Earlier this year, I sat in my apartment, excited. I had just booked my first cruise.
As the new cruises reporter for USA TODAY, this was necessary for understanding the industry I had begun covering. Plus, what doesn't sound great about a seven-night cruise through the Bahamas? I was planning to bring my mom, and she's great company.
Then coronavirus pandemic began to play out with the cruise industry facing an unprecedented situation: Hundreds became ill on the quarantined Diamond Princess and other cruise ships were turned away from multiple ports. Then more and more cases of coronavirus were reported on cruises. I began to suspect I may not be going on that cruise after all.
I had been scheduled to depart on Royal Caribbean's Oasis Of The Seas on May 10. But Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines announced in late March the suspension of their cruises through May 11.
Then on April 9 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended its own no-sail order, potentially leaving thousands more cruisers in a similar situation.
My cruise was canceled. That much was clear. But the details were murky: Would I get a refund or a credit to go on a future cruise? Was it even up to me?
On March 24, I received an email from Royal Caribbean outlining my choices: receive a refund or take a cruise credit. Either way, taxes and fees would be automatically refunded. If I chose to accept a 125% future cruise credit, I would be granted the credit by April 30, automatically. If I wanted a refund, I would have to initiate that process with the cruise line.
Still, I had questions, so I turned to the experts. Here's what I learned about the cancellation process.
White House task force: Quietly softened cruise ship no-sail restrictions after months of industry deference
Refund vs. a cruise credit
I spoke to Jonathon Fishman, spokesperson for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines to get some clarification on a few details in the cancellation email.
Royal Caribbean offers two options: Take a future cruise credit for 125% of the original amount paid or receive a "lower value" refund. If I opted for the refund, did that mean I wouldn't get back 100% of the money that I paid?
"The refund is 100% of what [the customer] paid, but is the lower value compared to the 125% FCC (future cruise credit)," Fishman told me in an email.
What if I take the cruise credit but am unable to use it by the Dec. 31, 2021, deadline?
The future cruise, Fishman clarified, must depart by Dec. 31, 2021 – and if the cruise credit isn't used by that time, it will expire.
Which option does the cruise line suggest?
"Take the 125% (future cruise credit), as it is the higher value, and join us in the future for your next vacation!"
What I decided to do:
After some deliberation, I decided to take the refund for my cruise. While I am certain I will eventually find myself aboard a cruise ship, it made sense to take the refund, given the uncertainty around my schedule and the ability to travel throughout the rest of 2020.
To do so, I went through a simple process directly outlined in the cancellation notice email. According to Royal Caribbean, I should receive my refund within 30 days.
But cruise lines, like most of the general population, are taking this crisis day by day, and each cruise line is handling refunds differently.
What does a travel agent recommend?
"Our travel advisors are working around the clock, providing hand-holding services to their clients to ensure they get a refund, a new itinerary, or a future cruise credit depending on what policies the travel company permits," Fee told USA TODAY.
“We are encouraging our travelers to postpone to future travel dates as the industry is resilient – truth be told, our travel advisors are seeing huge growth in 2021 bookings,” she said.
Fee said most cruise lines are being flexible with their cancellation policies.
“We see the majority of cruise lines being very generous to travelers, many offering future cruise credits that exceed the original value paid by the traveler," she added.
Tips on how to navigate a cancellation
1. Watch for email updates from the cruise line with which you are booked.
2. Review your options carefully and consider external factors before making a decision. A future cruise credit above the amount you paid may be enticing, but if you have the option to get a refund, that may make more sense for flexibility.
3. Wait to see if the cruise line is going to cancel your cruise or extend their sailing suspension before making any moves. Royal Caribbean's cancellation policy through Sept. 1 allows guests to cancel for a future cruise credit up to 48 hours before setting sail. If you cancel early and then the cruise line later cancels that sailing, it may negate the option for a full refund. Cruise lines have varying policies check on your cruise line's website, and read the fine print to learn more.
4. If you have worked with a travel advisor on booking your cruise, reach out if you have questions, or reach out to the cruise line directly.
5. When you are cancelling, check in on refunds to any other prepaid expenses such as beverage packages or excursions.
Cruise lines suspending operations
Cruise lines around the globe have suspended operations for varying periods of time. Many have taken steps similar to Royal Caribbean in extending their suspensions longer.
One line, Adventure Canada, has canceled its entire 2020 sailing season, according to Cruise Critic, which is keeping track of the dates various cruise lines have announced they will resume service.
However, cruise lines' suspension dates are likely to change after the extension of the CDC's "no-sail order" was announced Thursday.
"We are aware of the CDC order and are studying how best to respond to its provisions. Our global sailings are currently suspended through May 11, 2020," Fishman said of Royal Caribbean's plans.
The CDC order states that cruise ships can't board passengers and return to their sailing schedules until one of three events takes place:
Expiration of the Department of Health and Human Services' declaration that COVID-19 constitutes a public health emergency.
The CDC director's own decision to modify or rescind its no-sail decision.
Passage of 100 days from the time the new order is published in the Federal Register.
Until then, the about 100 cruise ships in the Atlantic, Pacific or Gulf of Mexico must remain idle, either in port or wallowing at anchor, the CDC said. Those ships currently have nearly 80,000 crew aboard.
Diamond Princess, Grand Princess: Cruise line had high rates of illness even before coronavirus
Contributing: Chris Woodyard
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus canceled my cruise. Here's how to get a refund or credit