover only specific events. And a peril like the one West faced wouldn’t have been listed in 2020. Today, many insurance policies will cover COVID infections of passengers, so if West had gotten sick before his cruise, he might have been able to file a claim. If his cruise line had to cancel, not so much.
Some cruise lines have changed course on cruise credit refunds
There’s something inherently unfair about a cruise line prodding a guest to accept a future cruise credit and then canceling the cruise again and again.
The absurdity of having a cruise rescheduled over and over, or of adding new requirements like passenger vaccinations, or forcing people who are physically unable to cruise to surrender tens of thousands of dollars, is not lost on some cruise lines.
In 2021, NCL finally revised some of its refund rules. It allowed customers to convert an existing credit to a monetary refund under the following conditions:
- If you’ve been affected by two or more suspensions.
- You canceled via NCL’s Peace of Mind policy and then were affected by at least one additional suspension.
- If you have an existing voyage and will not be vaccinated.
- If you or someone you’re sailing with dies.
Not all cruise lines have done this. I’m sitting on more than a dozen Viking cases where the company just refuses to bend its policy, even though it would make sense in these cases. (Look for that story soon.)
Next time, watch what you sign
I checked UnCruise’s terms. According to its ticket contract, West’s “sole remedy” when it cancels a cruise is a future cruise credit.
These ticket contracts are tricky. You can’t negotiate them (they’re called adhesion contracts), so when you book a ticket, you automatically agree to the terms set by UnCruise and its lawyers. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read the agreement, either.
Under its terms, UnCruise doesn’t have to give West a refund. But there are two problems with that. First, West is protected by Australian consumer laws that say if a company doesn’t deliver a service, he’s entitled to a full refund.
Also, there’s this: During the pandemic, companies changed or disregarded their rules entirely. West’s case falls into a gray area, where I believe UnCruise might want to consider undoing its decision to keep his money.
I think he might have been able to appeal his case to UnCruise. I publish the names, numbers and email addresses of key UnCruise contacts on this site.
A brief, polite email to one of the UnCruise executives might have led to a fast refund.
The takeaway for West is always to read the contract. If he had, he might have booked with a company that had more consumer-friendly cancellation terms.
Will UnCruise refund this cruise credit?
I contacted UnCruise on his behalf.
“We seek to provide the best adventure cruises and personalized service to each guest, that is one of the reasons we have so many repeat guests come onboard,” a representative told me. “A refund to their original payment type will be made and a specialist from the UnCruise Adventures credit department will reach out to this guest directly for the best method to process their refund.”
West received the money and is grateful for the help.
“You pulled off a minor miracle,” he says.